Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Trilogy ends in delightful piece of sci-fi

Accessible science, excellent characterization

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Wonder

By Robert J. Sawyer

Penguin, 352 pages, $30

CANADIAN sci-fi master Robert J. Sawyer's artificial-intelligence trilogy reaches its conclusion in another delightful piece of fiction.

The sequel to Wake and Watch, Wonder boasts lots of accessible scientific ideas and excellent characterization. Better yet, it's proudly and even defiantly set in Canada.

In taking the series to its inevitable climax, Sawyer wants us to ask the obvious question: is the disembodied Internet Webmind our friend, or does the world suddenly have an evil new deity in charge?

In Wake and Watch, we saw the emergence of Webmind, the omniscient and omnipotent artificial intelligence who popped up out of cyberspace after the Chinese leadership shut down the Internet to cover up a massacre within its borders.

Webmind first communicated through 16-year-old high-school student Caitlin Decter, a blind, nerdy math whiz who lives in Waterloo, Ont., with her autistic physicist dad and game-theorist mom.

When last we saw Webmind, it had barely survived an attempt by a paranoid Pentagon to pull the plug. Will Wonder bring Webmind benevolent forgiveness or malevolent revenge?

The novel moves at breakneck pace from Caitlin's home in Waterloo, to the Pentagon and White House, to China and the United Nations, as Webmind develops ever-greater presence in the lives of everyone on the planet.

Powerful forces desperately try to destroy Webmind, as we turn pages at the same breakneck speed to learn if it will be good or evil.

In his 20 previous novels, among them Frameshift, Fastforward and Calculating God, Sawyer peppers his plots with tidbits of Canadian culture to educate American readers. Here he spices his stew with a satirical skewering of American culture and politics worthy of Jon Stewart, who even makes an appearance.

Members of the religious right, card-carrying members of Stephen Harper's Conservatives and acolytes of Sarah Palin's Tea Party should be aware going into Wonder that its good guys are atheists and Unitarians, generally all bleeding-heart pinkos.

One of the joys of the Webmind trilogy is the pop-cultural savvy of the characters, who compare each new development in the plot to every movie and TV show they've seen about artificial intelligence and super-computers.

Indeed, the template for the Webmind series could well be the Harry Bates short story from the 1940s, Farewell to the Master, which became the 1951 film classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. There an alien being of limitless power and knowledge is befriended by peacenik brainiacs, while the government and military scheme to control or destroy it.

Wonder is not only a superb conclusion to a tremendous trilogy, but stands alone as one of the best books that Sawyer has ever written.

Nick Martin is a Free Press reporter.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2011 J14

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