By Robert J. Sawyer (Gollancz, 2009, 360, £12.99)
Wake is the first volume of the WWW trilogy. The next two volumes will be Watch and Wonder and together the three deal with the emergence of the first sapient, self-aware AI through the medium of the World Wide Web.
The spontaneous emergence of an AI on a computer network is hardly new in sf. What sets the Webmind – as it names itself in the closing pages – apart from Skynet and its ilk is the level of detail of its genesis. The whole point of the novel is to show how an AI could emerge with today’s technology, based on today’s theories of consciousness. Nor is it malevolent; at least, not yet. It is neither malevolent nor benevolent. So far it has no reason to be anything.
Sawyer has obviously done a great deal of research into the subject of consciousness generally, and it is quite satisfyingly sfnal that the main theory he latches onto is that of Julian Jaynes’s bicameral mind. Three main subplots each deal with the emergence of awareness in one form or another, both in their own right and also feeding into the narrative of how the Webmind emerges. The main plot concerns Caitlin, a 15-year-old congenitally blind American girl. There is nothing wrong with her eyes, just the neural mechanism feeding data to her brain, which a Japanese researcher deduces can be dealt with by an implanted chip. At the same time, elsewhere in the world, Chinese authorities are forced to isolate the country temporarily from the rest of the Web to conceal their actions in suppressing an outbreak of especially virulent bird flu; and Hobo, a chimpanzee in an American zoo who can already communicate by sign language, starts to paint pictures of recognisable subjects. Each of these has an effect on the Web, whether in the data sent over it or a knock-on effect on the Web structure itself, and thus each feeds the awareness of the intelligence that is growing there. Hobo’s story is possibly the least convincing and most hand-wavy: all that sets him apart is being the product of two rare breeds mating and the implication seems to be that it could happen to any chimp at any time. Both the Chinese and the Hobo subplots end rather abruptly: hopefully they will be picked up again later on in the trilogy in a way that lends a greater sense of purpose to Hobo’s story.
Sawyer goes to such lengths to pin the novel down to precisely the present day that it is very hard to spot the joins between his imagination and real-world data. For example, this reviewer learned while writing this review that there really is a Cycorp (www.cyc.com), a database specifically designed to teach any nascent AI the real-world concepts that will let it interact with human beings. Caitlin’s two heroes are Helen Keller – an historically very real deafblind woman, who is not only her role model but whose chronicled emergence into self-awareness parallels the Webmind’s – and rock star Lee Amodeo, who is Sawyer’s own creation. (Rather, the rock star persona is Sawyer’s own; Lee Amodeo is apparently a real-world Toronto sf fan.) To emphasise the here-and-now aspect, Sawyer drops real-world brand names left, right and centre: thus Caitlin uses Livejournal and Google and JAWS text-to-voice software, and the external item of hardware that links to her chip is dubbed her eyepod. The eyepod is the only item of technology that doesn’t actually exist outside the novel, but it very well could. It makes the point about the novel’s setting, not even 10 minutes into the future, but it is also a potentially risky writing strategy. If Wake had been written 10 years ago then Caitlin would probably be an aficionado of AltaVista for her online searching, and how dated would that appear today?
Perhaps inevitably, Wake has a high ratio of talk to action. The hero is a teenage blind girl from a family of academics and most of what we see from the Webmind’s point of view can only be expressed in concepts. Most of the talk involves the characters working out what is happening, and this reviewer was reminded of Hominids, the first volume of another Sawyer trilogy. In both cases the evidence for what the readers already know to be true is staring the characters in the face; it takes them a long time to work out because it is just so fantastic they can be excused for not making the mental leap; but when someone does eventually get there they are remarkably calm and matter of fact about it.
Otherwise the drama of the novel is of a mostly intellectual, passive kind. Caitlin learns the hard way that there can be a negative side to teenage boys, but she gets over it. Tensions generate briefly in the China scenes and our brief glimpses of the dissidents who are caught up in China’s disease containment measures: this ends abruptly with the arrest of one of them. Hobo is left with the threat of sterilisation hanging over him, but try as one might it’s hard to feel that much sympathy for a chimp. (Hobo is the result of the accidental cross breeding of two endangered species, and procedure in such cases is apparently to safeguard the purity of the genetic stock by sterilisation of the offspring. One suspects this probably is a real-world law because it would just be too contrived to make up for a novel.) Again the reader is reminded of Hominids, where a character faced sterilisation for a crime he hadn’t committed. That was an edge-of-the-seat plotline the readers could identify with. There is no real equivalent here.
Both these latter subplots are sideshows to the main event, where it seems assumed that you will be interested in (a) a teenage girl learning to see and (b) the emergence of the first ever sapient AI; if you weren’t then you probably wouldn’t be reading the novel; therefore, following all the talk through is its own reward. And it is rewarding. Caitlin deduces the existence of the Webmind all on her own and when she receives an email from it – the first ever communication received by a human being from a non-human intelligence, read out in JAWS’s Hawkingeseque voice – a shiver goes down both her and the reader’s spines. It is nicely offset by the comedy of the Webmind’s notion of what passes for vernacular: the Cycorp database wasn’t that good.
In short, Wake is possibly the first sf novel to use solid, real-world data to show the spontaneous emergence of an AI convincingly without too much plot convenience or hand-waving over details. At the same time it is very definitely part of a trilogy, not because it is not a self-sufficient read (it is) but because the reader has the feeling of extra depth waiting to be invested in all the subplots. Whether it is too much set in the here-and-now is open to question; a reread in 10 years’ time would be an be interesting experience.