Robert J. Sawyer is the rarest sort of figure in contemporary Canadian writing: a Canadian genre author deeply loyal to both his genre and his Canadian identity. This hasn't done him any harm: Not only has he received much domestic acclaim (including 10 Aurora Awards), he has been the recipient of many international awards, including the Hugo and the Nebula. His novel FlashForward was the inspiration for the popular ABC television series of the same name, and he now works as a consultant for the show on top of his busy writing, researching and speaking schedule.
Sawyer's latest venture in the writing realm is his WWW trilogy. Wake, published last year, introduced the reader to Caitlin Decter, 15, and blind since birth. A retinal implant, along with a signal-processing pack, has given her sight, not just of the physical world, but also of the data streams that make up the World Wide Web, a phenomenon she calls "websight."
With that websight, she discovers an emerging, conscious entity. Wake follows the beginnings of Caitlin's relationship with Webmind as she teaches it to communicate and grow, nurturing its self-awareness. Two secondary plotlines also thread through Wake: a developing, harrowing account of China's questionable method of dealing with an outbreak of bird flu, and glimpses into a small research facility where Hobo, a Bonobo-Chimpanzee crossbreed, is being studied and taught sign language.
Picking up where Wake leaves off, the second novel of the trilogy, Watch, opens with a secret branch of the U.S. National Security Agency: Web Activity Threat Containment Headquarters (WATCH) screens all Internet traffic for any activity that could be considered a danger, and has the authority to take whatever steps are needed to contain those threats.
They have detected Webmind, though they have no understanding of what it is. In the meantime, Webmind has surpassed everything that Caitlin can teach it and has started searching the Web on its own. Caitlin – with the aid of her parents, and Dr. Kuroda, the doctor who performed her vision surgery – shows Webmind how to access data and video files on the Web, and Webmind develops faster than ever.
However, despite the wealth of information available to it, Webmind cannot understand abstractions, or ethical questions on anything more than a theoretical level, leaving it with much still to learn from Caitlin.
As readers have come to expect, Sawyer shows his genius in combining cutting-edge scientific theories and technological developments with real human characters. Watch, like Wake before it, is replete with complicated scientific concepts, from a detailed explanation of game theory to exploration of artificial intelligence. It explores heavy conceptual topics such as religion and politics, and yet at the same time has an accessible tone as it follows Caitlin's very human story as she struggles to understand and best help Webmind, while going about her regular teenaged life, including finding her first boyfriend. Caitlin's parents, Dr. Kuroda, the staff working with the Bonobo-Chimp-cross Hobo and the members of WATCH give the novel further human depth.
Sawyer is a master at research, and uses his novels to inform and educate as well as to entertain. His works are both revelatory and thought-provoking.
That being said, there are times when Watch seems to become a platform from which to air his opinions on a huge array of issues, from gay marriage to autism to Canadian-specific stereotypes and topics such as the wording of the national anthem and language use on signage. The combination of this sermonizing with the lengthy scientific asides (which often take the form of multi-paragraph monologues) distracts from the story as it unfolds.
Despite that caveat, Watch is as fine a novel as we have come to expect from Sawyer, with a blend of human values and technological foresight. While it could stand on its own, neither it nor its prequel, Wake, are prohibitively long or complex, and they should definitely be read together.
Plan on rereading them both, however, next spring, when the third book in the WWW trilogy, Wonder, will be published: Sawyer's novels tend to be better the second time around.
Cori Dusmann is an educator and writer living in Victoria.
Editor's note: This book is also being reviewed in this Saturday's (April 3) Books section.