Fiction Reviews


Wake

(2009) Robert J. Sawyer, Gollancz, £12.99, trdpbk, 360 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09407-9

What if the internet grew and grew (which it is) and became more and more a complex a network (which it is) and then somehow became intelligent? This is the premise behind Robert Sawyer's novel Wake. Of course the concept is not new, but then there are many tropes that are oft revisited in SF and this is Robert Sawyer's take.

Caitlin Decter is young, into maths, and blind. Then comes an opportunity to have a behind-retinal implant; one that is being developed by Japanese researchers. She decides to go for it. The thing is that the signals from the implant. However when the implant downloads the researchers operational programme via the internet she gains not normal vision but a glimpse of the internet itself. She and the researcher soon learn how to use the implant to visualise the internet in real time (web sight) as well as switch to normal vision.

Meanwhile all this is going on, in China an attempt to quarantine a virulent flu virus necessitate drastic measures and the government decides to temporarily sever the county's internet connections to the rest of the World. Unbeknown to everyone, this cleaving of the worldwide web has a drastic effect on an embryonic intelligence growing within the net…

Robert J. Sawyer is arguably the master of pop SF. You do not read Sawyer for his bluntly straightforward writing style, or to explore his novels' characters. You pick up a Sawyer novel for a solid SF adventure carried along with bags of sense of wonder. In addition, if you are into science, you can be fairly sure that the man has done his research. Having said that, while with some other of the man's novels I have been knowledgeable of the background science and known where he left reality for the injection of SF, Wake's science centres on mathematics as well computer science and, alas, I only have an O-level in the former which is barely bolstered by the algebra I did for physics A-level and the stats I did for my ecological training. In short, as far as mathematics and computer science is concerned I was out of my depth, and so for once with a Sawyer novel I did not know where the science ended and the SF began; only that there is not (as far as anyone knows) an AI (artificial intelligence) wandering the internet.

So when in Wake there was reference to a search engine called Jagster – that did not work like Google ranking pages by the number of links to them, but by the monthly traffic flow to the said pages – I thought 'wow' and immediately Googled it. Alas my disappointment to find it was a fiction, but a neat one it has to be said and I dare say that there are folk working on such a thing: it seems so obvious. And then there were Zipf plots and these were real and interesting. Again I was out of my depth when looking at the wikipedia page equations on these, but the description minded me of work done on biosphere development and the theoretical information analysis of key stages of (human) intelligence evolution.

OK. So why am I telling you all this? Well, suffice to say that for whatever pedestrian criticism that may be laid at Robert Sawyer's writing style, characterization and plot management, he does firmly hit a number of hard SF buttons including stimulating both the sense of wonder in SF as well as that of science. So, the man is not a William Gibson, Iain Banks, Robert Charles Wilson or Alastair Reynolds (and I certainly do not forget Sawyer getting a Hugo at the expense of Brin's superb novel in 2003) but I do sometimes get the feeling that if Edgar Rice Burrough's had not gone to military academy but done science instead, then rather than us getting Barsoom or Tarzan we might perhaps have got something akin to Sawyer's novels. In short, Sawyer's novels demand not to be ignored and in Canada and US America they do do well.

Wake was actually serialised in a US magazine in 2008 before coming out in book form in the US in 2009 and then at the end of that year in the UK. Robert Sawyer has been published before in the British Isles the late 1990s by Voyager. However, until recently this century we largely have had to rely on imports to Europe to read his books (with notable exceptions including Spain). A shame and something we sadly have to do for a number of big, N. American genre names. Gollancz recently picked him up with Flashforward that tied in with the TV series of the same name loosely based on the novel. Wake is Sawyer's second novel in this new Gollancz run. It is the start of a new, 'www', trilogy with the second,Watch, coming later this year (2010) and Wonder in 2011. I for one will want to check these out.

Jonathan Cowie

Stop Press: Wake was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2010.

See also sequels Watch and Wonder.


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