Viking, 2009, 356 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06741-1
[The usual disclaimer: I’ve known Robert J. Sawyer since 1995. He knows me well enough to know that I take it as a compliment when he teases me in front of a crowd at one of his book launches.]
Every time I read a Robert J. Sawyer novel, I have to brace myself for frustration.
I know that I’m going to find enough fascinating material to justify reading the novel. I also know that Sawyer’s writing techniques will run counter to my own preferences. The usual suspense is whether the fascinating will outweigh the frustrating. I’m usually left focusing on what’s interesting about any given novel rather than try to balance the positive against the negative.
So it is that the most interesting thing about Wake is its emphasis on its protagonist, a bright blind teenager named Caitlin. As a budding nerd in the best sense of the word, she’s not completely dissimilar to the middle-aged scientists who usually form the bulk of Sawyer’s protagonists… but her blindness and young age set her apart. Freshly emigrated from Texas to Waterloo, Caitlin is in many ways a typical high-school girl. In others, though, she’s a Science Fiction fan’s favourite: an inquisitive geek who suddenly gets a chance to try an experimental procedure that may restore her sight. Things don’t turn as expected, though, and before long she’s communicating with an entity that lives in the lost packets of the web, a brand-new intelligence who has to learn how to see the world at the same time as Caitlin.
Compared to previous Sawyer novels, what’s different about Wake is the time it spends playing around with a more restrained idea. In what is almost certainly a symptom of a first volume of a trilogy, this novel explores a relatively limited premise in greater detail, and takes its time in developing its storyline. It’s not exactly slow, but by the end of the book, not much has actually happened and at least one subplot doesn’t lead anywhere yet. Readers looking for traditional conflict may have to wait until the sequels.
On the other hand, that pacing allows Sawyer to fully sketch out the process through which Caitlin learns to see, and the precise steps his native web intelligence uses to develop its own consciousness. It’s not always credible (the reams of colloquial English writing available on the web makes it unlikely that an emergent web intelligence would speak in older public-domain cadences, however amusing the idea) but it occasionally leads to impressive scenes: Caitlin’s vision breakthrough is a fine piece of scene-building, compensating for a number of overdone first-person passages best read using William Shatner’s voice. (“Being… but not becoming. No marking of time, no past or future—only an endless, featureless now, and, just barely there in the boundless moment, inchoate and raw, the dawning of perception…” [P.1])
Of course, many of Sawyer’s usual tics remain obvious: As with many of his latest novels, it’s deeply stepped into cultural references (both pop and geek) that immediately date it to 2009. Sawyer’s obvious nationalism also pops up thanks to a heroine whose seemingly sole reason for being American so far in the trilogy is to provide a running commentary on what’s different between the US and Canada. Furthermore, Sawyer’s tendency to not just make lousy jokes, but explain them immediately betrays a grating amount of hand-holding for readers who may not be familiar with his references. This, to me, is the most frustrating aspect of Sawyer’s writing these days: I don’t doubt that it’s a conscious set of techniques to appeal to a far larger readership than just the core genre SF readers, but it does make the reading experience far more frustrating for those who are already a step ahead of others.
Still, who am I to complain about techniques that have obviously proven successful? Sawyer seems to be outselling most of his core-genre colleagues, and earning far more mainstream attention than genre-oriented writers usually get. He’s also, significantly, earning quite a bit of popular affection within the SF genre community as well –Wake won the Aurora Award, and is now nominated for the Hugo as well.
All of this is a useful reminder that even if Sawyer’s writing style is often annoying enough to send me gnawing on the nearest chill-pill, his core strengths remain unarguable: Intriguing speculations, accessible prose style, optimistic outlook (something that Hugo voters can only appreciate this year) and an addictive quality that makes even frustrated readers coming back for just one more book. Or two more, as this new trilogy would have it.