Log in, wake up, drop out

Filed in Science Fiction by on February 23, 2013 0 Comments

www:wake - Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer’s science fiction mystery www: wake is an intriguing take on the age-old question “what if something is ‘out there’?”.  Yet instead of writing ‘just another alien from outer space’ story, Sawyer sets much of his book  amongst the data packets and FTP protocols of the world wide web, a choice which servers (get it?) his story well.

And just between you and me, ‘Is there anyone out there?’ is a question I have often asked myself when checking the number of people who read Deadline Zombie, but that’s another story. (I’m kidding, I love all four of you).

As Book 1 in the www trilogy, the novel quickly establishes several storylines:

  • Blind girl Caitlin receives an experimental implant to give her sight for the first time, but due to the mysteries of science, the human body and the nature of science-fiction, she instead sees something she doesn’t quite expect
  • A virulent disease breaks out in a remote area of China, prompting the government to drop poison gas on the entire region before cutting off all communication with the rest of the world
  • A Chinese political activist is forced to desperate measures when the authorities discover his identity
  • Perhaps most mysteriously, ‘something’ gains self awareness out in the wilds of the internet

At first these seemed like rather random storylines, and at one point I was asking myself how on earth the author was going to pull them all together… but it fell together in one of those ‘ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’ light bulb moments, and from then on I was hooked.

So what is www: wake  actually all about? Is it just about the unknowns posed by the world wide web, or is there more to it? If you take it at face value, then as the title indicates this book is about ‘awakening’.  A blind girl opens her eyes for the first time, an online presence awakens to self awareness, a political blogger awakens to his own potential as an agent for change.

However if you dig a little deeper, I believe the book isn’t as much about awakening as it is about finding yourself. Let me give you a few examples

  • while Caitlin is helpless when in unfamiliar surroundings, conversely she is an expert in finding things online, especially with using search engines. When she is granted sight , the first thing she really sees is her mother’s face – and how much it resembles her own (she finds herself)
  • the mysterious online entity spends much the first half of the book working out what it is by finding the difference between itself and others
  • the Chinese blogger is forced to go into hiding when the authorities find his… self

OK, so that last one was a stretch. But I did notice a couple of other things. Sawyer comes across as a very proud Canadian (there’s nothing wrong with that), and this comes out very clearly in his work. I wish I had a dollar for every time he drops a sly Canuck reference into the text, infering how it makes Canada better than its mighty southern neighbour the United States. I understand where he is coming from (in Australia we do the same thing with our mortal enemy New Zealand), with Sawyer’s book being one of the best advertisements for Canada I’ve seen since Blackberry mobile phones William Shatner.

I was going to write something about how the protagonist is an avid blogger and yet uses LiveJournal, (a choice which tends to date the book somewhat). I’ve changed my mind because it was a valid choice at the time, and no one can predict what will happen in the future – and I’m no genius when it comes to social media. As a matter of fact when I started my first ever social media profile I chose Myspace over Facebook…

In any case, who am I to criticise Sawyer? He has real credentials in this area. He started his website www.sfwriter.com in June  1995 as the first-ever science-fiction author website, and it’s gone from strength to strength. Kudos.


Ghost in the Machine

What I will talk about briefly is the prominent role that the work psychologist Julian Jaynes plays in the book. Jaynes’ work contains some interesting concepts, including the idea that modern human consciousness only developed 3000-odd years ago. According to Jaynes, prior to this the left and right spheres of the human brain were not connected as they are today, and people would hear the thoughts of their right brain as ‘voices in the air’, or even ‘gods’.

It’s all very interesting, and it works marvellously well as a plot device in helping Caitlin’s development as  the main character and in moving the story along. The central role that Jaynes’ theories play in the book show just how much of a fan Sawyer is of his work. He not only references Jaynes (and his book) in the acknowledgements and is a member of the Julian Jaynes Society, www: wake goes into a huge amount of detail in explaining Jaynes’ theories. It even goes to the extent of including an ‘Amazon review (in the correct format and font) ‘written by’ the protagonist. There’s nothing particularly weird about any of this, it’s just very noticeable. And yes, it did lead me to do a bit of my own research on Jaynes, as I’d never come across his work before. Well played, Mr Sawyer.

www: wake was also responsible for something I don’t admit to too often – it made me eat my own words. At one point I laughed when one of the characters uses the phrase ‘cool math’, as I rank math as about as cool as special-edition Mitt Romney snuggies. However that was until I was introduced to the concept of ‘Zipf plots’.

“In any language, the frequency with which a word is used is inversely proportional to its rank in in a table of the frequency of use of all words in a language.”

In layman’s terms this means that the second-most common letter in the English language is used half as much as the most common letter, the third-most-common letter is used only one third as often as the most-common letter, and so on.

Sigh, yes – as a nerd I have to admit – that’s pretty cool.

www: wake – it’s a great story and definitely worth reading. I can’t wait to get to book 2.

Robert J Sawyer
www: wake

www: wake

Robert J. Sawyer’s science fiction mystery www: wake is an intriguing take on the age-old question “what if something is ‘out there’?”. Yet instead of writing ‘just another alien from outer space’ story, Sawyer sets much of his book amongst the data packets and FTP protocols of the world wide web, a choice which servers (get it?) his story well.

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About the Author ()

Nick Buchan is currently writing his first novel ‘Leopard Tree’, available 2015. “A burnt-out police detective becomes embroiled in a child murder investigation while on African safari. Will this case send Detective Duffy over the edge?” Follow ‘Leopard Tree’ online at www.leopardtreenovel.com or https://www.facebook.com/NickBuchanAuthor

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