Apr 12 2009 11:28am

Robert Sawyer’s WWW:WAKE: Waiting for the rest of the story

djRobert Sawyer is one of the most successful Canadian science fiction authors, but the list is daunting. Considering the population of our northern neighbor, the number of writers of science fiction and fantasy is way out of proportion to its size. Margaret Atwood, John Clute, Charles De Lint, Cory Doctorow, William Gibson, Tanya Huff, Guy Gavriel Kay, Spider Robinson, Karl Schroeder, Robert Charles Wilson and Sawyer are just a few of the dozens listed on the homepage for Canadian science fiction.

I met Sawyer at Readercon 10 in 1998, and asked him what he considered the reason for the high number of published science fiction and fantasy authors in Canada. He was quick to answer. “Health care,” he said. “If the government provides health care, you don’t have to have a full-time job just to pay for insurance. Canadian writers have the time to write.” So, just maybe, if President Obama is able to push through a program that makes health care more affordable in the U.S., the science fiction community will thrive even more.

Whether socialized medicine is the reason or not, Sawyer’s success cannot be denied. His novels have won all of science fiction’s top awards: the Hugo for Hominids; the Nebula for The Terminal Experiment; and the John W. Campbell Award for Mindscan.

Here are a few of the things I like about Rob Sawyer: His novels are fast-moving and tightly constructed; his characters are developed so that I care what happens to them; the science in his science fiction is intrinsic to the plot, but not so arcane that readers have to be nuclear physicists to understand it; and he doesn’t imitate others or himself.

I like him best when his stories are complete in one book. But occasionally he gets an idea that he wants to spend some time with. The Hugo-winning Hominids was the merely the first third of his Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy. You had to read Humans and Hybrids to get, as the late Paul Harvey would have said, “the rest of the story.”

I always find it just a little annoying to finish reading a novel and then have to wait a year to find out what happens next.  That being said, the first book in the WWW trilogy, Wake, released this month, should whet the appetites of readers for what is to come.

In this initial installment Sawyer introduces four different story lines.

Teenage Caitlin Decter, a transplanted Texan now living in Canada, is a mathematical genius, but she has been blind since birth. A Japanese researcher offers a chance for a cure. A computerized implant behind the eye might be able to unscramble the signals reaching Caitlin’s primary visual cortex. When the device is turned on, what Caitlin first sees is not the real world, but the inside of the World Wide Web: lines, angles, points and colors that resonate with her mathematical mind.

In a rural village in China, an outbreak of a virulent form of bird flu threatens the possibility of a pandemic. Rather than chance the spread of the disease, the Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China agrees to use a poison gas to kill the 10,000 people in the area. To avoid bad publicity, he orders shutting down access to the Internet for a period of time, so that the action can be covered up.

At the Marcuse Institute in Southern California, a hybrid male chimpanzee named Hobo has become reasonably adept at American Sign Language. He even has conversations with an orangutan at another institute in Miami using webcams. The Institute has raised money by selling Hobo’s abstract paintings. But suddenly a strange thing happens: Hobo paints a portrait of his trainer. No chimp has painted a real picture before.

Meanwhile, an awareness is arising in the Internet. Fed by all of these scenarios, this entity is becoming sentient. And Caitlin, who is an ardent student of the life and works of Helen Keller, like Annie Sullivan, becomes its teacher.

Look for all of these stories to come together in the next two books in the WWW trilogy, Watch, next year, and Wonder, in 2011.

Karen L
2. changisme
I have read this book, and I almost wish I haven't.
The writing makes the most basic mistake of telling the reader too much, making me feel, gosh this is cheesy.
I am (half) blind, a mathematician and chinese canadian. So many things about what he described as how blind people go through K12 school, feel about math, eye surgeries are so implaussible. Further, about China, people as well as the government, is so shallow.
Sorry, I rarely give completely negative response to a book, but this is almost offensive.
3. dcole78
If they become famous and successful enough to earn enough money to pay for their own healthcare then they deserve it. Otherwise they do not. Taking money from those that "have full time jobs" to give to those that do not, is never a good idea.

His dissmisal of having a full time job to get health care is a great reason not to have socialized medicine people with that kind of attitude I don't want to support. (And I will say that the only sci-fi author I recognized from that list was atwood and then only because I had to read her book in school). I haven't seen a canadian author I would put with Asimov, or Heinlein in any capacity.
William Hassinger
4. iObject
I really enjoyed this story in Analog, and I'd love to know if this goes further or has more content than the magazine serial.

I can't debate the blindness aspects of this book and choose not to, but the Chinese aspects I'd love to dig into and debate since frankly they looked pretty authentic. China is not a nice place.
Pablo Defendini
5. pablodefendini
I started reading this over the weekend, and I'm enjoying it so far. While I'm generally wary of anyone stating, in blanket terms, " BAD!", I haven't found anything so far that doesn't jibe with what I understand as the current political climate in China. Granted, I'm hardly an expert, and that understanding could be tragically flawed, but Sawyer's clandestine Chinese bloggers and his depiction the Great Firewall of China ring true, at least for me.
Karen L
6. changisme
I agree with Pablo in that any blanket statement like that is not a good idea, and I can only empathize if the one who made them have actually been part of an experience. The problem is beyond that though, I don't think the problem is about showing something is good or bad, but making it so flat. Doubtless, the government is not run by one person, any organization or just blob of people in so big a magnitude would just be overflown with richness of dimensions. Even in an empirial state you get so much dynamics.
Dave Robinson
7. DaveRobinson
I've met Rob a few times and like him both as a person and as a writer. I've only read the first part of Wake (it was serialized in Analog and the other parts are in my TBR pile) but I enjoyed the parts I read.

As to the health care issue, I don't want to get too far into it, but many Canadians consider substantive rights much more important than is common in the US where human rights mainly apply to procedural ones. However you put it - the minimum income bar for Canadian writers to survive is lower than that in the US.
Josh Graham
8. mrjoshua
I'm willing to bet that the health care comment was mostly tongue-in-cheek.
David Spiller
9. scifidavid
The healthcare comment had me smiling all day. While I too think it was mostly tongue-in-cheek, that doesn't mean that Mr. Sawyer doesn't truly prefer the Canadian system. For many of us in the U.S. the scariest part of losing a job is the thought of being without healthcare. That issue aside the book sounds great and I am looking forward to reading it. Also, I think that Mr. Graham did a great job of describing Mr. Sawyer's strengths as a writer. Lastly, for a nation of 30 million, Canada does possess a startling number of great SF writers. I consider myself a fan of all the writers mentioned except Clute and Atwood. I especially recommend Tanya Huff, William Gibson and Robert Charles Wilson.
Clark Tracy
10. claatra
In Sawyer's defense I don't really think that he believes in baddies in stories. I've read a good handful of Sawyer books and there's hardly ever a "bad" guy in them. Sawyer's writing is a lot like Asimov's, it's more about ideas and the implication of new scientific discoveries or technology than about style or heavy morality. So if there's a caricature it's probably only to help further the story while keeping it as simple as possible.

Oh, and thanks to iObject @ 4. I was waiting for the whole novel in Analog before starting it and then I totally forgot about it and almost spent $25 when I already had the book. Poor students can't do that kind of stuff.

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