Wednesday, May 19, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, novel: WAKE by Robert J. Sawyer

I think the title is technically www:Wake.

Since I’ve started this project I’ve been reading more sf book reviews, and there does seem to be a very strong contingent of Sawyer haters out there. And yet, he’s won a Hugo and a Nebula and he keeps popping up as a nominee. This is the first Sawyer novel I’ve read, and I’m not really sure how it compares to his other work, but I do think I can see why some fans would love him and others would hate him.

I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way: my feelings on the book were mixed, but no matter what, it does not seem deserving of a Hugo nomination for the simple fact that it is the first novel in a planned trilogy, and is pure set-up. The plot is short and simple, and sub-plots go absolutely nowhere (I assume that they’ll pay-off in future novels). For most of the novel, we follow Caitlin Decter, a blind teenager who has recently moved from Texas to Canada. A Japanese scientist invents a device that may help her gain sight, but instead, it allows her to visualize the world wide web. This connection to the global network, along with a massive interruption in Chinese internet service, causes the Web to gain sentience (the web appears to be the narrator of the novel…or at least portions of it). There’s also a subplot about a painting chimp.

Caitlin is a likable character, and Sawyer includes a lot of rich details about the life of a modern blind person that I found fascinating. The basic idea also has potential, and I liked some of Sawyer’s musings on consciousness through Helen Keller, chimpanzees, and the awakening internet (though he also leans a bit too heavily on Julian Jaynes’ rather weak hypothesis that human consciousness emerged in historical time). On the other hand, the prose is flat and dull. Caitlin and her family can be too precious (and they usually are), and the novel is drowning in pop culture references. Do I really need to know that one of the minor characters likes to edit together fan videos of the new Doctor Who series? Sawyer seems to be announcing that this is a novel by an internet geek for internet geeks – let the internet navel-gazing begin!

In the end, I still wasn’t sold on the trilogy’s basic concept; I imagine were heading towards some sort of wish fulfillment fantasy where the sentient internet brings "freedom" (as defined by a certain segment of bloggers) to the world! I hope I’m wrong and there’s more conflict and insight to come, but nothing about Sawyer’s plain vanilla writing and philosophy presented here seems to suggest that.

I see Sawyer’s appeal to a certain group of Hugo voters – lots of them will probably see themselves in his characters - but I found this novel boring and pedantic. I really hope I don’t have to read the rest of the trilogy.

Grade: C-


  1. I read the Neandertal Parallax trilogy and was totally icked out. The whole trilogy should have been one book. More importantly, it showed that Sawyer doesn't understand women at all. That doesn't really bother me with Heinlein because (most) of his books are so good anyway. With the Neandertal Parallax, Sawyer has his female protagonist change her religious beliefs and sexual preferences in less than three weeks. Plus, she agrees to see the love of her life have a male lover and only see him 3 days out of the month. I'm sorry, but no self-respecting woman would ever do that. Plus, the Neandertal trilogy is totally pedantic. He doesn't handle exposition of philosophical ideas nearly as well as Heinlein. I'm planning to read Wake just for the Hugos, but unless one of the sequels is short-listed, I don't really want to read any any more Sawyer.

  2. Would you like to cross-post on my blog or do a he said/ she said review?

  3. I'm very afraid of Hominids, but I'm going to do my best to give it a fair shake (maybe I can forget all of the very horrible things I've heard about it by the time I get to it next year).

    I think your point about exposition of philosophical ideas is the crux of the problem. This novel really did feel like a series of blog posts about consciousness, the internet, and pop culture shoe-horned into a plot.

    A he said/she said review sounds fun. Feel free to borrow what you want or just let me know if you want anything additional (though I'm out of the country for the rest of May starting tomorrow).