By chance, I happen to have all bar one of the novels shortlisted for this year’s Hugo Award (the one I’m missing is Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente), and I’ve not been asked to review a single one of them, a rare combination. So it seems like an ideal opportunity to blog about the novels as I read them over the next few weeks and months.
I’ll begin with Wake by Robert J. Sawyer (many places list this as W.W.W.Wake – it is the first part of the WWW trilogy – but nowhere on the copy of the book I possess is the title presented that way). I begin with this novel because it allows me to consider one simple but fundamental question: why on earth has Robert J. Sawyer won so many awards? Let’s face it, the characterization is trite, the plotting is sentimental, the writing is simplistic, the politics is even more so, and the book is littered with plot lines that are raised and then simply forgotten.
The novel might be briefly characterized as the story of Helen Keller rewritten as science fiction. Indeed the book is crammed with so many references to Helen Keller, including some extensive quotes from her work, that such an interpretation isn’t much forced on the reader as stuffed down their throat. Caitlin, a beautiful white rich girl who also happens to be a maths genius is blind, but she’s offered the chance to try an experimental new device, an implant that takes the visual signals she sees and converts them into a form that her brain can interpret. At first, the implant doesn’t seem to work, then she starts to experience weird visual images, shooting lines and hubs glowing in vivid colours, and eventually realizes that she is seeing the web. More than that, as she starts to apprehend the real world, she also realizes that there is an independent intelligence within the web, and decides to take on the role of Anne Sullivan to the web beings Helen Keller.
Against this story there are other plot lines developed, though you could not say that they interact. The most prominent concerns an ape that learns to paint representational art. It is easy to see how this echoes the main story line (Sawyer is nothing if not obvious in his deployment of themes and motifs) but apart from a passing mention when Caitlin sees a news report about the ape on the web, these two strands of story never come together. Another plot line concerns an outbreak of a new type of bird flu in China; this mutates into a piece about the inhumanity of the Chinese government, which in turn mutates into a story about a Chinese blogger who is shot and, presumably, killed, less than a third of the way into the novel, and this whole narrative strand then ends abruptly. Now this is the first volume in a trilogy, it is perfectly possible, indeed likely, that these strands will be developed and come together in later volumes, but in the one we have before us, the one, remember, that has actually been shortlisted for the award, there is no attempt to bring these strands together into a coherent whole. And most of the time they are simply forgotten, by the author as much as by the reader.
What makes this the sort of work that attracts votes in a popular award? I think it is a combination of things. To start with it is, as I say, a very sentimental work. The poor little rich girl, the blind girl who learns to see, the victim who becomes a teacher, goodness wins, it is all designed to manipulate our feelings. We end with a feeling of: ‘Ahh, wasn’t that sweet’. It is feel-good writing. It is also very simple writing. Apart from a few technical terms, most of which are very familiar and all of which are carefully explained, Sawyer uses very few long words. Simple sentences, a relatively limited vocabulary, even the layout of the book, large type widely spaced, make this a quick and easy read. You really don’t feel taxed reading it, but you do feel satisfied because of the sentimental resolution.
It is also flattering. I have noticed before that sf books that reference the genre, books that suggest the cool people, the people who really know how the world works, are familiar with science fiction, tend to go down very well with science fiction fans (fans are slans!). And this novel has lashings of references to other science fictions; the implications are obvious: if you know science fiction, you’re in on the secrets of the universe.
That’s part of the appeal of science fiction, of course, that you’re learning by reading the stuff. A lot of sf likes to impart technical knowledge along the way, even if it slows down the story, and this is no exception. Of course, the most technical stuff we learn is about the way the web works, which most of the readers probably know better than the author, but that’s beside the point. What’s important is that sense of sharing knowledge, that what marks science fiction (and hence the science fiction reader) out from the common run of fictions is that it is more than just story. And Sawyer manages that very well, there’s a steady drip-drip of information all the way through, and its accessible because it is communicated in short words, simple sentences.
Sawyer also makes his points very clearly, excessively so, no-one can have any excuse for missing what he wants to say. You can barely turn a page without encountering yet another iteration of the point. Caitlin’s blindness, her genius physicist father who is autistic so he can’t look people in the eye, her best friend Bashira who is Muslim and finds her social life restricted as a result, the ape who can paint but not when people are watching, the Chinese blogger who is cut off by his country’s control of the internet, and so it goes. Analogies for blindness and sight, analogies using blindness and sight, come thick and fast throughout the book.
And when he gets on to politics, what he has to say is hardly sophisticated. Chinese communist rule is authoritarian, inhuman, evil, and haunted by the spectre of Tiananmen Square; the NSA is big, powerful and something you want to be wary of; Canada is generally pretty good but a bit bland and rather overawed by its southern neighbour. None of this is exactly searing political analysis, but it is uncontentious and generally populist, you can imagine his readers nodding their heads and thinking, yeah, that’s pretty much how I feel.
So what if the characterization is flat and uninteresting, the pacing hardly varies, the narrative structure is clumsy, the writing is dull, and there is no genuine novelty in the book. This is popular entertainment that flatters the readers, does a basically competent if unexciting job, and doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s easy on the mind, so it’s easy to see how it gets enough votes to make the shortlist. Just so long as it doesn’t win.