Watch, Robert J. Sawyer

Viking Canada, 2010, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06742-8

Second volumes in trilogies are the hardest to review, in part because they offer no compelling questions to answer.  First volumes?  Easy: Reviewers can get by with a simple description of the premise, the tone, the style, the characters and end on a note that wonders about where the trilogy is going.  Final volumes?  Again, easy: The reviewer can simply say whether the final volume deviate from the style established in the series and whether it fulfills expectations.  But second volumes… In today’s highly-optimized, heavily-managed genre publishing environment, second volumes aren’t much more than bridges meant to take readers from first to final volume.  The trilogy usually being sold to the publisher and the reader as a unit, it’s in the author’s and editor’s best interest to make sure that the approach remains consistent with the first volume, and that any dramatic differences are toned down.  At best, second volumes offer a few answers, plot points and character development.  At worst, we simply turn in circles until more plot coupons are collected.

Since “What Would Robert J. Sawyer Do?” has become one of the most reliable barometers of professionalism in the written SF field, you can bet that Watch (aka WWW: Watch in the US market) does not take any radical departures from the approach and theme set in Sawyer’s previous Wake.  The series is meant to be a procedural SF thriller describing the development of an artificial conscience from the World Wide Web, and this second volume simply pushes the plot a bit further along.  After revealing itself to blind teenage prodigy Caitlin Decter, emerging AI Webmind continues to learn about humans.  What’s new in the volume are the first hints of conflict, as an American government organization notices something strange on the Internet and starts wondering whether Webmind is a threat to national security.  Meanwhile, another plot threads converges to reinforce the trilogy’s theme of non-human consciousness.

In terms of stylistic approach and tone, Watch seamlessly integrates with Wake, which is to say that everything good and bad about the first volume extends here: Further observations on Canadian/American differences, awkward pop-culture references, facts so obvious dumped as exposition as to qualify as hand-holding, the portrait of a bright blind teenager and the restraint with which Sawyer circles a familiar idea to Science Fiction readers.  You can re-read my review of the first volume and re-apply it in its entirety to this follow-up without being led too far astray.

As a reviewer, this leaves me stuck with an unusual, almost daring tactic for reviewing Watch: Focus, for once, on Sawyer’s strengths as a writer.  What does work in Sawyer’s fiction… as exemplified by Watch?

The first strength that does come to mind is clarity: Sawyer’s prose is unusually easy to read even in the most challenging public-transit environments.  His characters are sharply defined, the issues are clear, plotting ambiguity is kept to a minimum (he’s reliably more nuanced in matters of moral ambiguity) and his classical approach to plotting means that it’s not hard for readers to locate themselves within the structure of the novel.  The sometimes-infuriating hand-holding for readers less used to SF’s idioms and common references is a deliberate aspect of this stylistic choice, and it helps Sawyer reach audiences well beyond SF’s usual readership.

This clarity of execution usually comes bundled with a somewhat more ambitious speculative intent meant to deliver satisfaction for SF genre readers.  If you read Watch’s Chapter 42 carefully, for instance, you’ll find an explanation for advanced consciousness (ie: “it overrides evolutionary pressures, preventing a race to the bottom”) that can be interpreted as a counterpoint to the somewhat more sombre conclusions reached by fellow Torontonian hard-SF authors Karl Schroeder (Permanence) and Peter Watts (Blindsight).  This specific example is also an illustration of Sawyer’s quasi-constant optimism: his novels seldom feature outright villains (the universe is antagonistic enough, especially when there are ideas to discuss along the way), his protagonists are rarely defeatists and his endings usually point the way to a better tomorrow.  Given the sad chorus of doomsayers that seem to dominate much of the contemporary SF scenes these days, it’s easy to see why Sawyer’s fiction can reach an audience looking for something that won’t encourage them to put together a survivalist stockpile.

For worse or for better, Watch is a typical Sawyer novel that plays to his usual weaknesses and strengths.  As an exploration of non-human consciousness, it’s more detailed than the usual SF hand-waving.  Its protagonist Caitlin is still as sympathetic as she was in the previous volume, and it sets up the required pieces in time for the final volume of the trilogy.  It’s a second volume that does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and readers who made it to this second tome are sure to pick up the third volume Wonder.  As for critics of Sawyer’s usual approach, let’s take a page from his prose and blow our fragile little minds with the little-known proverb “Dogs bark, but the caravan goes on”…

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