[Robert J. Sawyer]  Science Fiction Writer
 ROBERT J. SAWYER
 Hugo and Nebula Award Winner

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[WAKE spine]

Novel Synopsis

  Wake  

  by Robert J. Sawyer  

Copyright © 2009 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.


Spoiler warning! This is a synopsis of the entire novel Wake by Robert J. Sawyer. It's provided here as a refresher for those who have already read Wake and are about to read its sequel, Watch. If you haven't already read Wake, you probably don't want to read this synopsis.

Caitlin Decter, 15, blind since birth, has recently moved to Waterloo, Ontario, from Austin, Texas, with her family. She's a genius at math and lives most of her social life online, where she goes by the name "Calculass." Caitlin's blindness is caused by her retinas failing to properly encode visual information: the signals they pass back to her optic nerve are garbled in a way her brain can't decode.

Masayuki Kuroda, an information theorist in Tokyo, emails Caitlin. He proposes attaching an implant to her left optic nerve that will beam the garbled signals to a small external computer pack, where they will be corrected and sent back to the implant; if the process works, Caitlin will be able to see.

Caitlin is thrilled at the prospect and she and her mother, Barbara Decter, fly to Tokyo. The implant is installed, but although Kuroda's system is indeed correcting her retinal-encoding errors, Caitlin still can't see.

Caitlin begs Kuroda to let her keep the implant and the external computer pack; she dubs the computer pack her "eyePod." Kuroda agrees to let her keep the devices for three months. Before Caitlin returns to Canada he modifies the eyePod so that it will copy her retinal datastream in real time to his servers in Tokyo, so he can try to figure out why she's not seeing; he also makes it possible for him to upload new software from Tokyo into her implant and the eyePod.

[Wake US hardcover] And, shortly after Caitlin gets back to Waterloo, Kuroda does indeed send her new software — and as soon as the upload begins, Caitlin is overwhelmed by vision! She sees lights, colors, lines — but soon realizes that they don't correspond to anything in the real world — nor do they disappear when she shuts her eyes. But when the upload is completed and the connection to Kuroda's computer in Tokyo is broken, Caitlin is suddenly blind again. Could it be that her strange new vision is related to being connected to the Web? She thinks to herself, "Let there be light," and, as she reconnects to the Web, there is light ...

Meanwhile, in China's rural Shanxi province, there's an outbreak of a new, virulent strain of bird flu. The Beijing government decides to execute 10,000 peasants there to contain the spread of the disease. To prevent Western interpretations of this from flooding into China and panicking the citizenry, the Chinese president orders all outside telephone, cell phone, and Internet access cut off. But Chinese hackers, including a young male dissident blogger whose online handle is Sinanthropus, manage to break through, allowing small amounts of contact between the Chinese portion of the Web and the rest of the Internet.

Unbeknownst to anyone, a consciousness has begun to emerge in the infrastructure of the World Wide Web — but this sudden throwing up of the Great Firewall of China has caused it to be cleaved in two. The interaction between the two parts, through the holes in the Firewall made by hackers, allows the nascent intelligence to ramp up its thinking. Recognizing that there is something other than itself leads to the realization that it exists. It also becomes aware of past, present, and future, and it learns to count to three and to begin to think abstractly. Slowly, but surely, this entity is waking up ...

Meanwhile, in San Diego, a sign-language-speaking ape named Hobo participates in the first ever interspecies webcam call, conversing with an orangutan in Miami. Hobo's handlers — famed primatologist Harl Marcuse and his 27-year-old grad student, Shoshana Glick — are delighted. But the event brings Hobo to the attention of his rightful owners, the Georgia Zoo — and they want him back so they can sterilize him. Hobo is an accidental chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid, and the zookeepers are afraid he will taint the bloodlines of chimps and bonobos, both of which are highly endangered.

Still in Japan, Dr. Kuroda determines that, incredible though it seems, Caitlin is indeed seeing a small part of the World Wide Web's structure. He theorizes that because Caitlin spends so much time online, her primary visual cortex has been co-opted for navigating the Web, and now when it is actually receiving data from the Web via the implant he gave her, it interprets that as vision.

With the assistance of Anna Bloom, an Internet cartographer in Israel, Kuroda starts feeding Caitlin the raw Internet datastream collected by Jagster, an open-source search engine — and suddenly Caitlin goes from seeing just a tiny part of the Web to seeing the whole thing, in all its interconnected complexity. Dr. Kuroda flies to Canada to study this amazing phenomenon.

The Chinese authorities complete the eliminations in Shanxi, and then restore full communication between the portion of the Web inside and outside China. The two parts of the emerging entity consolidate into a new gestalt intelligence, fully self-aware now — and much smarter than before.

This entity learns how to connect to points in the firmament surrounding it, and discovers that they give up piles of something in response — but what that something is, the entity has no idea. But after linking to huge numbers of points, it finds one that, astonishingly, sometimes reflects a view of itself back at it; without understanding what it has done, the entity has connected to Caitlin's eyePod, and is now seeing her view of webspace.

Hobo, meanwhile, has suddenly started painting people: to everyone's astonishment, he's made a portrait of Shoshana. No ape has ever made representational art before; a superior intelligence has dawned in Hobo, perhaps related to his unique hybrid nature or because of his interaction with the other sign-language-using ape via webcam. Either way, it's a huge breakthrough.

In Beijing, the police arrest Sinanthropus, but not until after he has leaked word to the outside world about the massacre in Shanxi.

Caitlin has a disastrous first date with a boy named Trevor Nordmann, who, like her, is in grade ten. Walking home blind and alone during an electrical storm, she suddenly sees the real world for the first time — or at least part of it: she sees the flashes of lightning.

And so does the emerging entity! It sees whatever she sees — whether it's her view of the Web or now this brief glimpse of the real world.

After the lightning storm passes, Caitlin finds that her perception of webspace is different. Before, the background had been featureless, but now she can see a vast grid shimmering there, made up of infinitesimally small pixels that keep shifting from black to white and back again. Amazed, Dr. Kuroda realizes they might be cellular automata — patterns of mathematical complexity that can mimic living things — but as to why such things would exist in the background of the Web, he has no idea.

Caitlin, Dr. Kuroda, and Anna Bloom theorize that the cellular automata are somehow related to mutant lost packets — bits of Web data that have gone astray, and aren't being erased as they should be. And although Kuroda thinks there's a great scientific paper in this phenomenon, he also realizes that the research might have marketable applications. That's something Caitlin doesn't want to hear; it's her websight — her ability to see the Web's structure — that revealed the existence of the cellular automata, and she thinks information should be free.

Kuroda and Caitlin's father, a cold and reserved physicist named Malcolm Decter, do a mathematical analysis called a Zipf plot on the cellular-automata data, to see if they are just random noise or if they contain information — and, to their excitement, the latter turns out to the be the case.

Later, while Caitlin is at school, Kuroda realizes why the hardware he gave her was able to see only the bright lightning flashes but nothing else in the real world. He queues up a software patch to install itself next time Caitlin switches her eyePod into receive mode — something she normally wouldn't do at school. But Caitlin, bored by an experiment she can't see in chemistry class, switches modes there so that she can amuse herself by looking at the wondrous spectacle of webspace, and — to her delight and astonishment — suddenly she can see the real world. She's overwhelmed and amazed by the beauty and complexity of it all.

And the nascent consciousness is seeing what Caitlin is now seeing, too, and has the shocking realization that another realm — another reality — exists. It begins to puzzle out the nature of that reality, in which objects can move relative to each other, and an invisible force pulls things downward, and — most incredible of all — countless other animate beings exist.

In hopes of arousing public interest that will save Hobo from sterilization, Dr. Marcuse puts a video of the ape painting Shoshana onto YouTube — and, as Caitlin views this video, which provides a comparison between the real Shoshana and the portrait Hobo has made, the emerging entity, watching along, learns how to understand and recognizes faces.

But there's one being in our reality that the entity assumes it will never see: Caitlin herself (which the entity refers to as "Prime"). Since the entity sees our world from Prime's perspective, it reasons it will never see Prime's face. But suddenly the entity does see Prime's face — as Caitlin examines her own reflection in a mirror. This gives the entity an idea, and it tries to send Prime a large amount of data, but, maddeningly, Caitlin seems unwilling to accept it.

Caitlin's father does another kind of mathematical analysis on the cellular-automata data from the background of the Web. This one's called a Shannon-entropy plot, and it indicates how sophisticated the data is. He finds that the cellular automata are exhibiting only second-level Shannon entropy, meaning whatever information they contain isn't very complex.

Now that Caitlin can see, she's saddened to find that her father won't look at her. She learns to her shock that he's not just undemonstrative, he's actually autistic.

A press conference is held to announce Dr. Kuroda's success in restoring Caitlin's sight. When she returns home, Caitlin gets a static-electric shock that causes her vision to shut off; she's afraid the static has damaged her eyePod. When she reboots the device, it comes back to life, much to her relief — but it turns on in its default mode, in which it receives signals from the Web, and, at last, the large amount of data the emerging entity has been trying to send Caitlin bursts into her visual consciousness. It takes her a while to recognize the flickering image: herself, as seen in a mirror! She's often enough reflected her view of webspace back at the Web, and now it seems that something lurking on the Web is reflecting its view of her back at Caitlin!

Having never seen letters before, Caitlin doesn't yet know how to read printed text, and so she practices using a kid's literacy website. Unbeknownst to her, the emerging entity is learning along with her; indeed, the entity assumes the lessons are for its benefit.

On her own, Caitlin runs a new Shannon-entropy plot on a fresh set of cellular-automata data from the Web, and finds third-order entropy, rather than the less-complex second-order score her father had obtained. And, as if that isn't intriguing enough, there's some new visual noise in what Caitlin sees when she visualizes the Web. Dr. Kuroda examines the feed she's receiving, and, to his great surprise, he discovers it contains the text APPLEBALLCATDOGEGGFROG — simple words that she'd encountered when using the literacy website, all run together — being echoed back at her.

Caitlin runs another Shannon-entropy plot, and this time gets fourth-order entropy. But why on Earth would the information complexity carried by the cellular automata be ramping up? Still, it's clear to her that there is something there, and it's getting smarter by the hour. Annie Sullivan had brought forth Helen Keller, lifting her from darkness by teaching her, and Caitlin decides to do the same thing for this entity. She may not be able to reach her autistic father, but perhaps she can reach this strange other ... whatever it might be.

Dr. Kuroda has found a way to make image files from Caitlin's websight, capturing her views of webspace, and she uses one of these images to try to teach the entity about things in its reality: websites, links, and the process of transferring information. This leads the entity to something like the famous water-pump moment when Helen Keller first grasped what words were for.

Kuroda has to return to Japan, much to Caitlin's disappointment. Before leaving Canada, he intends to shut off Caitlin's ability to receive data from the Web — which means she'll no longer be able to interact with the entity; Kuroda is completely in the dark about the entity's existence, and is stunned when Caitlin blows up at him when he tells her what he's planning to do. But he relents, letting her keep the two-way data connection with the Web.

Dr. Marcuse is served with papers in a lawsuit: the Georgia Zoo is taking legal action to repossess Hobo so that it can castrate him. The primatologists realize they've been naïve in thinking the world will welcome a superior intelligence that has emerged accidentally.

And maybe Caitlin is being naïve, too. Without telling anyone what she's doing, she draws the entity's attention to Cyc, a huge online database that systemizes basic knowledge and common sense about our reality ("birds can usually fly," "humans cannot fly on their own," etc.). She then leads it to an online dictionary, then to Wikipedia, then to the vast repository of plain-text public-domain books at Project Gutenberg.

The entity absorbs all of it, learning rapidly; Caitlin is stunned to find its Shannon-entropy score has hit 16.4 — double the sophistication of human beings. And, she suspects, the entity's growth is not done yet ...

The entity now wants to reach out to Caitlin just as much as Caitlin wants to reach out to it. On her sixteenth birthday, they at last make contact — via instant messenger! The entity now understands a great deal about Caitlin's world, and about the structure of the World Wide Web, but it still doesn't know what it itself is; it can find no reference online to a consciousness existing on the Web. And so it asks Caitlin: "Who am I?"

Without revealing the entity's existence, Caitlin contacts Anna Bloom, the Internet cartographer, to get an image that might help Caitlin show the complexity of the Web to the entity.

Anna has been thinking about what Caitlin's experience of seeing the world for the first time must be like. Anna suspects it's similar to what the whole human race went through in the late 1960s, when astronauts got far enough away from Earth for the first time to see it as a single object. She shows such a picture to Caitlin, and plays for her a recording of the Apollo 8 crew's own reaction to first seeing that wondrous sight. It moved them on Christmas Eve, 1968, to read aloud passages from Genesis, beginning with "Let there be light" and ending with "... and God saw that it was good." The astronauts concluded by saying, "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth."

Caitlin shares all this with the entity, making the point that together humanity and the entity constitute a single small and fragile world, floating against the vast, empty darkness. "We are one," she says.

The entity takes a name for itself: Webmind. Caitlin asks it, "Where do we go from here?"

And Webmind replies, calling its new partner by name for the first time: "The only place we can go, Caitlin: into the future — together."


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