In the 20th century, we had Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein. The 21st century list has to start with Sawyer. Yes, he’s that good. Quite different from those old masters, but then the whole point to being a writer, especially a science fiction writer, is to do something really original.
This is Book Three of his series on the World Wide Web. SPOILER ALERT: The epilogue is set some five billion years in the future, so you may be confident that the bad guys trying to kill off the Webmind do not succeed. There’s really no spoiler in that, however: we knew he would survive.
Caitlin, the young blind woman who was given sight with the help of web technology, and was thereby the trigger for the emergence of Webmind, is caught up in the middle of a huge deal, when all she really wants to do is be a normal teenager. Well, more or less: she’s actually way too smart and sensible to be average, but she of all people is aware that normal and average are not the same thing. Mathematics is her best subject.
The government (US, mostly, even though Caitlin lives in Canada) agents who are determined to shut down Webmind because they fear its potential are having another go, and so Caitlin and her allies become the posse protecting it. That includes Hobo the chimp/bonobo hybrid who becomes a “spokesman” for Webmind, and Caitlin’s wise and honorable parents, her adorable boyfriend Matt, and even some unexpected help from hackers who have been challenged to put it down.
It turns out a major element of the emergence of Webmind was the awareness of a self/other dichotomy when the Chinese government shut down their part of the Web and a brilliant Chinese hacker penetrated the “Great Fire Wall” to being the parts back together. Well, the Chinese government tried again, for different reasons, but with bizarre results. When Webmind got through the divide this time, his realization of what was needed led him to a genuinely revolutionary step.
A major theme is the arch of history, and how it bends pretty inevitably to greater moral judgment in a variety of ways. Several truly unforgettable events in the narrative make this point, but my favorite is the dramatic coming out party of the atheists. What’s interesting is the number of concepts that do not rely on the fictional infrastructure to be realized: we atheists could do this whenever we are ready.
I recommend this series, and indeed this author, to everyone. Read it. Read it again in a couple of years, when you’ve had a chance to digest it. Put it on your shelf for your heirs to read in their turn. It will still be worthwhile.
Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.