April 25th, 2010

Book review: WWW: Watch

My next review is WWW: Watch by Robert J. Sawyer.

This is the second in the WWW trilogy.  It would help to read Wake first but it would probably be mostly understandable without.  The overall plot remains unresolved, though we get to end on some slight breathing space in the ongoing crises.  While not exactly a cliffhanger, it leaves off in a frustrating place because we've got hints about how the whole thing is going to come together but it hasn't happened yet.

As I've come to expect from Sawyer, this is a fairly short novel with clean, spare, easy to read prose, so it goes by quickly, but in spite of that, there's a whole lot going on.  All of the interwoven stories interest me, and we also work in a bunch of philosophical stuff that is also interesting.  There's so much of that to like that I manage to take in stride a lot of things that could have annoyed me so much they would have kicked me entirely out of the novel if it weren't so smooth and easy to read.  I can't say anything more without venturing into slightly spoilery territory, though I won't go into any specifics beyond what was set up in Wake and implied by the books' titles.

The major premise of this series is an emergent consciousness in the Web.  This starting point means that my suspension of disbelief is already gone, but while I don't believe in the idea, I'm not offended by it.  However, in trying to justify this as hard science fiction, we get into some details of how this consciousness is supposed to happen, and it becomes quite silly to me.  Now, part of the speculation is that we don't know how consciousness works, and Sawyer is trying to work in some interesting theories here.  The problem is that I know a little bit about the computer infrastructure that's supposed to be giving rise to these phenomena; not everything, but enough that an author can't make hand-waving references and let me nod and smile.  He posits "mutant" IP data packets which somehow bounce around in the net forever, which is extremely far fetched.  These magic packets somehow form the underlying medium for cellular automata.  But while I can just barely accept the idea that magic packets manage to continue to propagate around the net, Sawyer completely fails to give me a mechanism I can believe for the individual packets to exchange information with their neighbors (whatever neighbors means) -- and without some information connection between neighbors, there isn't anything to make automata out of.  The magic packets have to not only exist, which means that they somehow have to continuously mutate so that each net node they land in finds some reason in the address to forward it on, but to read other packets so that they influence each others' state.  Unfortunately, the data link layer of the Internet is not magic; it's simple digital logic, and there just isn't any place for these phenomena to exist.  Now, Sawyer is a savvy enough guy that I see a tiny outside chance that he's got some kind of an explanation for this -- but I certainly didn't find it in the text.

Fortunately, the story does not need to be plausible to be a viable framework to discuss interesting ethical concepts in society.  There's interesting stuff to talk about here, questions about the value of privacy, whether surveillance is bad, and when and how it's appropriate to intervene in other people's lives.  And interesting concepts to chew on in terms of the evolutionary value of consciousness.

This is a book that I hope my friends will read because it's going to be interesting to talk about.  As a story, it has some weaknesses, and it definitely is the middle of a trilogy rather than a solidly independent novel.  But still good, for all that.  8 out of 10.

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