Review of “WWW: Wake” by Robert J. Sawyer

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.

Rating: 4/5

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).

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16 Responses to Review of “WWW: Wake” by Robert J. Sawyer

  1. Nicole says:

    Now this sounds really good. I love reading about the way consciousness is considered and the sight thing is an interesting frame to explore it in. I am glad to know about this one beacuse I don’t think the title and the cover would have done it.

  2. Awesome review! I would never have picked up this book to read had I not read your review. I am not the sci-fi type, but this book sounds clever and compelling.
    I love the quote from Caitlin about the HUNK. ha!

  3. bermudaonion says:

    I don’t read a lot of sci-fi, but this book sounds intriguing. Caitlin’s perceptions sound like they’d make you think.

  4. Margot says:

    I’m not a sci-fi fan but this one definitely appeals. After Star Gazing I’m still thinking about how the blind “see” the world. Sounds like this book would also make me think long after it’s over.

  5. zibilee says:

    This book sounds excellent and like one that would work for me, and my kids. I am going to have to keep this one in mind. It has a very cool sounding plot and I loved the quotes you provided. I also really like the cover!! Great review, this one goes on the list!!

  6. Amy says:

    I don’t read a lot of scifi but this book sounds fascinating and very well written. I love the idea that Caitlin can see the world ans also the wide world web. I am also intrigued by the discussions about the nature of consciousness which has always fascinated me and I was happy to read that the discussions are more like Caitlin’s research rather than lectures thrown at the reader!

    I could go on & on….lol but I will stoop here and just say thank you for a terrific review & a “new” book for my tbr list!

    ~ Amy

  7. Sandy says:

    I’m wondering if the plot would be lost on my daughter, but it really appeals to me. Very clever! I love it when YA gets all insightful like that, and they don’t talk down. I’ll see if I can pitch it to Emma and we can read it together. The fact that it is a trilogy helps when it comes to convincing her.

  8. Belle says:

    This one sounds like a good read – what a great premise. And Canadian, too! Loved the quote about Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.

  9. Nymeth says:

    That’s fantastic that the book manages to include so many interesting ideas without being didactic at all. That’s never easy to pull off. Adding this to my wishlist!

  10. Julie P. says:

    This is totally a new author to me. I’m not big into SciFi, but after reading your review, I might give this one a try.

  11. Jenners says:

    Sounds interesting … love the eyepod line … was that yours? : )

  12. Staci says:

    Not sure this is my cup of tea because I just don’t find myself drawn to SciFi!! But I would be willing to read it based on your review. 😀

  13. Biblibio says:

    So (in contrast to a lot of commenters), I like sci-fi. Plus, the description kind of reminds me of aspects of the Ender’s Game universe (a rather random connection…).

    I never really get why standalone books are necessarily turned into series. If this is preplanned as a trilogy, it might be okay, but lots of really good, complete books get bad sequels tacked on… I hope the sequels don’t disappoint.

    • Bibliobio,

      Not to denigrate Robert Sawyer, because I love his work, but it can’t really compare to Ender’s Game!

      I don’t know if it’s that standalone books get turned into series as often as series are written with the components able to be digested independently. …which to me is preferable to being left hanging at the end of a book!

  14. Ti says:

    What an odd premise! Sounds very interesting though. I’m not sure I’d want someone to experiment with my eyes but I suppose if you have no vision at all, there isn’t too much to lose.

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