Wake

by Robert J. Sawyer

Cover image

Series: WWW #1
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: April 2009
Printing: April 2010
ISBN: 0-441-01853-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 330

Buy at Powell's Books

Update: I've left the below review unedited from how it was originally posted, but I've since found from another review that I completely missed some rather bad portrayals of disability and some rather problematic stereotypes. So please read my praise for those aspects of the book with a grain of salt.

Caitlin is a fifteen-year-old math whiz, the children of scientists who have just moved from Texas to Waterloo. She's also blind, but unusually for her condition the section of her brain that would interpret visual signals is well-developed. It just doesn't seem to be able to understand the signals that it receives from her eyes. This makes her an ideal candidate for the research of a Japanese scientist who believes he can create translation hardware that will interpret visual signals and supply them to her brain in a way that it can interpret as sight.

Meanwhile, scattered through chapter openings (in tedious and awkward language), a consciousness is slowly emerging on the Internet. When the Chinese government temporarily closes down the country's Internet connectivity to keep a news story under control, the vast partition creates the concept of self and other and gives that evolving consciousness a jump start, enough to let it look around and start to understand the nature of the world in which it's embedded. This leads it to a testing data stream for Caitlin's implant, which echoed the topology of the web, and Caitlin becomes the window through which it grows further.

There's also a third subplot about a chimpanzee/bonobo cross who seems to be developing the ability to paint representationally, but I have to assume this plot is setup for one of the sequels since it never connects meaningfully to the rest of the book. In Wake, it's an annoying intrusion, interrupting the main story for an apparently pointless side-story that never goes anywhere.

This is an immensely frustrating book. It was nominated for the 2010 Hugo, which is why I read it, but since Sawyer isn't one of my favorite authors, I was expecting to dislike it. However, unlike several of Sawyer's previous books, he does a wonderful job with the character of Caitlin, drawing me straight into the story and into her world and making me care very much about what happens to her. That makes the deep flaws in this book more aggravating. If only Sawyer had done a half-way decent job with the technology and cleaned up some of his stylistic flaws, this could have been an excellent book.

Starting with the first chapter, which opens with Caitlin making a LiveJournal entry and talking on IM with a friend, she's a delight. Telling a story from the perspective of a blind character is a significant risk, and at least for this (sighted) reader Sawyer does a great job. I have no idea how accurate Sawyer's depiction of Caitlin's experiences is (more on that in a moment), but he successfully created the impression of accuracy. And, more importantly, she's just a fun and very likeable character, with family challenges, loads of self-confidence, and a curious and exploratory attitude towards the world that fills the book with a delighted excitement.

Sawyer also does good work with family dynamics. Caitlin's mother and father are somewhat off-stage, since this is her story, but they're not simply supportive background. The tensions of raising a blind child are present but overcome, and Caitlin's strained relationship with her father goes interesting places that I wasn't expecting. (Although I do have to say all of this with one major caveat: much of this book is about disability of various kinds, disability that I personally do not have. If Sawyer gets any of it badly wrong, I wouldn't have noticed.) It's only when we get outside of Caitlin's family and her circle of direct friends that the problems begin.

First, the emerging network consciousness is obviously a major star of this book and the reason for the title. It would have been nice if it were as strong of a character as Caitlin. For most of the book, however, it's perspective is told in short segments of painfully bad writing, full of strained attempts at portraying emerging consciousness that read like bad Star Trek dialogue. Opening the book at random to one of those segments:

No. Force it back! Concentrate harder. Observe reality, be aware of its parts.

But the details are minute, hard to make out. Easier just to ignore them, to relax, to... fade... and...

No, no. Don't slip away. Hold on to the details! Concentrate.

It goes on like this at scattered intervals for most of the book, and I got extremely tired of it. Sawyer does, at the very end of the book, break out of this forced stream-of-consciousness mode into something much more appealing and readable, but it takes a long time to get there.

The worst, though, are the attempted technical explanations of this emergent life, which happen at the point when Caitlin first becomes aware that something might be out there (and hence at a point in the book that's carrying a lot of dramatic weight). I'm used to a certain degree of handwaving magic in any SF book about computer networks, going back to Gibson's Neuromancer. But rather than just handwaving through the impossible bits, Sawyer explains them in detail without apparently realizing they're impossible, resulting in some of the most painfully bad technological description that I've ever read in an SF book. I nearly threw this book against a wall; only the strength of Caitlin as a character made me grit my teeth, yell at the book, and force my way through it.

The technology fails at every level, from small points of irritation like assuming Unicode is always UCS-2 to large key concepts that are simply ludicrous. The characters' theory about the building blocks of the emergent consciousness is the worst: ghost packets. These are packets who could never reach their destination for some reason, and therefore continue roaming on through the Internet. The characters even correctly points out that there's a TTL (time-to-live) on packets that causes routers to stop sending them even in loops after a certain number of hops, and then theorize a "mutated" packet where the TTL constantly changes but never reaches zero. These mutated packets, apparently capable of infinite big-number arithmetic in a tiny header field, continue wandering the Internet forever. Their numbers grow as they're thrown off in rare cases by normal operations, and eventually they reach a critical mass and start forming cellular automata. (This still arguably makes more sense than an alternative theory involving constructive interference in copper wires between adjacent packets, which makes one wonder if Sawyer even understands the basic differences between digital and analog.)

One of the key requirements of a successful science fiction novel is some ability to maintain the reader's suspension of disbelief, which is one of the reasons why it can be best to avoid SF novels written in one's field of expertise. For anyone who knows computer networking (or the legalities of data disclosure; the means by which Caitlin gets to "see" a map of web traffic also had me yelling at the book), it's exceptionally difficult to maintain that suspension of disbelief through the center portion of Wake. It doesn't help that Sawyer writes about technology with a painfully eager and trivia-filled style that reminds me of bad Wired articles or Usenet posters who are trying way too hard to be cool. Perhaps Sawyer does understand more than it seems and knows he's handwaving, but the impression Wake gives is of an author with a very shallow understanding of technology who builds worlds by recombining neat-sounding buzzwords. It's the Dan Brown of Internet-based SF, without Brown's grasp of pacing.

This degree of failure of research also brings into question the rest of the book. If Sawyer is this bad at understanding computer law and networks, are his portrayals of blindness and assistive technology any better? I can't judge those, and he does a good job with verisimilitude, but when he fails so miserably in my area of expertise, I have to wonder how bad the other bits are as well. It wouldn't surprise me if there's a review by a blind reader saying that the computer bits seemed okay but ranting about the direness of Caitlin's portrayal. It makes me leery of the whole book, particularly since a writer portraying disabilities inaccurately and poorly can inadvertantly be quite offensive. Hopefully, the bad parts happen to be confined to the areas that I can recognize as bad, and my enjoyment of the rest of the book is on a firm foundation.

Thankfully, Sawyer doesn't belabor the worst parts of the book. There's a stretch of about twenty pages that I struggled to get through, but then the book became more interesting and more enjoyable. I was pleasantly surprised by the ending: the plot direction was predictable, but the emotional impact was stronger than I recall ever getting from a Sawyer novel before. The story is best read as fantasy once the emergent intelligence starts becoming really intelligent, but this is familiar and relatively comfortable fantasy in SF. Like FTL travel, emergent AIs are something SF readers are used to suspending disbelief about, and Sawyer's is somewhat better than others I've read.

If I could somehow extract Caitlin from the bad novel she was surrounded with and let someone read about her without the baggage, I would highly recommend that experience. Given the pain that one has to go through to appreciate a nice bit of character construction, I don't think it's worth it. Sawyer is, at best, a pedestrian writer at the sentence-by-sentence level, and there are large segments here where he's not at his best. He also likes to fill books with fandom references, shout-outs to other books, and similar in-jokes, which didn't help given that I was having suspension of disbelief problems already. He kept pulling me into the book with Caitlin, and then knocking me out again with one of the other (much less interesting) subplots or some bad bit of writing, bad pun, or gosh-wow inaccurate technology description. Frustrating is the best way I can sum up the book.

That said, while this shouldn't be a Hugo winner, it does contain a spark of the best writing I've read from Sawyer yet. The best parts of this book could be the anchor of a truly excellent novel. I hope he'll eventually write something like it.

Followed by Watch.

Update: Based on another review of this book by someone who is actually blind, the treatment of blindness, disability, and assistive technology is as bad as I was afraid it was. I also completely missed or underweighed some very problematic assumptions about disability and some of Caitlin's behavior. Given that, I have to withdraw several of my positive comments about Caitlin's characterization and family situation. I recommend avoiding this one entirely.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-06-28

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21