WWW: Wake – Robert J Sawyer (2009)
Caitlin Dector, despite being blind from birth, is an A-grade maths student with exceptional IT skills, and is deemed a suitable subject for an experimental Japanese device that may help her to see.
Elsewhere, a new strain of airborne bird flu has emerged in China, a chimp learns to paint portraits and the internet appears to have become self-aware.
Sawyer combines these four events in a quirky and delightful novel which is as much about a young woman’s desire to see, and to understand her father’s seeming inability to express emotion as it is about Artificial Intelligence and the sapience of chimps.
At first, Caitlin’s device (which she christens her ‘eye-pod’) seems not to be working, but later she experiences patterns of colour, and discovers what she is actually seeing is the internet itself, or how her brain interprets the internet to be.
Meanwhile, a chimp on loan from a US zoo has been taught sign language and conducts the first ever Orangutan/chimp webcam chat. Later he paints a picture of his handler and she realises with some shock, that although crude, he has painted a representational and recognisable image.
In China, a young pro-democracy idealist is trying to find out why China has been cut off from the rest of the world’s websites. (this is because the Chinese do not want reports leaking out of China ‘handled’ the bird flu outbreak).
And, in a separate narrative, we hear the voice of an entity who has awoken somewhere and is exploring the boundaries of his domain.
The side stories are metaphors to show how humanity deals with the fragile blossoming of intelligence, or even the dispensation of knowledge within a controlled culture.
Very clever and quite wonderful.