Thursday, April 9, 2009

"WWW: Wake"

Robert J. Sawyer has been called “the dean of Canadian science fiction” by The Ottawa Citizen. He is one of only seven writers in history to win all three of the world’s top awards for best science-fiction novel of the year: the Hugo (which he won in 2003 for Hominids), the Nebula (which he won in 1995 for The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (which he won in 2005 for Mindscan).

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, WWW: Wake, and reported the following:
Page 69 of WWW: Wake begins: "... there had been a breakdown of bicameralism, precipitated perhaps by catastrophic events requiring mass migrations and the resulting ramping up of societal complexity. Regardless of what caused it, though, the outcome was a realization that the voices being heard were from one's own self. That had given rise to modern consciousness, and a "soul dawn," to use Helen Keller's term, for the entire human race."

Ah, an infodump! Yay!

I start my science-fiction writing classes with the beginners going around the circle, critiquing a student manuscript. They always gleefully pounce on passages like the above and declare, "You must cut that!"

It's the blind leading the blind -- and I say that advisedly, given that Wake's hero is a blind 15-year-old girl. But at the end of each round of critiquing, I chime in, as Teacher, trying to lead them toward the light. And what I say is that the notion that discussing ideas is wrong in science fiction is silly; SF is the literature of ideas.

Yes, you have to have a captivating plot and characters people care about -- but so must any work of commercial fiction. But infodumps (or "expository lumps," or any of the other names given to them -- it's telling that the critical lexicon, foisted on us by the English-literature community that looks down on anything that actually sells, has no non-pejorative terms for this narrative device) are one of the things that makes good science fiction. Of course, they have to be done artfully -- but so does dialogue, and we don't automatically dismiss characters talking as being bad.

Which brings us to the infodump at hand. As it happens, this snippet goes to the heart of what Wake is about. Caitlin, a blind math wiz, is reading the real (and thought-provoking) book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes -- while the reader is noting the parallels to what's just happened in the novel. The Chinese government, trying to keep out foreign thoughts, has temporarily isolated their portion of the Internet, cleaving the Web in two -- and when the two parts are reunified, a consciousness emerges, not unlike what Jaynes says happened when the left and right hemispheres of our brain started communicating effectively with each other.

That leads us to the main story of the book: Caitlin, who is overcoming her blindness, thanks to an operation, takes on the role to this nascent consciousness that Annie Sullivan, the "Miracle Worker" Teacher, played for of Helen Keller, leading the sensorially deprived newborn mind out into the light. It is, I firmly believe, a deeply emotional, exciting, and uplifting journey, but, like all good SF, it's grounded in ideas ... just like the one here on page 69.
Read the opening chapters of WWW: Wake, and learn more about the book and author at Robert J. Sawyer's website and blog.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue