Posthuman in Waterloo

  • Robert J. Sawyer
    Wonder. Penguin Books
  • Robert J. Sawyer
    Watch. Penguin Books
  • Robert J. Sawyer
    Wake. Penguin Books
Reviewed by

Since the early 1990s, Robert J. Sawyer’s reputation for writing science fiction with a distinctly Canadian sensibility has grown both domestically and abroad, and his work has won nearly a dozen Aurora Awards in Canada as well as a Nebula and a Hugo south of the border. Although Sawyer is best known for speculative fiction aimed at adults, his recently completed WWW Trilogy occupies the place where science fiction and young adult literature intersect. As Wake opens, mutant network packets are spontaneously rearranging themselves in increasingly complex ways, giving rise to an artificial intelligence in cyberspace. Meanwhile, Caitlin Decter, a blind fifteen-year-old math prodigy from Texas, is beginning a new school year in Waterloo, where her father has taken a position at the Perimeter Institute. The unusual nature of Caitlin’s blindness, essentially a communication problem between eye and brain, makes her a promising candidate for an experimental implant that shunts impulses from her retina to servers in Japan, where the information is decoded and then sent back to her optic nerve. Caitlin’s unique connection to the world wide web allows her first to perceive cyberspace visually and then to detect and communicate with the emerging intelligence, which she names Webmind. Part coming-of-age story and part contemplation on the nature of selfhood in a posthuman world, Sawyer’s trilogy chronicles Caitlin’s maturation, her changing relationship with Webmind, and the utopian effects on the global village of an ever-expanding artificial intelligence.

As one would expect of a trilogy spanning nearly twelve hundred pages, the main narrative spins off numerous subplots. Chinese freedom bloggers vie with government officials to control web access to the Western world, an American surveillance agency works to destroy Webmind in the name of national security, and around the world hackers mysteriously begin disappearing. Plot elements that don’t relate directly to Webmind’s emergence and salutary effects on world order explore selfhood in ways that trouble familiar liberal-humanist assumptions about the centrality of human experience. In the most notable of these, Hobo, a chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid, begins creating representational art and then demanding the right to determine his future. The other main concern of Sawyer’s trilogy, Caitlin’s emergence into adulthood, weaves together Caitlin’s attempts at understanding her autistic father, achieving détente over religious and cultural disagreements with her friend Bashira, and venturing into the world of adult sexuality with Matt, her first boyfriend.

Much of Sawyer’s work is at least peripherally concerned with differences between Canadian and American culture. In choosing a displaced Texan as the main focalizer, Sawyer gently defamiliarizes Canada for Canadians, while underscoring for American readers the distinctiveness of Canadian culture. Sawyer’s concern with his American readership is also evident in the way hot-button social issues are treated: the sensibility is that of a left-of-centre Canadian, but the examples are overwhelmingly American. The action is set against the backdrop of the autumn 2012 presidential campaign, and although American political figures aren’t named, many are clearly recognizable. Proposition 8 is seen through the eyes of Hobo’s keeper, Shoshana Glick, who lives in San Diego with her same-sex partner, and Caitlin’s mother often finds herself discussing the moral and legal dimensions of abortion and, more generally, Republican legislative attacks on women’s reproductive rights.

As these preoccupations suggest, Sawyer’s novels belong to the “hard,” philosophical tradition of science fiction in which simple characters discuss big ideas. It’s a mode likely to appeal to young readers’ burgeoning political and philosophical awareness, though much less likely to engage them seriously in questions of identity formation. Caitlin is a preternaturally mature sixteen-year-old, so self-assured and well adjusted that, except for a statistical preoccupation with when she should lose her virginity, she seems to have little growing to do. Minor characters tend to be introduced formulaically—a name, a brief physical description, a character trait or two—and they are rarely as interesting as the ideas they explain. There is much talk of Zipf plots, Shannon-entropy scores, and game theory, and readers familiar with Katherine Hayles’ work will find themselves in familiar territory in the discussion of cellular automata and Stephen Wolfram. Even the Monty Hall problem—probably the most widely explained probability puzzle of all— is trotted out yet again, though adolescent readers encountering it for the first time are unlikely to mind.

One limitation of such fiction is its stylistic and formal conservatism. There are none of the bewildering perceptual distortions that make Gibson’s Neuromancer or its young adult counterparts like M. T. Anderson’s Feed genuinely important contributions to the genre. Sawyer never fully succeeds in communicating Caitlin’s disorientation at suddenly becoming sighted, and the problem of representing unfamiliar modes of subjectivity becomes intractable in the representation of Webmind, the only first-person perspective in the trilogy. As Webmind emerges into awareness, he (it’s troubling how blithely posthuman entities are gendered) is presented as fully in control of language, even though at first he invokes complex concepts only to say he has no understanding of them. Representing non-human states of consciousness is of course a perennial problem for science fiction writers, but Sawyer is so deeply embedded in traditional modes of representation that he attempts no serious solutions.

And yet the trilogy is very readable. The pacing is deft, and Sawyer juggles and connects the many plot elements with aplomb. Some narrative strands—one relating to the Chinese freedom blogger Sinanthropus, and another to “the Hoser,” a bully and possible sociopath that Caitlin knows—disappear for very long spells, but Sawyer inevitably returns to them, almost always to good effect. Nonetheless, the series exhibits some of the common liabilities of science fiction aimed at adolescents. Caitlin and her friends are too empowered for their age, and the Hobo plot takes a turn that is, from the perspective of older readers, simply implausible. The formulaic ending is also likely to disappoint some, but the long narrative arc and Sawyer’s balancing of the personal, political, and philosophical will strike most as more than adequate compensation.

This review “Posthuman in Waterloo” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 192-93.

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