Friday, February 8, 2013

Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

This book is the first volume of the WWW trilogy by the excellent Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer. (Note: If you are like me and sometimes read a book series out of order, then you can link here for my review of Wonder, which is the final installment in this series).

Like in his previous novels, this book is based on a fascinating set of ideas. At its core, this story asks the following question, "How does consciousness arise, and is it possible that such an awakening could occur within the World Wide Web?" To answer this question, the novel focuses on Caitlin Decter, a blind teenage girl who is originally from Austin, Texas, but whose family moves to Waterloo, Ontario after her father receives a job offer at the Perimeter Institute. After being contacted by a Japanese scientific researcher who wants to see if he can cure her blindness, she travels to Japan where she undergoes an experimental operation in which a signal processing device is inserted behind her left eyeball. This device, dubbed an "eyePod" by Caitlin, sends visual data back to a computer, which then reprocesses the images and transmits it back to the signalling device.

At first, the operation seems to have failed, until Caitlin is able to "see" images of the World Wide Web as a result of the interaction between her "eyePod" and the computer back in the Japanese lab. Following this breakthrough, she slowly gains her sight and begins to see the real world. This sense of awakening is a metaphor that is discussed in different ways throughout the book. Among the ideas that are mentioned are:

  • The groundbreaking book by Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which postulates that human consciousness changed about 3,000 years ago. In the this lengthy tome, Jaynes argues that the minds of ancient humans were split in two, i.e. a bicameral mind, that was divided into a speaking part and a listening part. This book theorizes that the bicameral mind disappeared about 1,000 B.C. when the two parts of the human mind merged, i.e. the breakdown of the bicameral mind. 
  • The story of Helen Keller (1880-1968), a deaf-and-blind person who learned to communicate, eventually earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. Sawyer user her story to draw a contrast between the "phantom" Keller, i.e. the unconscious entity that existed before she was aware of the outside world and could communicate, and the awakened woman who became conscious of the world. This metaphor is used to describe the awakening of a conscious entity from within the world wide web.
  • A chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid called Hobo, which is a character in the book and which begins to draw art and become self-aware.

All of these ideas set the stage for the main plot, which revolves around an entity that emerges within the world wide web, and whose interactions with Caitlin make it self-aware, eventually leading to consciousness.

Like other Sawyer books this novel is overfilling with ideas. While the writing is OK, (the ideas are much more important than narrative flow), the characters and pace were interesting enough to grab my attention through the entire novel. While Sawyer sometimes focuses his energy on the science part of science fiction, while paying less attention to the fiction part, this book is a good one from a literary perspective.

3 out of 5 stars