The novel “WWW: Wake” by Robert J. Sawyer was published for the first time in the magazine “Analog” between November 2008 and March 2009 and as a book in 2009. It’s the first volume of the WWW trilogy and it was a finalist at the 2010 Hugo Award in the best novel of the year category.
Caitlin Decter is 15 years old and has extraordinary mathematical abilities. She’s also blind since her birth due to a rare syndrome that prevents the retinas of her eyes to properly send visual information to her optic nerve.
Caitlin is proposed to be a guinea pig for an experimental technique and a device connected to her optic nerve gets implanted to correct the encoding of visual information through a second external device and enable her to see.
Initially the surgery seems to have failed but slowly Caitlin begins to see something, which however isn’t the real world but a visual interpretation of the data flows on the Internet. An update of the software that runs the device finally allows Caitlin to see the real world but within the Internet she has perceived an anomalous presence which in turn has become aware of her existence.
In “WWW: Wake” Robert J. Sawyer gives us an ambitious novel even for his standards. In fact we’re talking about an author who always puts a number of ideas to develop in his stories but in this case he goes deeper than ever talking about perception, consciousness and their relationship.
The novel is set in the present so the scientific and technological bases are the ones we’re used to and from them Sawyer starts with his speculations, even bold ones. The story includes only a few inventions such as the device that allows Caitlin to see and the search engine Jagster. The Internet is the one we use every day and cases of apes who communicate with sign language are well known.
Robert J. Sawyer is inspired by the controversial essay “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” (Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada) by psychologist Julian Jaynes. According to him consciousness in humans didn’t emerge since the birth of the species but only relatively recently. He claims that consciousness isn’t a biological fact but rather cultural and emerged at different times in different parts of the world based on a metaphorical language. For example according to Julian Jaynes consciousness emerged in the inhabitants of Greece and Mesopotamia about five millennia ago. Before then humans had a so-called bicameral mind that caused them auditory hallucinations they interpreted as voices of their leaders or gods.
In “WWW: Wake” consciousness emerges within the Internet but also, in a parallel subplot, in a bonobo-chimpanzee hybrid. It makes sense to assume that the mental development of an ape is similar to that of a human being. Instead thinking that an artificial intelligence has characteristics that are similar to those of a biological intelligence which developed in an organic brain that evolved in a certain way is an arbitrary assumption but after all this is a science fiction novel.
In outlining the emergence of consciousness in this artificial intelligence Robert J. Sawyer got inspired by the famous case of Helen Keller, who became deaf and blind when she was very little following an illness. Locked in her own world where even the simplest communicattion with other people was very hard, she was saved by the tenacity of a teacher who could communicate with her through a tactile language. In “WWW: Wake” the artificial intelligence finds in Caitlin a teacher, who allows it to literally see the world through her eyes to learn to communicate.
In this case Caitlin herself in many ways learns to perceive the world in a new way because the acquisition of sight forces her to associate everything she perceived with her other senses to its image so her discovery of a new part of the world proceeds almost in parallel with that of the artificial intelligence.
The conclusion of an important stage in the discovery of the world gives a kind of ending to “WWW: Wake” but you can see that it’s only the end of a chapter waiting for its sequel. However it’s a good thing that at least the main story isn’t interrupted in the middle.
Overall I think that “WWW: Wake” is an excellent novel that brings together scientific and technological concepts typical of hard science fiction stories with reflections that are more typical of inner space stories. Writing hard science fiction stories but at the same time curing the development of the characters is Robert J. Sawyer’s style, in this case he found what is perhaps the best mix of these elements. For this reason I recommend it especially to those looking for science fiction mentally stimulating.