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by Robert J. Sawyer

Admirers of his previous fiction might be forgiven for feeling that, with his new novel Wake (the first in his much-ballyhooed new contract with Penguin Canada), Toronto science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer has turned an unfortunate corner. While his impressive oeuvre has established Sawyer as one of our most visionary writers (with 41 awards, including a Hugo, a Nebula, and a Campbell, to prove it), Wake reads more like second-rate Michael Crichton.

Fifteen-year-old Caitlin Decter has been blind her entire life, and has developed an impressive facility with navigating both the physical world (her room, her school) and the virtual one (she has an online prowess that would leave most sighted webheads in the dust). Having recently moved with her family from Texas to Waterloo, Ontario, Caitlin is gradually settling into her new life when she is contacted by a Japanese professor with an irresistible offer: he has been working on a computer-based system that might restore her sight.

The implant doesn’t allow Caitlin to see the physical world, but plunges her into a surreal universe that she quickly realizes is a visualization of the Internet. She is not, however, alone in this universe: something is coming to life within the Web, building not only awareness and intelligence, but sentience.

As Crichton did, Sawyer has a gift for synthesis. The science underlying Wake includes cutting-edge biology, theories of consciousness, linguistics and mathematics, computer and evolutionary sciences, and so on. There are times when the sheer amount of information is daunting, but Sawyer carefully leads the reader through the connections he has imagined. Unfortunately, as is often the case with Crichton, the science frequently overwhelms the story, and at such times Wake adopts the tone of a reader-friendly lecture, rather than a satisfying work of fiction.

Sawyer also shares Crichton’s tendency to use characters as mouthpieces for his concepts (and his personal grievances: the anti-CanLit and “sci-fi should get more respect” hobby horses are frequently trotted out), rather than as fully developed individuals. Minor characters (such as a friendly, not-so-bright blonde named Sunshine) are little more than clichés, and even Caitlin herself is half-formed.

The Crichton comparisons falter, however, when one looks at the narrative itself.  Despite overwhelming amounts of scientific information and weaknesses in characterization, a Crichton novel always succeeds as pure storytelling, with a keen sense of pacing and an inexorable drive.

Not so Wake, which is a largely passive work. Yes, things happen, and on a global scale, with secondary storylines including a bird-flu outbreak in China, a Chinese government crackdown, and the developing intelligence of an ape in the U.S., but incidents do not a story make, and Wake is largely moribund on the page.

All of this should be a concern for us Sawyer fans. It’s certainly a departure from his usually impressive work, and one has to bear in mind that Wake is the first novel in a trilogy: there is much ground to be covered and foundations to be built. As a novel, however, it should still be able to stand on its own. I’m willing to give Sawyer the benefit of the doubt, based on the quality of his body of work, but I’m concerned about the next two books in the trilogy.