Wonder, Robert J. Sawyer #50BookPledge

Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer makes you think without offering any easy answers. Sawyer talks about everything from artificial intelligence to abortion, and while the book usually takes a clear stand on these issues, Sawyer sets his arguments up as long, intelligent dialogues between characters, which challenges the reader to come up with his/her own views rather than simply accept the character’s. Holden Caulfield says a mark of a good writer is that readers want to hang out with him, and I’d certainly want to hang out with Sawyer, if only to pick his brain about all sorts of topics he talks about in his books.

Wonder is also thrilling science fiction. It’s the final book in the WWW trilogy, and Webmind, the artificial intelligence born from the Internet, is in danger of being shut down by the Chinese government and the American military, who are afraid of Webmind’s Big Brother-type abilities. The reason the book is so exciting, and Sawyer’s best argument in favour of artificial intelligence, is the character of Webmind himself. Friendly, witty and compassionate (he still feels guilt over witnessing a suicide via webcam), Webmind is just plain likable. Caitlin says about Webmind’s online interactions, “Webmind did know everyone who was online. He wasn’t a celebrity; he was more like the whole planet’s Facebook friend.” That’s certainly the impression I got, and I did feel like shutting him down would be like murdering a person rather than just shutting off my laptop.

So am I 100% on Team Webmind? Not quite; I felt some sympathy for the view of chief bad guy military officer Peyton Hume, who wants to destroy Webmind before he becomes too powerful. Not that I agree with his fear that Webmind will want to take over the world or destroy humanity; Webmind has made some logical arguments why he has a personal stake in humanity’s continued existence. But Webmind doesn’t follow a Star Trek-type Prime Directive; he meddles. Using his sense of morality (which is admittedly comprehensive, being the result of studying all the philosophies and moral debates on the Internet), he acts as an Internet-based superhero, bringing down “bad guys” and furthering the cause of justice and tolerance. On one hand, this can be a good thing; he foils terrorist plots and corrupt politicians. On the other hand, this is someone who knows everything about you – so much information is readily available on the Internet, and Webmind has access even to the information you try to keep secure with passwords – do you really want any individual with that much power impose his beliefs on the world? I acknowledge Webmind’s benevolent intentions, but I grew up in a country with far too much experience with colonizers who have benevolent intentions, and I’m definitely wary. As I’ve said, Wonder offers no easy answers, and I like that about it.

That being said, I think Wonder, and the WWW trilogy in general, could have been much tighter. Some of the speeches and debates on social issues were unnecessary to further the plot, and seemed tacked on just because Sawyer wanted to state his views on it. They added to the overall theme of tolerance – just because Webmind is different, doesn’t mean he should be feared or discriminated against – but it sometimes felt like Sawyer wanted to include a mention of as many similar social issues as he could. Key words: a mention. They were in the story just for the sake of being mentioned. I would have preferred that Sawyer wove them into the plot more subtly; that would’ve made more emotional impact, I think.

Minor spoiler alert, skip to the next paragraph if you want: I also didn’t like the evil Webmind subplot. It turned out to have some significance in the eventual resolution of the novel, but since that side of Webmind was given a very flimsy set-up, I felt like that subplot came out of nowhere, and was tacked on just as an exciting little plot twist.

Overall, I really enjoyed Wonder. It raises interesting questions on artificial intelligence, and it’s a fun read. I especially loved all the geeky pop culture references – Big Bang Theory, William Gibson (a character says he needs “a hacker—a genuine Gibsonian cyberpunk”), and Roomba (I had to Google it; now I want one). And something I just found very cool – at one point in the novel, Webmind tweets a bit.ly link. I got the Kindle e-book version, and I was thrilled to find that the link actually worked! It’s the little things. (By the way, I heard the Kobo version has special features. If any of you have it, I’d love to know what other bells and whistles it had.) Then of course, I felt disappointed whenever I saw an underlined “link” that didn’t go anywhere. I get spoiled fairly easily.

Note to publishers: I like even the little bells and whistles on e-books, and I hope to see more of it in the future.

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