by Robert J. Sawyer
What if the Internet developed a consciousness?
Robert J. Sawyer may now be best known as the author of the novel that inspired FlashForward, but he’s been writing for many years, garnering numerous prizes along the way. His stories are accessible, combining thriller elements with scientific discourse – there can’t be many writers around today who use the climax of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet, the Planet of the Apes saga, and the 1983 movie WarGames as reference points in their novels.
Wake and Watch are the first parts of a trilogy (Wonder has just been released in hardback) that follows the emergence of an intelligence from within the Web itself. The elements that contribute to its arrival include a very bright teenage American girl, whose blindness is cured by new technology that inadvertently allows her to see the Web as an entity; a major crackdown by the Chinese government which forces them to close their part of the internet off from the rest of the world; and a chimpanzee/bobono ape hybrid who communicates via American Sign Language. These threads run separately for much of the first novel, and it’s only really within the second book, when the eponymous WATCH group from the American Government tries to establish whether Webmind, as the entity becomes known, is a threat that they begin to resonate with each other.
Sawyer creates believable characters, and dialogue is one of his strengths, although you do have to wonder if two 16-year-olds would really be discussing Richard Dawkins or The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (a real book) in such detail while making out. Nor does he just arrogantly assume, as some writers would, that he is writing the first novel to deal with such ideas – numerous stories, including Orwell’s 1984 and to an extent 2001: A Space Odyssey, are referenced, their ideas either upheld or dissected.
The second volume ends with the world in what appears to be a much better state than it was before Webmind became involved, although there are various loose ends to be tied up in the final book, not least the favour that Webmind owes to another teenager whose privacy he invaded while trying to prevent a suicide. Let’s hope it lives up to its title.
Verdict: An intriguing concept brought to life well.
Wake: 7/10; Watch: 8/10