Friday, April 03, 2009

WWW: Wake - Robert J. Sawyer

WWW : Wake
Robert J. Sawyer

Science Fiction

Caitlin Decter (15) is a math genius and can navigate the web at light speed. She’s also been blind since birth, due to a rare condition that causes her pupils to expand in bright light and contract in the dark. Because of the cause of her blindness, Dr. Masayaki Kuroda contacts her about an experimental treatment. His device (Caitlin dubs it the “eyePod”) intercepts the signals from her eye to her visual cortex, re-interprets or unscrambles them, and re-transmits them correctly. With the eyePod as an external pack attached through WiFi connection to an implant just behind her eye, he hopes Caitlin will be able to see. Out of one eye, for a start.

When he activates the device, Caitlin sees. But she doesn’t see the real world. She sees a series of lines connecting to and disappearing from circles in space. What she’s seeing is the web. She’d trained her visual cortex to ‘visualize’ or map the web each time she was online, mentally mapping her position with great accuracy. It’s a joy and a disappointment for both Caitlin and her doctor. Neither of whom realizes that, with the activation of the eyePod, something else is now awake and is eager to learn.

While this is clearly a novel of big ideas, the author never neglects the individual characters. Caitlin, her parents, Dr. Kuroda, and even the kids at school all seem very realistic. Allowing us to follow Caitlin’s story from her point of view works perfectly. She’s a teenager, so she’s moody and very human; but she’s a very smart girl, applying knowledge to new situations and grasping abstract concepts with relative ease. She reflects that maybe her lack of sight makes her more intuitive. Or maybe her upbringing as the daughter of a theoretical physicist might have an impact. She’s a great character, with flaws and a sense of humor.

This novel is the start of a trilogy. Caitlin’s story, the main concentration, can be read as a complete story. There are other storylines that begin here, but are left hanging in anticipation of future volumes. One storyline involves an ape who uses sign language and paints. Generally, animals paint abstract shapes. This ape begins creating primitive portraits of people around him. The questions are, of course, how and why.

There’s a lot to be said here about how various systems process information; how it’s passed along from one medium to another; how learning happens; and how consciousness evolves. These big concepts are explored in general, and also distilled down to a human level with Caitlin. Like the painting ape, she’s caught in the middle of something she doesn’t quite understand, but does what comes naturally to her. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series from this Hugo and Nebula winner.

Rating: 8
April 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01679-2 (hardcover)


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