“Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?”
– HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey
Thematically, the novels explore the origins and emergence of consciousness in a variety of scenarios – in a 16-year old blind girl (named Caitlin Decter) who has regained her sight through a revolutionary technological breakthrough, in a highly intelligent hybrid chimpanzee-bonobo named Hobo, in a group of Chinese freedom bloggers, and lastly – and most significantly – in a nascent super-intelligence that has somehow gained consciousness in cyberspace.
That super-intelligence is called Webmind, and although all it wants to do is “maximize the net happiness in the world,” paranoid and fearful government officials (specifically in America and China) see it as a threat and want to find a way to kill it before evolves beyond their control – even if it’s godlike existence will undoubtedly improve and advance humankind. (Webmind, for example, found a cure for cancer in six minutes.)
There are certainly many notable benevolent artificial intelligences in science fiction – the positronic robots in Asimov’s Robot saga, the Minds from Ian M. Banks’s Culture novels, etc.) – but AIs are oftentimes portrayed as fatally flawed or downright evil, like the smart machines referenced in Frank Herbert’s Dune sequence, or the nanomophic T-1000s from the Terminator flicks, or HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
As a race, we’re afraid of what we don’t understand: our first reaction is to reject something – or kill it. That’s the ultimate question in Sawyer’s trilogy – will our ignorance and fear doom us to self-destruction? Or will we embrace the coming Singularity and truly evolve? Can we survive “the advent of Webmind – survive the coming of superintelligence, survive being dethroned from our lofty position as the smartest things on Earth – survive all that with our fundamental humanity intact”?
This trilogy doesn’t portray humankind in the best of lights but there is an undeniable sense of optimism at work, an irrepressible hope. These novels will change the way you look at the world – and if the epilogue of WWW: Wonder doesn’t deeply affect you, doesn’t utterly blow you away, chances are good that you aren’t human…
The title of this novel says it all… readers looking for that glorious sense of wonder missing in much of contemporary science fiction will find that and more in this outstanding trilogy. A literary beacon of light in a genre dominated, at least recently, by doom and gloom.
“Get your… intangible hyperlinks off me, you damn dirty… world-spanning ethereal… thingamajig.”
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.
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