I won’t say that Robert Sawyer is my new favorite author – that’s still Dean Koontz. But Sawyer is now my favorite science fiction author. His WWW Trilogy (Wake, Watch, and Wonder) is thought-provoking, full of real science as well as science fiction, and just plain good story-telling.
The trilogy chronicles the emergence of a conscious mind that somehow exists in the infrastructure of the World Wide Web.Because it has all the resources of the Web at its disposal, it has capabilities humans – and human governments – can only dream of. People use the internet to collaborate, but their efforts are puny next to a “being” that can instantaneously access any and all data of all kinds residing on any computer anywhere in the world so long as it is connected to the internet.
The question is whether such a being will use its vast power in ways that will help or hurt human beings. Because it is not localized in any particular part of the Web, it cannot be controlled. Without risking devastating effects on the worldwide network of computers that are essential to commerce today, it cannot be removed. But some people think such a powerful non-human intelligence is so dangerous that it is worth the risk involved in destroying it.
Sawyer, displaying his usual optimism, chooses to depict this Web-based mind as a positive force in the world. This is in contrast to many depictions in science fiction, where computers that gain consciousness cause problems for mankind, whether by wanting to supplant those that they see as lesser beings, or because they depend too much on logic and cannot understand the important role that emotion and intuition play in making wise decisions.
Is it because people recognize in themselves the tendency to become corrupted by too much power, that they think any other intelligent being would follow the same path? Is it because computers act out of logic and not emotion, and we know that while we may make some bad decisions due to emotion, ignoring all emotions can lead to even worse decisions? Or is it just that novels need villains, and computers make a convenient one because then we can root for ourselves as the good guys?
In any case, Sawyer makes a very sympathetic character in WebMind, who seems to experience feelings even without a physical body. I found myself wondering if this was plausible. I think of emotions as being inextricably linked to biological realities. But then, biological life is the only one any of us know. How could we even guess what a non-biological mind with true consciousness would be like?
There is quite a bit of discussion of the notion of consciousness – apparently one of Sawyer’s particular interests. This is the kind of thing I enjoy reading about, and it’s great that I can read about it in the context of a good story. I’d probably have trouble slogging my way through a non-fiction book on consciousness, but I eagerly read about it in the pages of a novel.
There’s a lot of other science in there as well. Of particular interest to me are the fact that these books include a major character who has autism, and an ongoing discussion of the nature of artificial intelligence (including whether such a thing can exist). I have actually read one of the books that is mentioned in reference to AI, The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose – but I wasn’t clear on quite what Penrose was saying until I read Sawyer’s discussion of it.
(On somewhat of a tangent – though this also comes up in one of the books of this trilogy – I was also fascinated to read an article by Sawyer about AI – including his novel interpretation of 2001: A Space Odyssey.)
There’s a great deal that sounds like it might be science fiction, but it turns out to be real science. For instance, I learned about Cycorp, a company in Austin, Texas that developed a database for teaching a computer “a vast quantity of fundamental human knowledge.” This is such a perfect tool for teaching WebMind that I figured Sawyer had invented the idea until I Googled it and discovered it is quite real.
I learned about The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. Sawyer’s novel describes some of Jaynes’ arguments, but I had to Google the book to find an article providing a clear overview of the theory. Jaynes’ views are not widely accepted, but they belong to the realm of scientific study (specifically psychology), not Robert Sawyer’s imagination.
I learned about Zipf plots and Shannon entropy and their implication for the study of non-human “languages” (for example, the whistles that dolphins use to communicate with each other. I read about the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which was started by Mike Lazaridis, the founder of the company that created the Blackberry. And a check on Google showed me that Stephen Hawking really does make regular visits to the Institute.
Some elements in his stories do turn out to be just fiction, after all. A search engine called Jagster, created as an alternative to Google, seemed perfectly plausible to me. Right now, it doesn’t exist. But – inspired by Sawyer’s book – some people may start working on creating it.
It’s not all about science, though. One major theme has to do with the importance of sharing knowledge, and the social and political consequences of making information more widely available vs trying to control others by withholding information. The biggest example, and one that plays a major role in terms of plot, is the Chinese government’s attempts to control the Chinese people by controlling their access to the internet.
There is also a recognition of both the good and bad uses of the internet. It enables academics to share research, it facilitates certain kinds of “social” interactions, and it provides many educational opportunities. But it also is used for scams, cyber-attacks, and other harmful purposes. On balance, though, Sawyer clearly sees the potential for good outweighing the bad.
I had recently read about someone’s concern that so much sci-fi envisions a very negative future these days, and a desire to promote optimism in sci-fi. Going back and trying to find where I had read about it, I came across this very interesting column (and comments) regarding dystopianism vs optimism in science fiction.
I was pleased to find that in this trilogy – unlike the two novels I had read previously by Sawyer – the positive outcome is not based on all people gaining access to one another’s thoughts in some sort of group-mind. On the contrary, in this trilogy there is a clear value placed on individuality. One of the joys of life (and I strongly agree with this) is to learn from others, and if there was no “other,” it seems that the opportunities for learning would be diminished.
Having finished this trilogy (within the space of a couple of weeks), I’m taking time to read some other kinds of books. But before long, I plan to be checking out some more of Sawyer’s books from the library.