Book Review: The WWW trilogy, by Robert J Sawyer.

Posted on May 5, 2011

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Wake, Watch and Wonder, by Robert J. Sawyer. Published by Viking Canada.

The series’ three books, alliteratively titled Watch, Wake and Wonder to make up the trilogy’s playful, center around a fascinating premise: Through a vaguely plausible mechanism involving mutant data packets, the internet gains self-awareness. Meanwhile, an elaborate neuro-electronic implant being installed to help a blind teenage girl see for the first time, accidentally winds up giving her the ability to see the raw data of the internet. This leads her to be the first to interact with the emergent consciousness. She teaches it how to read the data that flows constantly through its realm, and things build from there to include Chinese political dissidents, a shadowy US government internet monitoring organization, and a bonobo/chimpanzee hybrid that paints portraits.

The philosophical weight of the series is impressive. It begins with a brain-meltingly intense meditation on the nature of consciousness as the online intelligence, which eventually goes by the name Webmind, awakens. While it’s hard to find a work of science fiction that does not have a pet theory of consciousness, the WWW trilogy distinguishes itself by the way Sawyer seamlessly transitions this early meditation into equally intense discussions about diverse topics in ethics, politics, economics, and the non-sexist variety of evolutionary psychology. The series’ main thesis revolves around the idea of a non-zero sum game: That it is possible and perhaps even inevitable for all of humanity to exist in a relationship of mutual benefit. Sawyer, speaking through Webmind, argues that the prisoner’s dilemma needn’t actually be the case. Speculative fiction is a useful vehicle to make this Utopian premise seem downright plausible.

I don’t agree with everything that is said in the books. Wonder includes a discussion of fetal personhood that is very poorly reasoned and would, by reductio ad absurdum, require that we grant ethical consideration to dandelions. I’m willing to forgive this, however, because some of the author’s other books lead me to believe that he is not actually anti-choice. Sawyer’s willingness to tackle controversial issues from a number of different perspectives is a real literary strength. Webmind, functions as a handy rhetorical device that allows frank, outside the box discussions on just about any abstract subject. Sawyer, perhaps wisely, chooses to leave the practicalities of the discussions to his audience.

The story, characters and setting are surprisingly well-developed for a trilogy that is so thorougly dominated by its philosophical underpinnings. Webmind is absolutely fascinating, both as a character and as a plot device. The human characters are reasonably three-dimensional, and the dialogue is well-written if slightly stilted at times. My biggest criticism is actually pretty trivial: The series’ premise requires a lot of the action to take place online, and Sawyer’s attempts at writing convincing internet meme-speak are clumsy. Aside from that, the story is a real page-turner even if you aren’t particularly interested in the philosophical discussions being had. As an added bonus to Canadians, most of the action takes place around Waterloo, Ontario, and the author includes a number of winking cultural references to the country.

If you are even remotely interested in the premise of the series, and you enjoy philosophical and scientific speculation, then you will probably tear through this trilogy in just a few days. The plot and characters are good, the discussion is fascinating, and the frank, honest optimism is inspiring. Maybe inspiration is exactly what ethically minded Canadians need right now.

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