When Robert Sawyer winks at this opening line from William Gibson’s Neuromancer, it’s a reminder of how drastically technology has changed over the past 30 years. When Gibson wrote that line in 1984, it was intended to evoke the gray fuzziness of a disconnected screen. Two and a half decades later, Sawyer uses the same line to describe a bright blue sky. For me, five years and an awesome Sony app box later, a dead channel is as black as the night of a new moon (with an HDMI input notification in the top corner).
But that line also illustrates how drastically the cyber SF sub-genre has also changed over the past 30 years. Neuromancer is the seminal piece: dark, edgy, and weird, while Wake is safe, comfortable, and sweet. Neuromancer‘s main character is a suicidal adult male with a drug addiction. Wake‘s main character is an optimistic teen girl with good grades and high self-esteem. Both explore similar themes of emerging technology, primarily human interaction with artificial intelligence, but they go about it in completely different ways. If Neuromancer is cyberpunk, then Wake is cyberpop.
Caitlin Decter is a “made of awesome” teenager with genius math skills and a computer addiction. When she is given the opportunity to pilot a medical device from Japan, she experiences a side-effect that allows her to interface with the World Wide Web. Meanwhile, a deadly bird flu breaks out in China, and the government reacts by unleashing the Great Firewall of China (also cannot be seen from outer space) and committing genocide. At the same time, a chimp in California gains awareness through art and conversation. (Reviewer’s note: I’ve left out a HUGE aspect of the novel that is revealed early on, only because it’s set up as a surprise, despite being spoiled in nearly every synopsis I’ve read since. But, because I, as usual, dove into this book with absolutely no prep, I was taken by surprise and it was rather satisfying.)
While the murky techno-babble of Neuromancer can be off-putting to readers, Wake overcorrects by spoon-feeding general terms like Google and Wikipedia. It feels patronizing at times, but maybe that’s for the future readers who will evolve beyond our favorite websites. Still, it feels like it’s written for my grandma, who might be able to grasp Sawyer’s explanations of Wikipedia, but could never comprehend the overall premise about the emergence of an AI that’s not a robot. In addition, concepts like cellular automata, Zipf plots, and Shannon entropy graphs might scare off some readers, but they are treated lightly enough to communicate the gist without requiring homework. This is soft sci-fi, I promise.
Sawyer also explores some pseudo-sciency concepts like ape communication and bicameral consciousness theories. It’s funny that I can read about telepathy and time-travel all day without batting an eye, but the moment you dis my man Noam Chomsky for debunking ape communication studies, I’m ready to push back the table and throw down. Sometimes, I have to remind myself, “It’s speculative fiction, dude. Chill out.” I really do wish we could converse with chimps, but…
In terms of writing, Sawyer’s style isn’t beautiful or stylish, but it’s a well-structured story. Sawyer writes in third-person, avoiding the shallow epistolary trap of most teen girl novels, (with the exception of some of her LiveJournal entries). In addition to Caitlin’s perspective, the story hops around to the other plot threads about China, the chimp, and this emerging Internet intelligence. The multi-perspective storytelling works for this tale, which evokes a sense of building toward something bigger and integrative. To my disappointment, Sawyer drops the other perspectives in the middle of the novel, and picks them up with less frequency toward the end, but there is a sense that they will continue in the rest of the trilogy. (Yes, it involves a teen girl. Of course, this is a trilogy.)
Fair warning: Some readers have taken exception to the characterization of the reveal (actually two reveals, which I won’t reveal), but I am ignorant in these areas. When a significant population takes offense, it’s important to listen, so I would recommend a quick review search after reading this book, just to patch up any possible misunderstandings. In my ignorance, I found Sawyer’s exploration of this aspect of the novel to be imaginative and fascinating, but maybe he didn’t do enough research. In addition to those complaints, some readers might gag at Sawyer’s characterization of a teen girl, but I found her refreshing. She’s cute, she makes punny quips, and she has high self-esteem. When she has an issue with a boy, she owns her mixed feelings, but ultimately blows him off. She doesn’t ruminate on her issues with her dad– she accepts and moves on. She’s healthy and resilient, which makes for a great read for teens and tweens.
So, I’m surprised I enjoyed this novel as much as I did. It’s not literary, it’s not groundbreaking, and it has no overarching message, but it’s interesting and engaging all the same. It’s cyberpop. Neuromancer-lite. Wake is just a good story, easy to consume, and I would recommend it for situations that require total focus but little work (distraction on a scary flight, perhaps).