Re: WWW:Wake

It’s so long since I invoked the 150 page rule, I think it’s time to restate it.

Life is short. If you start reading a book, that doesn’t mean you have to finish it. Honest. The book won’t care.

Sometimes, even though I’m not exactly enthralled, I feel obliged to give a book more of a chance. Maybe it has a slow start. Maybe the good stuff comes later. But if I read a good portion of it and I still don’t care about it, maybe the book just has a fan club that I will never join.  Over time, I’ve settled on 150 pages as a big enough sample to say, I read this book and here’s why I put it down.

In the case of WWW: Wake by Robert Sawyer, I made it all the way to page 230 before I decided that I just don’t see the point in bothering.

The book tackles a fascinating topic, consciousness. I kept hoping it would have something interesting to say.  I kept thinking how could you not have something interesting to say about it. But page after page, hope faded and I finally gave up.

I liked the early passages depicting a state of bare awareness. I was somewhat interested in some of the minor characters, like the Chinese dissident skulking in Internet cafes,  and the signing ape.

But I did not like the main character, Caitlin, whom we meet writing her LiveJournal in five second bursts amid distr–shiny!–actions galore. This is portrayed so convincingly, it’s monumentally irritating. Caitlin is 16, blind, and a math whiz. Although she grew up in Austin, Texas, she is a hockey fan. Lucky for her, her father has recently gotten a new job and moved the family to Canada.

On her way to Japan for an experimental treatment to give her sight, Caitlin just happens to read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. Why, oh why? I wondered. She gave no hint of interest in this subject beforehand. Meanwhile, China cracks down on bad news and closes the Great Firewall, dividing the Internet into two awarenesses. Oh, lord, I groaned. The book is about the Internet becoming conscious due to the breakdown of the bicameral mind.

Let’s not get into why I think this is a load of hooey. After all, I was only 50 pages in. I could allow it as the One Impossible Thing in the story and keep trying to read on. My vain attempts to suspend disbelief were weighed down by leaden prose, cardboard characters, clumsy science, and absurd speculations.

Everyone, Caitlin included, talks like an earnest high school teacher desperately trying to interest bored students in math and science. The science is explained didactically, from the networking protocols of the Internet to why there’s a delay between the flash of lightning and the rumble of thunder, complete with the exact speeds of light and sounds. As for the speculative stuff, no one questions any one else’s assumptions. They keep spewing assertion after assertion into one great steaming pile.

The sequence that tipped me over the edge started when the signing ape paints a portrait. This leads to blather about American Sign Language on a webcam being two dimensional and therefore more symbolic. Say what? Since he’s a hybrid between bonobo and chimp, there’s more speculation that continued hybridization between chimps and bonobos led to humans. Seriously? Then Caitlin and crew spend two or three chapters talking about her visualizations, eventually deciding that she’s seeing gliders from Conway’s game of Life in the background. Oh, come on! I just couldn’t take it anymore.

I suppose if I were in a plane, finishing this book would have been better than watching the in-flight movie. It might help you fall asleep or become otherwise unconscious.

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4 responses to “Re: WWW:Wake

  1. This sort of story drives me nuts. Good job of telling me exactly why i will never read this book. Congrats on knowing when to call it a day.

  2. Well said. I am at about this point in the book right now. The ideas are interesting, but the story telling is almost painful. Didactic? Yes. If it had been written 10 years earlier, the step-by-step descriptions of how one clicks through a web browser would still have been too “teachy”. Would you explain how to operate a stove in such detail, or how to dial a phone? – And the reflective bits such as “she remembered that NSA meant national security agency…” Um, yeah. The audience has been grossly underestimated.
    I’m listening to the book – which may make it more painful because I can’t speed read the boring bits – but it is very well read, by several actors, and I get to do dishes or other chores while I “read.” I’ll let you know if I sense hope at the end.