(2011) Robert Sawyer, Gollancz, £12.99, pbk, 340pp, ISBN 978-1-575-09508-3
This is the second in Sawyer's www trilogy that began with Wake and Watch. Important: If you have not yet read Wake and Watch then you will want to read those first as this article may be a bit of a spoiler. On the other hand if you have read these books then feel free to continue…
The consciousness that emerged from the interconnectedness of the world wide web – Webmind – continues to explore the human world through the eyes of the formerly blind 18-year old Caitlin Decter. It has also gone public and has started to have a dialogue with millions of humans who ask it questions. This leads Webmind to tackling cancer by reviewing all the scientific literature on the web and arriving at a synthesis conclusion that will facilitate cures. Meanwhile a hybrid primate is, with the help of a zoologist, developing communication skills. Also in the frame are the US authorities who are fearful of Webmind as a threat to national security. Then there are the Chinese who are once more contemplating crating a national internet firewall around China's web browsers.
If all this were not enough, leading hackers in N. America and elsewhere are disappearing and in some instances there are indications that violence was used…
Saywer's 'WWW' trilogy is an entertaining read and you would expect no less of this author who has a steady track record for rollicking tales. However this trilogy will not only appeal to adult readers as a sound, lightweight SF adventure, but also a juvenile readership (its target audience): the young protagonist, Caitlin Decter, provides a character with whom teenage readers may identify. And by the end of Wonder all the various plot threads have been brought together and satisfactorily concluded.
Science, as well as SF-, philes will enjoy the background research Robert Sawyer has undertaken. These are evident not just through the text's plot narrative but also mini- (or micro) info-dumps. Of course SF as a genre is a big-barrelled blunderbuss which, when pointed at the barnyard door to the future and fired, is bound to score a few hits. Of topical interest within Wonder is the notion that Osama bin Laden will be 'gone soon enough', and indeed in the real world early in 2011 this was so: remember Sawyer must have completed writing Wonder in 2010. Conversely, I found some of Sawyer's humour strained within the fabric of the story. For example, when a Chinese dissident injures his leg while being captured by the authorities Robert Sawyer notes that 'once his leg healed, he'd have to stand trial. Except of course, that he could not stand at all'. Such attempts at presumed jocularity only undermine the tension Sawyer occasionally builds rather than counterbalance it. Authors need to recognise that writing humour is a skill in itself and (sorry Robert) this author just doesn't quite have it.
Yet at the end of the day, Wonder is both a sound beach read for SF aficionados as well as a book that will likely provide more substantive fare for younger readers. Yes, it is a cosy, rose-tinted adventure but on a more serious note it does begin to explore the issue of artificial intelligence and how it might interact with individuals: one of the SF tropes that surely deserves more attention by writers in the 21st century as it is increasingly likely that we will begin to see real life AI in the coming decades. This, combined with the fact that most of us in the developed world are generating an increased electronic footprint, does mean that AI emergence will have more profound personal implications than those considered by many of the AI stories in late 20th century SF. In short, the subject matter that Robert Sawyer explores in Wonder is part of a rich seam that I am sure will be extensively mined in this, 21st, century's first third. Meanwhile I do hope Gollancz continues to publish Robert Sawyer whose light adventures do at their heart have a good dollop of sensawunda (sense-of-wonder) and that, surely, is one of the things that makes SF a special genre.
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