Tag Archives: Robert J. Sawyer

Review of Wake, Book 1 of The WWW trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer

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Anything from Robert J. Sawyer is worth reading – and this first book in his trilogy about the Net certainly created something of a stirwake 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.
3.5 stars

Review of Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer

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I read a fair amount of science fiction. And as anyone knows whose read my reviews, I’m an enthusiast. My heart beats that little bit mindscanfaster every time I pick up a book with a cool cover and a promising opening page. Every so often that excitement is repaid with interest – as in the case of Mindscan.

Sawyer’s hero, Jake Sullivan, is struggling with a life-shortening, inoperable brain condition which could also leave him a vegetable – his father’s fate. So when he gets the opportunity to upload his consciousness into an android body, he takes it. At this point, we follow both Jakes. Sawyer’s unfussy, clear prose gives us a powerful insight into many of the emotional and practical problems following such a life-changing decision as both versions of his protagonist struggle to come to terms with their new status. His situation is alleviated by friendship with a feisty octogenarian, Karen, who also undergoes the same process. So far, the book is a masterful piece of storytelling that intelligently examines an issue that may well be confronting our grandchildren. But when Karen’s son sues, claiming that he has been cheated out of his rightful inheritance, Sawyer’s handling of the courtroom arguments for and against transferring human consciousness elevates this book from a good piece of science fiction to greatness.

Anyone in the privileged position of criticising the work of other writers has to be very clear about the yardsticks by which they grade authors and their work. For me, a ten out of ten read not only has to deliver a good story with a strong, believable world and convincing characters that I care about – but that ‘X’ factor is an intellectually rigorous examination of a theme or issue. I believe that great science fiction tackles important moral questions surrounding new inventions which are all too often side-stepped by politicians and scientists – often until Society’s need for some kind of judgement becomes overwhelming. Mindscan, with its wonderful overview of the issues surrounding human consciousness, has presented us with much to reflect on, amidst our enjoyment of this highly entertaining and readable tale.
10/10

Review of Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer

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If you enjoy reading science fiction stories where the big scenarios are played out on an everyday human level, then Sawyer is your man. This novel interweaving the two big subjects of alien encounters and rejuvenation is centred on a long, happy marriage between two likeable, highly intelligent people.

Dr Sarah Halifax decoded the first ever radio transmission received from aliens thirty-eight years ago. Now, a second message is received and Sarah, aged eighty-seven, may hold the key to deciphering this one too – if she lives long enough.

rollbackA wealthy industrialist offers to pay for Sarah to have a rollback – a hugely expensive rejuvenation procedure. She accepts on the condition that Don, her husband of sixty years, gets a rollback, too. That process works for Don making him physically twenty-five years again. But in a tragic twist, the rollback fails for Sarah, leaving her in her eighties.
While Don tries to deal with his newfound youth and the suddenly vast age gap between them and his wife, Sarah, heroically struggles to figure out what a signal from the stars contains before she dies.

The relationship between these two is poignantly portrayed as the rollback levers a chasm between Don and Sarah, despite a lifetime of closeness and shared memories. The original message from the aliens that Sarah decoded turns out to be interestingly different – leading to a lot of speculation as to why they sent a message in that particular format. Sarah battles with ill health to try and unravel their answer which they’ve encoded – again.

There is a lot of flashback to particular points in the Halifax marriage, so we get to know these two characters throughout their lives. Sawyer depicts both protagonists with sensitivity, drawing the reader into their awful dilemma. I found it a moving and riveting read most of the way through.

However, you may have sensed a BUT, and you’d be right. The trouble with this book is the ending. I think that Sawyer also got very involved with these two characters – to the detriment of the book. Without giving any spoilers, the ending is plainly unrealistic. I cannot see any way that Gillian’s siblings would be able to wander freely amongst the public – unless the human race has a wholesale personality transplant sometime in the near future.

Does with mean that Rollback should be avoided? No. If it hadn’t been for the Epilogue, this book would have earnt a 10 from me. The rest of the book is strong enough to weather Sawyer’s inexplicable slide into sentimentality – but I do recommend that you give the Epilogue a miss…
8/10