(2010) Robert J. Sawyer, Gollancz, £12.99, trdpbk, 354pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09504-5
This is the second in Sawyer's www trilogy that began with Wake. Important: If you have not yet read Wake then you will want to read that first. So do not continue with this review, instead read the Wake review and Wake first as this article may be a bit of a spoiler. On the other hand if you have read Wake then feel free to continue…
As firmly alluded above, Watch follows on from Wake: indeed the story commences from where Wake left off. Our principal protagonist, Canadian teenager Caitlin Decter, has regained her sight using a bionic implant that accidentally also allows her to see visual representations of the world wide web's connections. The earlier cleaving of the web – when the Chinese government temporarily cut its nation's internet off from the rest of the planet – triggered the gestation of an artificial intelligence. As this AI grew it managed to communicate with Caitlin.
In Watch the AI continues to grow and, with the help of Caitlin, begins to familiarise itself with what it is as well as human society and culture not to mention the universe as we understand it. However there is a US government agency that watches the internet for criminal activity, and its agents notice unusual traffic to Caitlin's PC. Because what is going on is so unusual, a scientist is asked to check it out and soon Caitlin is being covertly monitored. Not surprisingly it is not long before this agency finds out about the AI 'Webmind' and they wonder whether it might be a threat? Because Caitlin is based in Canada, there is a delay in their moving in on her. Yet Caitlin's relationship, helping Webmind learn, continues.
Meanwhile elsewhere a zoologist is learning to communicate with an ape…
Finally the Government agency acts and a team is sent to Canada to confront Caitlin directly and a decision is made as to what to do about Webmind. Of course Webmind might have other ideas…
It has to be said that whatever your views of Sawyer's writing style (and I think he is getting better), he has always crafted a cracking adventure, and the first two books in this trilogy have got to be among some of his best work to date. Hard SF readers will like Watch, as one of Sawyer's strengths is that not only does he think his plots through logically, he does throw in a good dollop of science for the reader to mull over. Now, I am sufficiently vain to consider myself reasonably well read in substantive areas of science, even though I am acutely aware there is so much out there I do not know. Nonetheless, in addition to the science of which I am aware (and it is good to see it used in a novel) Robert Sawyer additionally has this knack of turning up some simple, but intriguing, concepts that I have never come across before, or alternatively never previously considered because if I had I would have (incorrectly) thought I would know the answer. An example of Sawyer illuminating us in Wake is his recounting the 'Monty Hall' mathematical (statistics) problem. Do look it up for yourself: it is quirkily fascinating.
Wake was nominated for a Hugo in 2010, and while I am not entirely sure it is quite that deserving (but I am picky and often feel that way with Hugo shortlists if not winners), Wake certainly deserves its place on the ten-novel Hugo long-list. If Sawyer keeps this up let us hope Gollancz continues publishing him; I say this as not all of his novels in the past have been released this side of the Atlantic. In short, Wake is a great SF adventure which I am certainly pleased to recommend. Indeed, I have to confess to be rather looking forward to this trilogy's concluding novel due out in 2011.
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