Interview with Robert Sawyer, Author of WWW: WAKE

I recently had the opportunity to ask Robert J. Sawyer a few questions about his exciting new book, WWW: Wake (releasing April 7, 2009), the first of a new trilogy “of the Web and its awakening.” Rob has won Hugo and Nebula awards for previous novels. WWW: Wake is his 18th novel. Without further ado, here is our interview:

One of the things I enjoy most about your novels is how alive the characters are. Were there any particular difficulties with this novel over previous novels as far as character creation?

Absolutely! Caitlin Decter, the main human character, is about as far removed from myself as you can get: she’s 15, female, a math wiz, and blind; I’m 48 and male, and in a mock-government organization we had in high school my title was “Minister of Mathematical Terrorism,” because of my ability to screw up things involving numbers. Actually, though, I did have a taste of being blind when I was twelve: I spent six days with both eyes bandaged because of an eye injury, and that certainly informed my writing of Caitlin.

Still, trying to imagine what a teenager today is like—let alone a female one—was quite a challenge, but that’s what made it fun to do. Fortunately, so many teenage girls live their lives so publicly online on Facebook, MySpace, LiveJournal, and these days that it was actually not that hard to get a feel for how they talk. And I’ve got two terrific teenage nieces, Melissa and Megan, and that helped a lot.

And then there’s the nonhuman character—the emergent consciousness at the heart of my novel, lurking in the infrastructure of the Web. Caitlin and I at least share four billion years of evolutionary history, but trying to imagine a consciousness in total sensory isolation that emerged without programming or instincts was massively difficult. Wake took me four years to write, in large part because it took me so long to get the scenes from that consciousness’s point of view to work.

Another thing that’s always impressed me about your characters is their ethnic diversity. Is this something you actively work on while creating/writing your books, or does it come naturally?

It comes naturally: I live in Toronto, which UNESCO recognized a few years ago as the most multicultural city on the planet, and the neighborhood I live in is very ethnically and culturally diverse, and I love that. I’ve long said that if Canada has a role on the world stage, it’s principally as a role model—a demonstration that people of all types can get together and live in peace and harmony, which is something we really do most of the time here.

Also, I grew up in the 1960s, and even as a kid, the interracial crew on Star Trek seemed correct to me, whereas I was astonished that there was no one who wasn’t white in [Kubrick’s] 2001, which came out at the same time, or in the first Star Wars movie, which came out a decade later.

I mean, if the future is going to contain Canadians—of which there are just thirty million—how can it not contain Chinese, of which there are a billion, or Indians, of which there are a billion, or Japanese, of which there are 120 million, and so on? As Damon Knight famously said, the most unrealistic thing about science fiction is the preponderance of Americans: practically no one is from the United States.

How difficult was it to write from the perspective from someone very different from you (i.e., a blind, teen-age girl)?

It was difficult—but that’s what made it worth doing. Wake is my 18th novel, and I need to challenge myself to keep me interested in the work. I frankly couldn’t imagine being a series mystery-fiction writer, churning out book after book about the same viewpoint character. Fiction is all about vicarious experiences, and getting into other people’s heads in a way that no other art form lets you. I spend plenty of time inside my own head; what’s fun for me is imagining what it would be like to be someone radically different.

That said, I did tons of research on what it’s like to be blind, and then, when I was done, I had six blind people read the book, not to mention some teenage girls, some math geniuses, and so on, to make sure that I had gotten it right. I think empathy is the most important of human experiences, and I’m privileged to make my living trying to be empathetic—trying to see things from others’ points of view.

A lot of this book deals with communication, and the difficulty in communicating ideas and concepts from one mind to another. Something always gets lost from the original intent of the speaker to the interpretation of the listener, even if the two conversants speak the same language. For example, one of the characters is a chimpanzee named Hobo who communicates with humans via sign language, but obviously his thought processes are vastly different from his handlers. Will the theme of communication continue in the trilogy?

Yes, indeed. I’m totally, totally fascinated by the process of communication, and the inherent difficulty in really getting feelings and thoughts across. I think of myself as a very precise and careful speaker, and I’m always thrown for a loop when someone misconstrues what I said—but it happens all the time because we all have different assumptions and life experiences.

Hobo has a simpler mind than we do, but is struggling to be understood through sign, and through the paintings he makes. The nascent consciousness in the Web has a much more complex mind than ours, and is struggling to be understood by us—and to understand what we are saying. And there’s an autistic character in the series, too, who thinks differently than we neurotypicals do, and that’s yet another reflection of this—as is the Chinese freedom blogger who also features in the plot and has to speak in circumlocutions so that his fellow dissidents can follow what he’s saying while the government censors don’t. That theme of communication goes right though the trilogy.

The way in which Chinese freedom blogger “Sinanthropus” speaks, in circumlocutions as you say, reminded me of Gene Wolfe’s Ascians from The Book of the New Sun. Was this a possible reference, or was it something more prosaic than that?

It pains me to admit it, but I’ve never read Gene’s Book of the New Sun—so it’s clearly not a reference to that. I did do a lot of research, though, about Chinese freedom bloggers, trying to get the correct feel for how they communicate, and I visited China in the summer of 2007. On the other hand, calling my freedom blogger Sinanthropus is, of course, a reference to the original genus name for Peking Man—the real skulls of which disappeared in World War II, leaving behind only simulacrums; I thought that was a nice little resonance.

You have several characters learning/demonstrating traits that are foreign/new to them. Does this come out of personal experience, or was it just something you’re interested in?

I love learning new things, so in that sense it’s something I’m interested in. I’m only in my 40s, but my parents are in their 80s, and they’re constantly learning new things, taking courses, doing puzzles, and so on—which, of course, is the best way to keep the mind alert. That said, learning new skills can be a real struggle. Though Caitlin works hard to learn to interpret the visual world, and to read printed text, I wanted to make concrete for the reader what the Web consciousness was going through in trying to comprehend our world: they’re frustrating tasks for both characters.

Was there a conscious effort to reach out to a young-adult audience through your protagonist Caitlin, or was this what this book needed to tell its story? (i.e., a younger mind that would be more adaptable to change)

It wasn’t a conscious effort, although my publishers do think the trilogy will be popular with young-adult readers. I never really read young-adult fiction myself; I went straight to adult fiction starting at about twelve or so. But for my main character, I wanted somebody who had grown up with the World Wide Web, and I knew that the notion of the Web gaining consciousness was one that would come to pass in the real world in the next few years, if it ever does—so that pretty much constrained the ages Caitlin might be.

That said, the template for the book was in many ways a high-tech version of the story of Helen Keller and her miracle-worker teacher, Annie Sullivan. My Helen-analog is the nascent web consciousness, all alone, deprived of sensory input—and Annie was just 21 when she had her breakthrough with Helen; I knew I wanted a young woman to be my Annie, and being 15 felt right.

Was setting this book in locations all over the planet (China, Japan, Canada, the USA, Israel, etc.) meant as an allegory to the World Wide Web which also plays a prominent role in the book?

Totally. You can’t write about the World Wide Web without being global. Let’s not forget that the Web was invented at CERN, which is a huge multinational facility that straddles the border between France and Switzerland—it would be hard to think of a more appropriate birthplace for it.

What makes this book different from your other work?

Well, I could say the obvious—the young-adult protagonist—but there’s more than that. I’ve long been fascinated by artificial intelligence, going all the way back to my first novel, 1990’s Golden Fleece; AI was also a major theme my Nebula winner The Terminal Experiment (1995) and Factoring Humanity (1999)—but in a lot of ways I felt those older books pretty much bought into the standard science-fiction paradigm that says advanced AI is inherently dangerous—that we’ll either be subjugated or eliminated. The WWW trilogy is my attempt to revisit that question, and see whether there is a plausible way for us to survive the advent of nonhuman superintelligent while still retaining our essential humanity and individuality.

Also, each of my books has a tone. Some, like Starplex (1996), have a tone of intellectual curiosity; others, like Illegal Alien (1997) were supposed to be thrilling. This is the first time I’ve set out to write a book that’s charming—a book that people will feel affectionate about and want to embrace the philosophy of. The readers will decide whether or not I succeeded, but that’s what I was trying to do.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

Overcoming my own skepticism. I’m a very skeptical guy: my willing suspension of disbelief doesn’t go very far when I’m reading other people’s SF, and it goes even less far when I’m writing my own. Usually when others have written about the dawn of AI, it either happens off stage, like in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, or in a totally unbelievable fashion, like in any number of works I’m too polite to name. I wanted to do it on-stage and in the first person.

I kept throwing out huge sections of manuscript because I didn’t believe what I’d written. I’d started with the received wisdom that the emergence of consciousness is inevitable in sufficiently complex systems, and the more reading and thinking I did about that topic the more skeptical I became of the premise. In the end, I think I did come up with a scenario that I could accept—but it was enormously hard work, and I’m super-grateful to all the computer scientists and cognitive theorists who let me bounce ideas off them while I was working on this.

What were you trying to accomplish artistically and thematically with this book?

Two things. First, it had seemed to me that much of modern science fiction was actually set in an alternate history that spun off from ours around about 1984, a quarter of a century ago. That’s when William Gibson published Neuromancer, of course, and began cyberpunk, which became a movement—and the problem with movements is that they have inertia, even when they’re going in the wrong direction. Time magazine naming “You”—us, everybody, average joes who live our lives online—as its Person of the Year a few years ago should have put the nail in cyberpunk’s coffin, making clear that the notion of streetwise youth controlling the cyberworld just isn’t the way the future turned out to be. My WWW trilogy is an attempt at a course correction, or a new historical branching-off point: given the way the last quarter-century really did unfold, what might our computing future actually be like?

The second goal was to write a legitimate big-ideas hard-SF sense-of-wonder book set in the very near future. A few of my colleagues have gone on record saying that it’s impossible to write near-future SF anymore, because things change so quickly. Instead, they jump to the far side of the Singularity—taking its advent as a given—and then give us a magical world. I wanted to show that near-future SF is still viable, and so Wake, Watch, and Wonder, the three volumes of the trilogy, are set in 2012, the year the final volume will be out in paperback.

At any point while writing this book did it change from what you originally set out to write?

I’d originally sold a single, standalone novel to Tor called Webmind. It was only after spending the better part of a year working on it that I realized why I wasn’t making progress: the idea was just too big for one book. I had a lunch meeting at the Westercon in Calgary in 2005 with my Tor editor, David G. Hartwell, and Tor publisher Tom Doherty, and said there was just no way I could do the standalone I’d contracted for, and pitched them what became my novel Rollback on the spot. Tom and David signed off on that, and Rollback just poured out of me; it was the fastest I’ve ever written a novel. I think I did all right by Tor in the end; Rollback was a Hugo, Aurora, and John W. Campbell Memorial Award finalist, and got starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.

I notice that this book is being published by Ace. Is this your first book with them?

Actually, it’s my seventh, and Watch and Wonder will be my eighth and ninth, which will tie Ace and Tor with the most new novels by me—although Tor also has five of my backlist titles from other publishers now. From 1992 to 1997, I did six novels for Ace, where my editors were Peter Heck and then Susan Allison: Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, Foreigner, End of an Era, Starplex, and Illegal Alien.

I changed publishers, as one does, for more money, and I came back for financial considerations, too. Last year, according to BookNet, which is the Canadian counterpart of BookScan, surveying book sales at than 1,000 points of sale in Canada, my Rollback was the top selling SF—not fantasy—paperback in all of Canada that wasn’t a media tie-in (and it was only exceeded by one media tie-in, a Star Wars novel). But I was getting a lower royalty on all those books sold in Canada than in the US, because Tor pays lower royalties on export sales. In the time since I’d left Ace, they’d been acquired by Penguin, and Penguin has a separate Canadian division, so my agent Ralph Vicinanza set about structuring a deal in which I’d be separately published, with separate advances and royalties, in the US by Ace and in Canada by Penguin Canada’s Viking imprint. Tor and I are still on great terms, though: they just did a handsome paperback reissue of my year-2000 novel Calculating God, and we’ve got great hopes for the tie-in editions of my 1999 Tor novel Flash Forward they’re bringing out this fall coincide with the debut of the ABC TV series based on it.

Can you talk a little about Flash Forward getting optioned? Is this the first time you’ve had a piece optioned for film?

Jessika Borsiczky Goyer, who is one of the Executive Producers, read Flash Forward just after it came out in 1999; my Hollywood agent, Vince Gerardis, is an old friend of hers and gave her a copy. She loved it, and got her husband David S. Goyer—who wrote Batman Begins—to read it, and he loved it too, but was too swamped with other projects to immediately do anything with it.

Flash forward—so to speak—to 2005, and David ended up working with the Hugo Award-winning Brannon Braga on a nifty SF TV series called Threshold. They became friends, and David discovered that Brannon was a fan of my books, too, and so they decided to collaborate on an adaptation of Flash Forward. The deal was originally set up at HBO—and HBO still owns a piece of the show—but when it became apparent just how big the scope of the project was, it was decided to shop it to the four major networks; ABC and Fox bid against each other for a while, and we ultimately ended up in September 2008 with a deal at ABC. We immediately went into preproduction, and the pilot was shot in February and March 2009.

I’ve had lots of options over the years going right back to my first novel, Golden Fleece, and including End of an Era, Hominids, Calculating God, and Rollback. Currently, The Terminal Experiment, Mindscan, and my novella “Identity Theft” are under option.

I’ve also been involved with TV series before. In 2000, I wrote a pilot and series bible for Nelvana, Canada’s largest animation house; William Shatner—who, among his many other positions, is CEO of a computer-animation firm in Toronto—was one of the Executive Producers, and Bill and I had a great time going around to studios in Hollywood pitching the show, although we didn’t find a buyer, sadly.

And I wrote the original series bible for Charlie Jade, a series that recently ran on the SciFi Channel, and I did conceptual work on the revival of Robotech, and I just finished a commissioned pilot script for someone else.

Other than awesome, what was it like being on set during some of the filming of Flash Forward?

It was one of the peak experiences of my life. Hollywood has a reputation for not being respectful of novelists, but I was treated wonderfully by David, Brannon, Jessika, and everyone else. The show looks fabulous and the actors were brilliant—and I was amazed at how many of them had gone to the trouble to read my novel; it was wonderful seeing the whole thing come alive.

After more than 15 novels, is it more or less difficult to come up with ideas/inspiration for stories at this point in your career?

It’s harder, for sure. I mean, think of the things I’ve written about to date. Do we have souls? The Terminal Experiment. Does God exist? Calculating God. Do we have free will? Flash Forward. The genetics revolution? Frameshift. Far-out cosmology? Starplex. Transhumanism? Mindscan. I’m always striving to do something fresh and exciting, and to do it in a new form, and I’ve already covered a lot of territory. After all, the real question for any writer isn’t, “What’s next?” but rather, “How are you going to top that?”

What five science fiction novels/works would you recommend to a new reader?

You can’t go wrong with Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, Jack McDevitt’s Ancient Shores, Roger MacBride Allen’s Orphan of Creation, Robert Charles Wilson’s The Chronoliths, and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.

What’s the last book you read?

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time by Michael Brooks, who works at New Scientist, my favorite magazine. It’s a fascinating survey of scientific findings that we don’t have good explanations for—everything from dark energy to the famous SETI “Wow!” signal to the results of the Viking lander biology experiments on Mars. Lots of food for thought. I read tons of science nonfiction, lots of which is very technical, but I particularly enjoy books like this that juxtapose various disciplines, because I think that’s where a lot of the real excitement comes from—the fusions of disparate areas.

Any teasers you can give us for the next two books in the trilogy (Watch and Wonder)? I’m desperate to see how everything links together!

I’ve finished writing Watch and am just starting work on Wonder. Although I think Wake has a satisfying, transcendent ending, Watch builds on it and widens the focus—if Wake is the birth of Webmind, Watch is its coming-out party. Most of the characters from the first book are back—and we see more of Caitlin’s dad, the brilliant quantum-gravity theorist, Dr. Malcolm Decter, and more of Hobo, the chimp-bonobo hybrid, and, yes, various plot lines come together in Watch. Wake was about the origins of consciousness, and Watch is an attempt to answer the vexing question of why we have consciousness—of what it’s actually good for. And whereas in Wake Caitlin spent a lot of time musing about Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in Watch she’s working her way through the literature on game theory, and finding surprising applications for it. Ginjer Buchanan, my editor at Ace, says “Watch is even better than Wake,” which is gratifying—but now the challenge is, as I said before, to top myself. It’s going to be fun trying—which, of course, is the point. I’m having a blast, and I hope my readers will, too.

Robert J. Sawyer’s new novel WWW: Wake is available in North America and the United Kingdom on April 7, 2009.


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