Reviewed: May 19, 2009
By: Robert J. Sawyer
Publisher: Viking Canada
448 pages, $30.00

Wake is the first book is a projected trilogy by former Berton House writer-in-residence Robert J. Sawyer. The main plot will concern the coming to consciousness of a new life form - an artificial intelligence spawned within the internet.

The term World Wide Web is often confused with the Internet, and is less commonly used than the other term. In fact, to borrow from Wikipedia, “the World Wide Web (commonly abbreviated as ‘the Web’) is a system of interlinked hypertext documents accessed via the Internet.” Hence the “www” that has, for the most part, supplanted the awkward “http://” that used to have to be typed in front of all web addresses.

Sawyer has titled his books Wake, Watch and Wonder, and the finished product will be known as the WWW Trilogy. This is a case where the book’s title gives away at least one of the plot strands in the book.

It’s been a common notion in SF that any sufficiently complex collection of data and computing ability may achieve a kind of consciousness when it reaches a certain critical mass. The results are usually not portrayed in a very positive light. For every apparently benevolent HARLIE (from Dave Gerrold) there seem to be multiples of a troubled and dangerous HAL (from Arthur C. Clarke).

Movies such as the Terminator and Matrix franchises take it as a given that machine intelligences will see humanity as imperfect beings needing to be eliminated or as being lower of the food chain and a resource to be exploited. Star Trek’s Borg and Dr. Who’s Cybermen take much the same view.

Wake doesn’t make these assumptions. Sawyer has written that he had the story of Helen Keller in mind as he wrote the book. The web based being is, like Keller, a consciousness cut off from all inputs to the real world. It needs to be taught a language, shown what things mean and what the connections to reality are.

Playing the role of Anne Sullivan we have Caitlin Decter, a 15 year old girl with an unusual disability. She has been blind since birth, but her blindness is neurological. Her eyes work fine, but her retinas don’t process the signals to her brain properly. Caitlin and her family have recently moved from Texas to Waterloo, Ontario, and she is attending a normal sighted high school for the first time in her life.

Dr. Masayuki Kuroda, a Japanese information theorist, approaches her family with a proposition. He believes that he can implant a device which will correct the signal fault and allow Caitlin to see. She would be a beta test for his process. At first it doesn’t work. Then it does, but with unexpected results.

Caitlin is able to see two ways. On one setting she actually “sees” the workings of the web, interpreted by her brain as strings and strands of colour. On another setting, after much trial and error, she sees the real world, and has to learn how to cope with that after a lifetime of functioning without it.

It is the former ability that ties most strongly into the plot, though, for it turns out that the web being can see what Caitlin can see and, after a time, she becomes aware of it peeking over her shoulder, so to speak, and they learn to communicate with each other.

There are two other subplots which will, no doubt, be fleshed out in volumes two and three. The first is the outbreak of a strain of bird flu in China’s Shanxi province. The government there isolates and executes 10,000 people to stop the spread of the disease, and shuts down all external web links during this period so the world will not know. It is this bifurcation of the world wide web which first causes the new mind to be aware of itself. When several Chinese hackers manage to break through the interdiction, the subsequent www reunification accelerates the process.

Elsewhere, in San Diego, there’s an ape named Hobo who has mastered sign language and suddenly manifests the ability to paint portraits after participating in the very first interspecies webcam call. It seems that once Hobo had conversed with a similarly trained orangutan in Miami, he suddenly realized how to make two dimensional representations of things. His favorite subject is his handler, Shoshana Glick.

Hobo is a chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid who is actually the property of another zoo, and they want him sterilized so that he can’t breed and corrupt the ape bloodlines. Hobo comes across here as a nascent intelligence under the same sort of threat that the web entity might be under if anyone other than Caitlin understood that it existed.

Much of the main story arc concerns the web’s escalating understanding of the material world (once it accesses Wikipedia and Project Guttenburg this becomes very rapid) while trying to communicate with the one it calls the Prime: Caitlin.

For her part, she becomes aware that there is “something” in the web, something that echoes her attempts to learn to read (she has read braille all her life and now has to learn regular letters) and even reflects her image in the mirror back to her. She deduces the existence of an intelligence and tries to leave it clues so it can finally make a connection with her.

The book ends on that note, on a page that leaves a lot of loose ends and a lot of untied plot threads, but which nevertheless manages to feel like a natural pause.

We need to know more about what is happening in China. We need to know more about Hobo’s fate. If I was left slightly dissatisfied, it was with the progress of these two plot strands. That said, though, Wake was a very satisfactory beginning to a larger story.

Watch has been delivered to the publisher and Sawyer has begun work on Wonder. He may be slowed down a bit by the recent news that his earlier novel, Flashforward, has been adapted as a television series. Thirteen episodes have been optioned by ABC and he will serve as a consultant to that show.