Monday, April 4, 2011

Robert J. Sawyer on www:Wonder

by Robert J. Sawyer
April 2011 Ace

Reviewed by Ann Wilkes

Robert Sawyer's final book of the WWW trilogy, www:Wonder, capped the series off in a very satisfying, thought-provoking manner. I have read and reviewed the other two: www:Wake and www:WATCH. In this final book, we see Caitlin growing up and facing even harder choices. Her Dad. Malcolm Decter, is thrust even more on the forefront of the wave that is Webmind. We see him fight for his family and Webmind and come out of the closet, not as an autistic, as the reader is lead to believe, but as a … no, I can't spoil that one. You just have to read it.

In www:Wake, Caitlin Decter discovers Webmind through a fluke of science. Born blind, Caitlin is fitted with a device that unscrambles the signals from her eye to her brain, restoring sight to one of her eyes. This device is what made it possible to see the World Wide Web and the intelligence emerging within.

In www:WATCH, Caitlin and her family are hounded by a government organization tasked with destroying Webmind as the threat they perceive it (or rather "he" as he has chosen to identify himself) to be.

www:Wonder explores more of what it is to be Webmind. How can he prove that he won't turn on his progenitors? What can he do to prove his loyalty? In www:WATCH, he eradicated spam. What's next? How does he know he will always seek the betterment of the human condition and peace for humanity as Caitlan has taught him? These are the questions expertly addressed in this volume.

Convinced that Webmind is preparing some evil endgame, the Pentagon's top AI expert Colonel Peyton Hume begins to round up the world's best hackers to construct a virus for him, only to learn they' each disappeared right before he got to them.
He'd tried last night to contact three more names on the black-hat list. He'd been unable to get hold on one—which could mean anything, he knew; another was indeed missing, according to her devastated boyfriend; and the third told Hume to cram it up his ass…

"Yeah, I'll go into the office," he said. "And I'll check with the FBI again, see if they've got any leads. The guy I talked to yesterday agreed it was a suspicious pattern—maybe even a serial killer; he called it the 'hacker whacker.' But the only blood at Chase's place was his own, and there's no sign of foul play in the other cases, they say."

She snuggled closer to him in the dark. "You'll do the right thing," she said. "As always."

The alarm went off. He let it ring, wishing the whole world could hear it.

When Hume finally catches up with the hackers, the truth is shocking. Webmind's power cannot be questioned, but he still has limitations for which he needs thinking humans. With the help of an anonymous activist in the Peoples Republic of China and this assembled team of experts, Webmind performs his demonstration, the scale of which is staggering — and hilarious. You'll really experience the urge to stand up and cheer. And wish it could all be true. Truly a feel-good ending.

Another aspect that made me smile for pages and pages was that Webmind chose the bonobo-chimpanzee half-breed Hobo as the vehicle of his presence when addressing the United Nations. Hobo is only too happy to aid the friend who helped him come to terms with his identity and speak out for his own rights(www:Wake). Here it is in Webmind's words:
"There would be confusion between me and the machine. I am not a robot, and I don't wish to be perceived as one; also, the fear would be that if I controlled one robot, I might soon control millions. Hobo is unique like me: I am the only Webmind; he is the only bonobo-chimpanzee hybrid. No one can confuse Hobo for me, and no one can worry that there will soon be an army of such beings under my command."

I highly recommend this trilogy. If you haven't read any of them yet, then you don't have to wait in between books now. Lucky you.


Rob consented to another Science Fiction and Other ODDysseys interview. Yeah me! Or, as Caitlin would say, "Supreme wootage!" (author photo by Christina Molendyk of Argent Dawn Photography, Calgary)

AW: I truly loved the WWW trilogy. When you're done with a long project like that, do you miss it and the characters, or are you sick to death of it from rewriting and editing?

RJS: Honestly, it's the latter. Don't get me wrong -- I love Caitlin and the other characters, but I spent six years of my life, off and on, working on the WWW trilogy; that's the longest I've ever worked on anything ever. I was very happy to finish the project and move on to something else. Still, I think the WWW trilogy is the best thing I've ever written, or probably ever will write.

AW: I loved that you addressed autism and did it so well. Not to mention the disability of blindness. It's so important to speak up for marginalized, misunderstood and persecuted people. The long discussion with Barbara Decter over who or what was next with granting rights was great. Who instilled your compassion for the underdogs of society?

RJS: My parents. It's funny, because they both went to the University of Chicago to study economics, and, first, that institution isn't known for a particularly compassionate breed of economics, and, second, in general, economics is rightly called the dismal science. But my parents were typical left-leaning academics and I grew up in the 1960s. I was taught to always try to see the other person's point of view, and my mother -- a feminist who often used her maiden name professionally in the 1960s, when that was rare -- certainly helped to set the template for Caitlin's mother.

It's also no coincidence that Caitlin's mom is a Unitarian. I don't practice that religion -- or any -- myself now, but I was raised a Unitarian, and Unitarians are very inclusive, compassionate people.

AW: You really got me with your bait and switch. I thought Caitlin's dad was going to out himself as autistic. Good job!

RJS: Thank you. That's one of my favorite scenes. Part of the whole underlying theme of the trilogy is that you can be moral without God; it's a message that people need to hear. I argue in the series, based on game theory, for nonzero-sumness: that it's possible to have win-win situations that make sense, and aren't just the result of the threat of punishment or reward in some putative afterlife; the payoff matrix is real, in the here and now, and tends toward altruism and cooperation.

AW: Can you tell me a bit about the protagonist of the new book and the premise?

RJS: I'm just finishing up my -- gak! -- 21st novel, with the working title of Triggers. It's about post-traumatic stress disorder, the scientific nature of memory, and an attempt to assassinate the US president. It's a large ensemble cast -- the most characters I've ever had in a novel -- but I suppose if I had to name one as the lead, it would be Susan Dawson, who is Secret Service agent-in-charge of the president's protective detail. I like that I'm doing a book in which the main character is not an academic or a scientist for a change.

AW: I'm glad you're addressing PTSD. So many people suffer from it.

RJS: It's a huge issue, and it's not just related to war, of course. I'm not prepared to publicly go into it at this stage, but I will say one of the epiphanies of my last couple of years is that I suffer to a degree from PTSD; recognizing that has finally let me begin to deal with it. I'm trying, as always, to handle the issue sensitively in the novel.

AW: How's the research for the new book coming? I hear you visited the White House.

RJS: The research is done; I'm in the final writing stages -- the book is due in less than two months. I didn't actually visit the White House, but did get amazing behind-the-scenes tours of the George Washington University Hospital, which is where much of the action is set, and of the US Capitol Building. And, of course, I did tons of research on PTSD and memory.

AW: You still seem to be the personable, down-to-earth guy you were before your brush with Hollywood. :) Can you tell me briefly what that was like? The highs and lows? Long days, celeb dinners, etc.?

RJS: Honestly? There were no lows. That's why Hollywood is so seductive for many people; as long as you're working, it's an incredible place to be. Sure, the days are long, but so what? You're having a blast every second! I seriously think about moving there from time to time (and not just because Toronto just had another snow storm!).

In terms of highs, well, there were so many great moments, it's hard to choose -- but getting to go to a taping of The Big Bang Theory, sitting in the VIP section of the audience, and then going to the after-party with the cast was pretty amazing.

AW: You wrote at least one of the episodes. Do you have plans of writing more screenplays? Do you ever toy with going straight to a screenplay rather than adapting a book?

RJS: I wrote the 19th episode, "Course Correction," and little bits and pieces of dialog throughout the series -- the staff writers would come to me for technical or science stuff. I'd written scripts before that had been commissioned, but hadn't been produced, and I'm sure I'll do more scriptwriting again. I did an original series pilot a little while ago that was ultimately not made -- the fate of most series pilots -- although I was well paid for it ... and I'm actually thinking of now turning that into a novel. My degree is in Radio and Television Arts from Toronto's Ryerson University; I've always been interested in TV, and one could argue that I merely got sidetracked for a couple of decades into writing for print.

Also, the money is seductive, I have to say: a TV script and a short story have about the same number of words in them. But you're lucky to get six cents a word for the short story, whereas guild minimum for scripts works out to about six dollars a word.

AW: Isn't there an option on another of your books?

RJS: There are always options on various books of mine; I think there are five under option at the moment. It's a nice secondary income stream.

AW: You've been doing a lot of touring with these books, both at bookstores and conventions. Do you have a couple survival tips for staying healthy, rested and sane when on the road so much?

RJS: Yes. Arrange in advance for friends to meet you at the airport, or to go out to dinner with them, in whatever city you're going to. It takes the loneliness out of it. I'm doing five cities in the next week, and I've got a nice dinner date lined up in each city. That really helps to make it something to look forward to instead of a grind.

AW: Where can your fans find you in the next month or so to get www: Wonder signed?

RJS: My travel schedule is at

Editor's Note: If you haven't read my first interview with Rob, you can find it herein. And don't forget to check out his website.


RobertJSawyer said...

Thanks for this, Ann. By the way, the lovely author photo you used of me is by Christina Molendyk of Argent Dawn Photography in Calgary.

Ann Wilkes said...

Rob, you're most welcome!

Oops! My bad! I've added the credit. One of these days I'll see how much HTML blogger can handle and put credits directly under photo as a caption.

Scott Niven said...

I've only read the first book, so I'm glad to hear the final book is satisfying. Looking forward to reading the second book and the final book this summer!


Reid Kemper said...

Great interview! The series seems interesting, so I'll try to read it when I get a chance.