WWW: Wake is a coming of age young adult novel by one of my very favorite scifi authors, Robert Sawyer.
Caitlin Decter, a precocious and witty fifteen-year-old, has been blind since birth because of scrambled coding in her visual-processing system. When a Japanese scientist offers to test an experimental “eyepod” on her that will remap the signals from her eye to her brain, she jumps at the chance.
Dr. Kuroda misses an important coding sequence on the first try, and what Caitlin sees is not the structure of the world, but that of the world wide web, which her brain has adapted to use since she was small. The doctor figures out how to change the code, and Caitlin is able to see “real life” for the first time. She can still toggle the eyepad back and forth, however, to see just the web. And what she discovers there is a primitive-seeming intelligence that is trying to communicate with her. Inspired by Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, Caitlin makes it her mission to reach out to this “other,” and bring it to whatever self-actualization it can accomplish.
Discussion: I loved the use of Caitlin’s blindness to “see” through the preoccupations of the sighted world. In this passage, Caitlin and her friend Bashira are discussing a boy who has shown an interest in Caitlin, after he walks away from their cafeteria table:
“…Bashira said, ‘He’s hot.’
‘He’s an asshole,’ Caitlin replied.
‘Yeah,’ agreed Bashira, ‘but he’s a hunky asshole.’
Caitlin shook her head. How seeing more could make people see less was beyond her.”
And Sawyer has a bit of fun with the status of the scifi genre, in this passage from Caitlin’s LiveJournal (entries for which are interspersed throughout the text):
“Back in the summer, the school gave me a list of all the books we’re doing this year in English class. I got them then either as ebooks or as Talking Books from the CNIB [Canadian National Institute for the Blind], and have now read them all. Coming attractions include The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood …. In fact, I’ve already had an argument with Mrs. Zed, my English teacher, about that one, because I called it science fiction. She refused to believe it was, finally exclaiming ‘It can’t be science fiction, young lady –if it were, we wouldn’t be studying it!’”
Caitlin’s other journal entries seem delightfully apt for a fifteen-year-old, with just the right blend of humor and bravado. And I loved experiencing the sensations with her when she gets to see for the first time: her mom! her room! her own face! (and, OMG, she has acne!)
I loved all the discussions among the characters about the nature of consciousness, a subject that has always interested me. As part of Caitlin’s research into contacting the other, she reads [the real book] The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, and quotes extensively from it. (This 1976 book argued that the sense of self emerged only as recently as 3000 years ago, when the left and right sides of the brain became integrated into a single consciousness.) Dr. Kuroda also explains to Caitlin other ways to measure consciousness that have been used to test animal intelligence. These fascinating discussions do not seem didactic at all, but rather are integrated into Caitlin’s quest to contact “the other.”
Evaluation: This is the first book of a trilogy, but unlike other book continuations, it seems perfectly complete the way it is. However, I enjoyed it as both a YA book and a scifi book, and will definitely be reading the next two in the series.
Published by Ace Hardcover, 2009
Note: This book won the 2010 Prix Aurora Award (given out annually for the best Canadian science fiction and fantasy literary works) for best novel in English, and was a Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (2010).