WWW Trilogy (WWW: Wake, WWW: Watch, and WWW: Wonder)

Reviewer: Drew Hilliard

Author: Robert J. Sawyer

Published: 2009, 2010, 2011

Reviewed: 2011-10-09

Publisher: Ace

Robert J. Sawyer's "WWW" series (consisting of "WWW: Wake," "WWW:
Watch," and "WWW: Wonder") may be obvious samples of young adult
material, but they have a unique perspective that bears reading: what
happens when AI emerges from the primordial soup of the Internet, and
instead of starting the robot revolution, it is benevolent and

Webmind is a spontaneous creation of the Internet, and its first
contact is with a blind girl named Caitlin; together, across three
books, the two of them teach each other, grow closer, and fight the
hordes of paranoids who are utterly convinced that Webmind is just
Skynet with another skin on. Supporting characters in their journey
include an artist ape named Hobo and his caretaker Shoshana, Caitlin's
family (including an autistic father), a few of her school friends,
some freedom-hackers in China trying to drop the Great Firewall, and
the doctors who give Caitlin sight in one eye and inadvertently allow
her to see the Internet's data structure and contact Webmind.

Armed with a Gibson-esque Internet GUI and her own personal
Wikipedia-times-ten, Caitlin sets off to confront high school life
while Webmind figures out how to be conscious. Webmind's quest is
long and exploratory, like a sniper bullet punching through a long
layer of plot in a single continuous thread. He asks real and
interesting questions about the nature of humanity, our tendencies
toward peace and war, and how one learns to be socially understanding
and empathetic. Caitlin's plots, on the other hand, are more like
buckshot; they fly everywhere, are short-lived, spray over a huge
area, and none of them push particularly far. Sawyer tries to
approach just about every major area of teenage angst while at the
same time keeping the books going; the effect is a number of subplots
that fly by at a breakneck pace and resolve too easily. Indeed, if I
had to boil down what isn't good about the book to one statement, it
would be that everything is too short and easy for Caitlin.

While Caitlin has problems, all of them have simple answers, and the
author's soapbox peeks through between the lines. Stand up to
bullies, and they'll go away. Relationships are smooth, and it's easy
to find them and be happy in them. Teenagers should just have the
Safe Sex speech and be let loose on the world, with no parental worry.
Kids should be sensible and obedient, and parents should be hands-off
and let the saintly kids live. For some people, this may have been
life, but in the end Caitlin's only sustained conflicts are with the
obvious bad guys of the books, and not with any sources of the teenage
angst the author throws at her. There are no fights, no arguments, no
rebellion, nothing. Caitlin is an angel and never disagrees with
anyone in any reasonable consequence, and when she does state her
opinion, she's almost always right. She's the teenager every parent
wished he/she had.

Webmind may be a do-gooder, but he encounters much more real pain and
conflict than does Caitlin. One of his first bad memories is his
standing idly by as a girl kills herself on webcam after a number of
her peers demand it. In remorse, he spends the books trying to
compensate for his early ignorance, arguably his early misdeeds, by
doing as much good for humanity as possible. He reaches out to a
number of minor characters, all of whom have real life problems, and
he gets down to work doing what he does best---solving them. He fully
admits imperfection, and in being so imperfect, he becomes the most
well-rounded character in the books. He cannot be creative, so he
depends on recruited humans to help him; he cannot understand social
cues, so he spends his time learning and exploring and acknowledging
his own ignorance. He seems omnipotent, compiling a cure for cancer
and making a device to heal a man's broken spine and generally
annihilating most of the world's major problems before breakfast, but
in the end his real weaknesses lie in his inability to be human. His
main flaw as a written character is probably his lack of temptation;
for all the pitfalls facing him, Webmind has no desire to do evil or
even twist the truth for good. The thought never crosses his mind.

The "bad guys," as hackneyed as they may seem at first glance, are
interesting because they are particularly genre-savvy. They are out
to fight Webmind not out of malice, but out of legitimate fear, and
even the most obviously antagonistic villain is not a goatee-twisting
Jafar. They include the President and a number of high-ranking
officials in the US Government, all of whom have clearly watched their
"Terminator" and are absolutely certain that if Webmind grows enough
and gains enough power, he could easily swat down the human race with
a wave of his digital hand. Naturally, they panic, and they build a
long list of people and computer programs to track, analyze, and
eventually attempt a beatdown of the world's smartest AI. Watching
them wrestle with the fact that Webmind may not be the Skynet they
think he is, is particularly satisfying given that the audience
inclined to read these kinds of books would likely be just as
genre-savvy and just as terrified. It's the author's jab at the
readers, saying that he pulled the rug out from under our
expectations, and it works to much amusement.

In the end, if only for the concept, the WWW series is worth a look.
It's simple, as one might expect YA books to be, and it lacks the
depth and seriousness of a more mature series, but in the end it
delivers a new view of how AI might go if someday created. It's a
lighthearted read for a rainy day, and it's a quick series if you're
not looking for thousand-page tomes at the moment.