Author: Robert J Sawyer
Release Date: November 2009
Reviewed by: Mark Chitty
Buy from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com
Caitlin Decter is young, pretty, feisty, a matematics genius-and blind. Still, she can surf the net with the best of them, following its complex paths clearly in her mind.
But Caitlin's brain long ago co-opted her primary visual cortex to help her navigate online. So when she receives an implant to restore her sight, instead of seeing reality, the landscape of the World Wide Web explodes into her consciousness, spreading out all around her in a riot of colors and shapes.
While exploring this amazing realm, she discovers something-some other-lurking in the background. And it's getting more and more intelligent with each passing day.
The first of a spellbinding future history trilogy that charts what will happen when the world's first first, and superior, artificial-intelligence is born in the web.
What happens when the internet comes alive? An SF thriller of terrifying possibilities.
I've only read one book by Robert J Sawyer before I picked up Wake, and that was Flashforward. I really enjoyed that novel, the prose was good and easily readable, while the ideas throughout gave me something to really get my teeth into. When debating what to read next I realised I had all three of Sawyer's WWW trilogy on the shelf and decided that, given their length and subject matter, it would be a nice change from my usual reading. I must admit I'm pleased I decided on reading Wake, it was a refreshing change from far future SF, but was equally gripping and thought provoking as anything else I've read.
Caitlin Decter is our main character, born blind and used to living in a world where she manages to do everything through other means. She's a brilliant mathematician, but also uses various voice recognition software on her computer to surf the internet and achieves more online than most sighted people can. With a recent move to Canada she's settling into a new school, developing new friendships, and learning to live in new surroundings. When the possibility arises that could give her sight she's all for it. Dr Kuroda, a Japanese doctor has pioneered new technology to help people with Caitlin's specific blinders, is eager to move forward with it. But not all goes to plan and instead of giving her the immediate expected normal site it triggers a strange ability in Caitlin's mind: the ability to see the world wide web. Meanwhile there is a consciousness arising on the internet, a consciousness that is becoming more coherent and intelligent by the day. And when it starts intercepting the signals sent from Caitlin's implant it discovers that it's not alone...
Wake is more a book about Caitlin Decter than anything else. Yes, the artificial intelligence aspect of the web coming to consciousness is there, but she's the main character and it's through her life we see everything. She's an interesting character too, fiercely intelligent for a teenager, and her blindness only adds to her complexity. With her father a world famous scientist it's no wonder that she has exceptional skills in mathematics, but she comprehends so much more than just that. The interactions between her, her father, and Dr Kuroda are fascinating to read, though sometimes they do stretch the boundaries of believability with one so young as Caitlin.
The web coming to consciousness aspect is small but steady in this novel. Sawyer handles it well, starting from the earliest moments of self-awareness and slowly building it up throughout the novel. Things get very interesting towards the end, and it leaves the sequel, Watch, open to some very interesting possibilities.
There were some aspects in Wake that I wasn't really keen on. One was a subplot about a chimpanzee that shows high intelligence and is very artistic, yet I didn't see how it fit into the overall story. Yes, the themes of intelligence were similar, and it was interesting reading, but at the moment I can't see how it relates to the story of Caitlin and the Webmind. The other was the cover up in China of a serious bird-flu outbreak. This was more relevant to the Webmind thread with China cutting off it's internet to the rest of the world, effectively separating Webmind in two early on. However, this plot did have a bearing on the story and it was good to see Sawyer delve into these elements of society. I'll reserve full judgement on both these aspects until I've read the other two books - I have a feeling they'll both tie in somewhere, yet I fail to see quite where at present.
The only other criticism I have for Wake is that it's a story that would have been ideal at novella length, but stretching it to a full novel made it feel like many aspects were being repeated and drawn out. It's not a lengthy novel by any means as it is, and as the first part of the trilogy it does much to set up the details for the later volumes. I'm very much looking forward to reading them and see just where developments go from here.
Overall, Wake is a highly readable and very human look at the rise of an artificial intelligence. It's got interesting themes and deep, believable characters. I feel that, taken as a stand-alone, it doesn't fully meet expectations, though I suspect the trilogy as a whole will be something special indeed given what was shown here.