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Review of WWW: Wake by

WWW: Wake

by Robert J. Sawyer

5 out of 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Reviewed .

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Seldom does a book live up to blurbs like "Unforgettable. Impossible to put down," as Jack McDevitt says of Wake. Usually, such claims are empty hype, even when the book is good. Not so with Wake. I agree wholeheartedly with McDevitt, for I was 100 pages into the novel before realizing it was 2 AM and I should probably get some sleep. There's no way that Wake could be mistaken for "an action-packed thrill ride" or any of those other tired blurb clichés floating around in the critique pool, but "impossible to put down" definitely describes the opening to Robert J. Sawyer's new trilogy about an emerging artificial intelligence.

For a fairly short volume, and one that lacks any sort of action or suspense, there's a lot packed into Wake. The central plot, which deals with Caitlin Decter's bid to gain sight and how this leads her to discover the Web's emergent intelligence, happens against a backdrop of the ongoing information wars in China and research into primate intelligence in the United States. Sawyer makes accurate allusions to current technology and scientific developments. This sense of scope and style reminds me of how Cory Doctorow writes about technology in his books. With ease, these authors transcribe to paper actions and descriptions about technology we use every day but don't always pause to understand how we use it. Moreover, because the descriptions are accurate, Sawyer is educating the less technologically-adept even as he immerses us in this very human plot. So kudos.

I call the plot of this book "human," even though it concerns an AI, because the nature of being human is the motif that connects all of the disparate subplots in Wake. I wish that something beyond theme connected these subplots; the critic in me has to profess disappointment that Hobo the chimp's story is only tangential to Caitlin's, at least for now. This is a structural issue with the narrative, however, and it doesn't detract from the thematic brilliance of Sawyer's writing.

Caitlin often refers to Helen Keller and her writing, as well as a book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. She mentions Keller's descriptions of what her thought processes were like before she learned how to communicate and interact with the external world. Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness similarly discusses a theory about a turning point in human history where the two halves of the brain managed to talk to each other and act on conscious thoughts instead of instinct.

In China, the Communist Party decides to kill several thousand people in a remote province to eliminate the threat of H5N1. To prevent the Chinese people from seeing the inevitable backlash of the world media, it severs all communication outside of China. These are the actions of humans, yet the idea of killing thousands of people merely to prevent the spread of an infection seems, at least to me, very inhuman.

Then there's the bonobo-chimpanzee hybrid, Hobo, who can communicate via sign language and startles everyone when he paints representational art—a profile of one of his researchers—instead of the typical abstract pictures so far produced by non-human primates. The way Sawyer portrays Hobo makes him seem far more human than he actually is, and this is where, as a sceptic, I have to balk. Artificial intelligence aside, this is probably the part of the book that relies the most on extrapolation of something we haven't achieved yet. I do believe it's possible for apes to use sign language to communicate intelligently; don't get me wrong. And Sawyer's portrayal of Hobo's humanity serves its purpose of parallelling the development of the Web AI.

This final piece of the plot puzzle is what connects the other three, of course. When China puts up the Great Firewall, it severs this non-sentient entity into two, suddenly enabling it to begin conceiving of time and eventually abstract thought. From there, it begins to learn and teach itself new concepts, something that continues up to and after Caitlin discovers its existence. Sawyer does his best to portray the alien nature of this intelligence's journey toward sentience while still describing it in terms we can comprehend. For the most part, he pulls this off, although I preferred the observations that Caitlin, her father, and Dr. Kuroda make about the intelligence's composition as cellular automata over Sawyer's first-person depictions of the intelligence. The former were just so unique yet tantalizing, since it really drives home the point that the Web is a fluctuating network of constant streaming data and not some sort of static series of Facebook pages and Google search results all stored in a database and delivered to your browser when you hit "Go."

To return to the motif of humanity, however, I'd like to point out a section toward the end of the book, in which Caitlin leads the emerging intelligence to Wikipedia, which it consumes eagerly, and then onto Project Gutenberg:

And then, and then, and then—

It was—

The gold mine.

The mother lode. . . .

Not just coded conceptual relationships, not just definitions, not just brief articles.

No, these were—books! Lengthy, in-depth treatments of ideas. Complex stories. Brilliant arguments, profound philosophies, compelling narratives. This site, this wonderful Project Gutenberg, contained over 25,000 books rendered in plain ASCII text. . . .

It took me an eternity—eight hours!—but I absorbed it all: every volume, every polemic, every poem, every play, every novel, every short story, ever work of history, of science, of politics. I inhaled them … and I grew even more.

Firstly, I'd like to note that Sawyer has described precisely how I feel about books, about reading in general, and about wonderful libraries like Project Gutenberg. But if you're reading this review, you're probably on Goodreads, and you probably understand, so I won't belabour that point. Secondly, while Sawyer is far from the first SF author or scientist to make this point, it's an important one when it comes to discussing how to deal with an artificial intelligence, should we create one or should one emerge spontaneously as it does in Wake. It's going to learn. Fast. And the information we feed it will determine what opinions it forms about humanity.

Read over that last paragraph again. In eight hours, the AI consumes the sum total of Project Gutenberg's library (this is after it's partaken in Wikipedia and in Cyc, an encyclopedia tool specifically designed for teaching AIs). In so doing, it has consumed all these myriad works of humanity, works that talk about being human, whether they're philosophy or fiction or scientific in origin . . . and it's seen our history. How we've treated each other, continue to treat each other, and how we've treated this planet.

An intelligence that emerges from the World Wide Web emerges from the combined knowledge and information that we humans put on the Web. So even if this intelligence itself is not human, everything it learns is going to be a product of humanity, at least at first. Whether consciously or not, we're going to shape the first opinions of an emergent intelligence. It's something worth considering.

Beyond the human angle, Sawyer's crammed so much in here that I'm not sure where to start. So let's talk about Caitlin's blindness.

I'm not blind, so I'm certainly not congenitally blind, and as such, I'll never really know what Caitlin's world is like. Yet Sawyer at least gave me an inkling of what it's like to be blind, both from a conceptual perspective and a technological one. One thing I noticed is that instead of providing visual descriptions of places and people around Caitlin, Sawyer is always careful to describe in terms of sound, touch, and smell. Caitlin concludes Dr. Kuroda is tall because of the direction from which his voice comes but heavy because of the way he wheezes. We don't know if he's bald or has thick hair or blue eyes. As someone who doesn't really visualize things when I read, I didn't miss the lack of visual description and appreciated this change.

Sawyer also introduced me to how the blind and visually-impaired interact with the Web. Oh, I already knew about screenreaders like JAWS and refreshable Braille displays, etc., but this was the first time I'd really thought about how they get used. For Caitlin, this was all just normal for her, and through her eyes I began to understand how it was possible to interact with the world in this way.

And beyond her blindness, as a person, Caitlin is a well-thought-out character. She's "feisty" as the jacket copy promises, but she isn't perfect—she has a few melt-downs and tantrums. Still, Sawyer manages to make her a realistic LiveJournal-using, ebook-reading, iPod-listening teen without making her into a caricature or stereotype. Now if only she could kick that nasty exposition habit she develops in the second third of the book….

This is why it was so hard to put down Wake and why the first thing I did upon waking today was pick it up and finish it. Sawyer makes me think, but he also makes me look at stuff I already think about in different ways. He does this with Caitlin, and he also does this with China.

"The Great Firewall of China" is a pretty well-known term on the Web. Most people are aware of the Chinese government's tight control over the Internet in China, both in terms of access and in terms of content—Google's controversial decision to censor its search results, China's tendency to block websites that it finds too seditious or inappropriate, the spyware built into the networks and the computers themselves, etc. Let's be honest for a moment. For those of us reading Wake in North America or Europe, that's half a world away, and the public consciousness has a fleeting attention span. Sawyer reminds us that the oppression in China has been ongoing for decades now, and even if the People's Republic is doomed as some projections claim, that won't stop them from committing further atrocities before they fade into history. Fortunately, it isn't all grim: dissidents are using the Internet to fight back. And while the increasing globalization of the economy does prop up the communist government, it also makes it harder for that government to simply cut off all ties from the outside world. Unlike North Korea, which has fewer people and doesn't make stuff for Wal-Mart, China is dependent on the outside world. The Web connects us, and even when censored, offers hope for freedom.

We live in exciting times. Well, I suspect that we've always lived in exciting times ever since our bicameral minds fused and we started to keep track of time. But don't doubt that here and now, the present, is full of wonders. Just as Apollo 8's photographs of Earth from space changed how we perceive ourselves, so too is the Web changing how we interact. The advancements in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology … everything we uncover only shows that there's more to learn, but if you thought the Renaissance was exciting, just recall that we know so much more now. We can be terrible, cruel, nearly insane … but when we come together to do good, we can be a wonderful species. Wake reminded me of that, of the good and the bad about humanity, of the incredible events and discoveries happening all around us every day. It reaffirmed my desire to read and watch and grow and know more, my love of learning, and my love of life.


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