Anything from Robert J. Sawyer is worth reading – and this first book in his trilogy about the Net certainly created something of a stir as well as gathering the 2010 Aurora Award and a Hugo Award nomination.
In China, an outbreak of a lethal strain of bird flu causes the Government to isolate the country from the worldwide web while the authorities resort to desperate measures to bring the infection under control. Meanwhile in Canada, fifteen year old Caitlin has been blind from birth, with a rare medical condition that scrambles the part of her brain interpreting visual signals. She is an ideal candidate for an experimental treatment proposed by a Japanese specialist that involves an implant using a wi-fi connection. While the procedure appears to fail, Caitlin discovers that there are some interesting side effects…
In typical Sawyer fashion, a scientific development is examined by putting a handful of sympathetic characters through a life-changing experience—in this case we follow the fortunes of Caitlin in the present time. A brilliant young mathematician who has managed to find her way around the web using a series of unique strategies, she is believable and well-drawn, as are her family and the Japanese doctor treating her. Sawyer’s scene setting is pitch perfect and I enjoyed the touches of humour regarding the relationship between America and Canada. The sub-plot depicting the plight of Hobo, a bonobo/chimpanzee cross is equally engrossing and addresses the subject of growing self-awareness from an intriguing angle – which is one of Sawyer’s strengths.
The plot develops reasonably swiftly, although there are one or two pauses to expand/explain some of the scientific and philosophical issues behind the idea of developing self-awareness. I’m not completely convinced that there needed to be quite so much explanation as it certainly held up the pace in places. However, it was a minor hitch rather than a major flaw and certainly added to the reader’s understanding of what was at stake.
However, if you’re sensing a ‘but’, you’d be right. The book opens in the viewpoint of the worldwide web and for me, this particular ‘character’ failed to convince me until right at the very end when the writing and delivery was finally plausible. I have no problem with the idea of the Net becoming self-aware, indeed, I think that Sawyer does a masterful job in stacking up a tenable set of circumstances that jolt it into consciousness. What bothers me is the depiction of the Net ‘character’. In my opinion, the writing, with the choice of vocabulary, phrasing and thought process just did not sufficiently reflect the reality of what ‘It’ is. I’m aware that it was a fiendishly difficult task to pull off and, ironically, if Sawyer had been less able at setting up such a realistic scenario, then this weakness would not be so glaringly obvious.
Apart from this one reservation, the book is an intriguing exploration into what causes self-awareness—and I’m quite sure that during the other two books in the trilogy, Watch and Wonder, Sawyer will continue to offer thought provoking insights into the consequences of a sentient being running the world wide web. I’ll certainly be looking out for them.