- Chuck Gray
For science fiction aficionados, the premise of WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer initially sounds, well, perhaps a bit contrived (even beyond the normal contrivances of science fiction). But keep reading: the protagonist, Caitlin Dector, is a young blind millennial who has never known a world without the Internet, a world she can navigate with ease through the use of assistive technologies. Caitlin becomes the subject of an experimental procedure to restore sight. However, when her vision is "switched on" she does not see the physical world, but an abstract representation of the World Wide Web. While exploring her strange new ability, she discovers a growing intelligence emerging from within the Web . . . see what I mean? My first thought after hearing this description was, "That sounds like the plot of a bad 90s Outer Limits episode." After cracking the book open however, I found WWW: Wake tells a fascinating story, blending the best of both science fiction and hard science as well as cyberculture, blind culture, information theory, epidemiology, world politics, family dynamics, pedagogical theory, teenage culture, and probably a few other things I'm not thinking of. All of that in one book. And it's really, really good.
WWW: Wake is a fine mixture of both character development and gripping science. The perspective jumps among a few different people and though Caitlin is obviously the pivotal figure of the book, I have come to care very much about what happens to all of them. I am very taken with the mathematics, computer science, biology and even zoology that Sawyer uses his characters to explain, and it is all germane to the storyline. Its exposition, however, is a little blunt; at times I feel as if Sawyer has peeked from behind the curtain to make sure we understand something important and then retreats back behind it, bowing apologetically as he goes. Really though, I shouldn't complain that much about getting to read about fun characters and cool science, even if they are interwoven a tad clumsily at times.
I have been continually surprised that this book is found in adult science fiction in both libraries and bookstores. Not that it isn't an adult-level book, but Caitlin, as the book's main focus, brings many issues to bear that relate to her young age, as well as to her gender and disability, all of which I think might be better appreciated by young adults. Additionally, Sawyer does a decent job of bringing Caitlin to life, supplying her a voice and perspective that are convincingly teenaged, while throwing in a good amount of the wisdom that her life as both a blind person and a highly intelligent young woman have granted her.
I think what I love most about WWW:Wake is the vicarious thrill I, and hopefully you, get from experiencing a whole new world with Caitlin, who (spoiler) does eventually gain real-world vision. But even when she only experiences her unique vision of the web, her wonder will be your wonder. You will come to realize just how much about your vision you take for granted and you may discover there are some things you know instinctively that you never consciously understood before. Even more delightful for the reader is that Caitlin isn't the only character discovering a whole new world, but I don't want to give away any more detail. Suffice it to say that your perspective of many things in life will have shifted after completing this book. Anything that powerful is well worth your time.
Finally, I love this book because of how optimistic it is. When you consider the modern storylines of movies like Terminator or The Matrix, it is obvious that, at a societal level, we are more afraid of technology than not, despite (or maybe because of) becoming ever more dependent upon it. In this first book of the planned WWW trilogy, however, Sawyer seems to want to shrug off that pessimism and assume that the characters, flawed though they are, will ultimately do the right thing and that we need not fear what we create. Not many authors are brave enough to think this way. Such a perspective is positively refreshing.
I think you should reserve WWW: Wake from our catalog as soon as possible.
Also, keep your eye out for the sequel, WWW: Watch, available when the England Run branch of the CRRL opens October 4th.