Caitlin Decker is an ardent blogger, a high school student, gifted at maths, and she’s been blind since birth due to a condition called Tomasevic’s syndrome. It’s a fact she long ago accepted, and though she would love to see, blindness is not a significant handicap. When it comes to computing, in fact, she’s far ahead of most of her sighted peers, for Caitlin is able to surf the net with ease, finessing search terms and effortlessly retracing her cyber footsteps. When Caitlin, newly relocated to Toronto from the US because of her unemotional father’s work, receives an unexpected email it’s only chance that stops her from relegating it to the trash. The email turns out to be the most life-changing thing possible – a Japanese neurologist and his team have developed an ocular implant that might help redirect the signal processing error that’s caused Caitlin’s blindness.
When the device is implanted Caitlin’s disappointed to have no change in her vision, but once a software update is downloaded through her Wi-Fi link, Caitlin does see. Her vision, though, is not of reality but of the internet – sites, traffic and connections. There are colours and lines, and Dr Kuroda posits it’s because the optical sections of her brain have been co-opted virtually since birth to computer use. Caitlin calls what she can see ‘webspace’ and the phenomenon ‘websight’ - it’s beautiful, though nothing compared to what she sees when she also develops real world vision
Had Wake just been about Caitlin and her adaptation to sightedness it would, in Sawyer’s hands, have been a fascinating read, laced with science and neuroscience, technology and psychology. These are, indeed, components – Caitlin doesn’t magically adjust to being sighted, but instead struggles with learning to read, is stunned to see geese flying south for winter well out of hearing range (and therefore something she’d not have noticed before having sight), discovers she’s myopic, and expresses insight into the discrimination of vision – the way we don’t see everything that’s there, that frogs don’t register static images, and my introduction to confabulation across saccades, which is the way our brains skip over the transition images when we shift our glance (compare the way your vision is when you pan around the room with a dizzying camera pan).
Being Sawyer, though, this first in a trilogy is significantly more complicated, intertwined, funny and beautiful. I, as ever, find myself struggling to do justice to the perfectly balanced structure of his writing, which is complex and lucid. Wake is about a multitude of sentient awakenings – Caitlin’s, of course, and the ‘soul dawn’ of Helen Keller, but also the first representational artwork created by a primate (a chimp/bonobo cross named Hobo), and the dawning of AI self awareness. In both these cases the conditions triggering these awakenings are specific, plausible, and appear well supported by science. They’re also accompanied by less than altruistic human behaviours, from primatologists freaking over primate intelligence to Chinese government officials erecting an electronic wall and cauterising an outbreak of influenza. In the way strands of apparently disparate texts can intermingle, this whole section strongly echoed parts of Where Underpants Come From, which was most unexpected – not because they both deal with China but because they both discuss the Chinese cultural mindset.
There are resonant moments, like Caitlin’s English teacher, whose response to the observation that Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale is science fiction is, “It can't be science fiction, young lady – if it were, we wouldn’t be studying it!”
One of the many things I love about fiction is that it gives sociological insights that I would otherwise be unaware of. I was, for example, aware that US school children begin the day with a recitation of the pledge of allegiance, but had no idea that their northern counterparts sing O Canada before classes
Great writing can also introduce the reader to authors, and even fields, previously unknown to them. I’m now aware of Fiona Kelleghan, an academic and critic whose field of interest is fantasy and science fiction, and of Harvard linguist George Zipf’s research, which uncovered the fact that all languages have an inverse ratio between the frequency with which words are used proportional to its’ rank on a list of the frequency of all words in that language.
I also want to read Songs of the Gorilla Nation, which is a memoir by an autistic primatologist, linked to the text because Caitlin’s father is at the very high functioning end of the autism spectrum, a fact she was unaware of when blind (having misheard it, when her mother told her, as ‘artistic’) and which may be connected to her facility with the internet. Sawyer also raises the fascinating concept that Caitlin’s blindness prevented her from developing autism, though she displays (or has displayed) some autistic traits, including not automatically orienting her gaze to people when they speak, something non-autistic blind people do without direction.
I also very much want to read Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which sounds fascinating but too distracting from school to read right now. Jaynes’ ideas are strewn, with full attribution, throughout the novel, and his thesis that consciousness arose due to increasing societal complexity, and within approximately a hundred year window, is fascinating. According to Sawyer, Jaynes says this change is evident in the differences between The Iliad and The Odyssey, and between the Old and New testaments of the bible
I’m saddened a little that Sawyer and Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist whose work I read frequently several years ago but not at all since I began reviewing, are at odds when it comes to primate communication via signing, though not at all surprised to find the latter sides with Noam Chomsky, whose work I find virtually incomprehensible, and whose sovereignty I feel was shaken by this research. Which is all a bit of a meander from the book at hand. I was also disappointed to learn that Jagster, a transparent search engine with open source page ranking, was invented by Sawyer and – at least as yet - wholly hypothetical. I was exalted by the way Sawyer combined childhood development research into his projection of the flowering of AI sentience, particularly the recognition of object permanence, and the difference between animate and inanimate objects
And I wept (on public transport, on the way to work, which was particularly embarrassing) when Caitlin experienced for the first time seeing the first images from Apollo 8 of the earth, followed by the Apollo 8’s astronauts Christmas message.
Sawyer’s work combines strong scientific fact with a meticulously crafted and coherent plot, rounded characterisation and multiple intersecting narratives, humour, truth, and humanity in all its shades, to create work that is deeply satisfying. I read Watch first a few months ago, just before going overseas, and didn’t at the time have the opportunity to review it with the length and depth it demanded. I’ve reread it now, and know I’ve done it no justice at all, and I look forward to rewarding myself for my attempt by reading the second in the series, which is waiting for me on the library’s reserve shelf even as I type. - Alex