Over the past two decades, Robert J. Sawyer has become Canada's pre-eminent science fiction author. His latest novel, WWW:Wake (Ace Books, $24.95), is the first volume in a promising new trilogy set in the very near future, chronicling the spontaneous development of consciousness within the Internet's World Wide Web and the efforts of a teenage girl who has been blind since birth to obtain vision.
Despite her blindness, 15-year-old math whiz Caitlin Decter has become adept at making her way both in the real world and on the Web. When she is contacted by a Japanese researcher who has an experimental implant that might cure her blindness, she jumps at the chance, traveling with her mother to Japan for the surgery. Sadly, the Web-linked implant is not immediately successful. When later her brain does begin to process visual data, instead of the real world she often sees what appears to be the Internet itself. She also seems to be communicating with a nascent nonhuman intelligence she calls the Webmind.
Caitlin is a very likable protagonist, and well drawn, as are Sawyer's other characters, including her economist mother and brilliant-but-autistic physicist father. The reader can't help but admire her bravery and care about her desire to lead a successful life despite her blindness. This makes the primary story of Caitlin compelling. There are also several subplots, including the slow development of self-consciousness by the Webmind (which I found totally unconvincing on a hard-SF level) and a bird-flu epidemic in China that its repressive government seeks to cover up, which are somewhat less compelling. A final subplot relating to a chimp-bonobo hybrid named Hobo who may be near sentient is more interesting, but at the end of the book it is not yet clear how that plotline will tie into the main story.
WWW:Wake is a very promising start to what could turn out to be a very thoughtful and compelling science fiction trilogy. I suspect that this trilogy will be most satisfying, however, when read as a single massive novel. It's a bit frustrating to have to wait for the second and third volumes to see what the future holds for Caitlin, how the Webmind develops and how all of the subplots tie together. (It must have been even more frustrating for readers who read this volume serialized over four issues of the magazine Analog.)
But there's much to like in this first installment, and I can't help but look forward to reading WWW:Watch and WWW:Wonder as soon as they become available.