The Big Idea: Robert J. Sawyer

What would we do if the World Wide Web became sentient? I, for one, would welcome our new LOLcatting overlord, and would ask it to kill every spammer it could find, in its mercy. But then I’m thinking about the idea rather shallowly. Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer, however, has been thinking about the idea in rather more detail as the basis of his “WWW” trilogy of books, the first of which, Wake, arrived in bookstores in the US this week and will be in Canadian bookstores next week.

When Sawyer started thinking about the Web waking up, he did more than think about what its effects might be — he looked at the very nature of consciousness itself. What did he find? I’ll let him tell you himself.


In the 1960s, science fiction was split in two. Old-school SF, which wrote about the mechanics of spaceships and the intricacies of alien biology and was typified by the contents of Astounding (later renamed Analog), was shunned by some, who started a movement called “The New Wave,” with the British New Worlds as their central forum.

Whereas the old-fashioned SF school was all about outer space, the New Wave was about the soft, mysterious realm of inner space. It was taken as a given then that what went on between our ears was outside the purview of science.

In 1979, I entered university, and although my major was broadcasting, I also took courses in psychology. We weren’t even sure psychology was a science then — at my school, it was taught as a one of the humanities — and B.F. Skinner was still supreme: our brains were just black boxes, the workings of which were both unknowable and irrelevant. In all the courses I took in psych, never once was the word “consciousness” mentioned.

Flash forward (heh heh) thirty years, and lo and behold, the single most interesting area — at least to me! — of hard science is consciousness studies. Disciplines as diverse as medical imaging, neurobiology, quantum physics, and computer science are all obsessed with understanding why it is like something to be aware, why we have any inner life at all. The territory the New Wave had tried to map out as its own has come right back to being part of hard-SF Analog country — and, indeed, my new novel Wake, which is all about the dawn of consciousness, was first serialized in Analog.

Wake‘s main story is about the World Wide Web waking up — but I counterpoint that with several other plotlines also about the nature of consciousness: a blind 15-year-old girl learning to see; a sign-language-using chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid who has started making representational art; and an autistic genius trying to cope in a world of neurotypicals. Consciousness, it seems, is a many-splendored thing.

A novel is a strange lifeform: it grows from many seeds, instead of just one. One of the seeds for Wake was a comment I read more than a decade ago in a pop-science magazine to the effect that the Internet will soon have as many interconnections as a human brain has synapses. That, of course, got me wondering about what would happen then.

Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by paleoanthropology (as a ten-year old, I painstakingly wrote out in pencil a seven-page bibliography of all the sources I could locate for information about australopithecines, and, of course, that interest fueled my Hugo-award winning Hominids and its sequels). I knew that our consciousness was an emergent property of sufficient complexity: when our brains reached a critical mass of synapses, some 40,000 years ago, suddenly the lights went on and, at last, somebody was home. Would the same thing happen to the Internet?

Another seed was the fascinating paper “Helen Keller as Cognitive Scientist” by Justin Leiber (Fritz Leiber’s son!) from the journal Philosophical Psychology (Vol. 9, No. 4, 1996, online here).

Leiber’s conclusion, that neither Keller nor anyone else, could relate what the booting up of consciousness was actually like, struck me as a writerly challenge worth tackling — and I made the decision to write large parts of Wake from the point of view of a growing self-aware entity supervening on the infrastructure of the World Wide Web.

Those scenes turned out to be the hardest things I’ve ever written in my life, and they went through multiple drafts — which, Daniel Dennett fans will tell you is certainly appropriate when writing about consciousness! (Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained — sometimes dismissed by its critics as Consciousness Explained Away — promotes a “multiple draft” model of consciousness, in which “reality” is endlessly rewritten.)

Another seed for Wake was the fascinating 1976 nonfiction work The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, a book I’ve long loved. Last year, in fact, I was mightily torn: my Rollback was up for the Hugo to be presented at the Worldcon in Denver — but the same weekend a conference about Jaynes’s work was being held on Prince Edward Island, where he summered.

Jaynes’s theory — that human consciousness didn’t actually emerge until historical times, and only came about when our two cerebral hemispheres finally started communicating with each other effectively — reminds me of the best science fiction: wildly thought-provoking, engendering a sense of wonder, and, at the very least, not easily dismissed based on what we currently know about science.

If merely having sufficient interconnections wasn’t enough to kick start the World Wide Web into consciousness, what, I wondered, would happen if a large portion of it was cleaved off — say, by the Chinese strengthening their Great Firewall — and then later was reunified? Could Jaynes’s scenario then play out again on a much grander scale?

Wake will be followed by Watch and Wonder making this — hee hee — the WWW trilogy. I’ve actually just finished Watch — which tackles the question of what consciousness actually is for and why it’s worth having from an evolutionary perspective — and am starting the third volume. Collectively, I’m hoping they’ll provide an uplifting scenario in which good old Homo sapiens survives the advent of superintelligence without being subjugated or eliminated, and without us losing our essential humanity and individuality.

I’ve been working on this trilogy for five years now and have another year to go — meaning I’ll have been at it longer than anything else I’ve ever worked at in my life (my longest regular job, before becoming a full-time writer in 1983, lasted nine months). It’s been an amazing journey so far, and I’m going to be sad when it ends — but it will indeed definitively do so: the first thing I wrote for this series was the very last scene of the final book. I hope you’ll join me on the journey, and hope you have as much fun reading the books as I’ve been having writing them.


WWW:Wake: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powells

Read an excerpt of Wake. Hear Robert J. Sawyer read the first chapter (.mp3 link). Visit Sawyer’s blog.

20 Comments on “The Big Idea: Robert J. Sawyer”

  1. Sawyer used to be one of my favorite SF authors. I’ve fallen away for him for two reasons, however. For one, the subjects that he has been writing on have veered away from my personal interests. Also, the Hominids series left me disappointed. I hate to say it, since I have a lot of respect for most of his work, but his comment about writing a seven-page bibliography of information about australopithecines strikes to the heart of my complaint–the series read like he started with that bibliography and wrote a loose narrative structure around the papers, rather than coming up with a story of his own and then fleshing it out with that background information. Oh, and throwing in a treatise on the advantages of forced castration for sex offenders.

    That said, I have a digital copy of Rollback purchased on a whim, and this new trilogy sounds like it’s veering back towards what I always thought Sawyer has been best at: taking a stab at different versions of massive world-changing events (variations on the Singularity) and writing a convincing narrative of how it would affect those directly and indirectly involved. I’m going to have to promise myself to read reviews of the last book before I get hooked, though.

  2. Thanks, I’ll definitely be on the lookout for this, as well as some of the sources mentioned. Some of these ideas remind me of the “Orphanogenesis” section of Greg Egan’s Diaspora where he gives a first-hand account of a conscious electronic being developing self-awareness.

  3. Arthur Clarke’s “Dial F for Frankenstein” is exactly this story, from 1964.

    Since there was no internet then, he uses telephone switches to make the connections – critical point reached when a newly launched satellite brought together the otherwise generally separate telephone switching equipment.

    A synopsis.

  4. Not sure I agree with the characterization of hard-SF vs. New Wave SF. Seems a bit superficial. I think a lot of the differentiation came from tackling previously forbidden topics, and exploring new narrative forms and structures.

    That said, WWW: Wake sounds like a fascinating story, well worth my time. I’ll look for it this weekend!

  5. Got this book at Barnes & Noble last week, as I am a big fan of RJS, but haven’t started it yet. Just finished Nancy Kress’s Steal Across the Sky (highly recommended), am currently reading Coyote Frontier by Allen Steele, and I still have a couple of Hugo nominations to read (though if I decide to actually tackle Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, it could be a while). :)

  6. Oddly enough, I was just contemplating what might be rousing itself within the bowels of the internet this morning. I’m going to have to check out Mr. Sawyer’s take on the idea.

  7. I just read the 12 chapter intro he’s got on his site and it’s totally hooked me. I’ll definately grab this book soon. Thanks for the tip, mr. scalzi!

  8. Ok so that’s what super-duper cover at looks like. Talk about shallow? I know it shouldn’t matter this much to me, but that cover makes me want to go and procure a copy for my reading pleasure even if whats inside isn’t so cool. Pass along to the Korean cover artist for OMW please.

    Personally, I’m with you John. If the Internets becomes our new benevolent overlord then I’m cool with that as long as we get to hang the occasional spammer from time to time. The Internets will have to understand humanity’s grounding in reality to remain relevant and so it can go one of two ways I figure. Either suppress our base instincts for profit ala SkyNet or toss us the occasional saccrifical target bone and continue to manage things as they stand. And spammers are on my list of potential saccrifical bones, besides they’re a whole lot more likely to exist in the future than a global army of automatronic death machines which will crawl slowly over great piles of our skulls.

  9. Gee, I bet the number of interconnections in the system of American roads in pretty high too, wonder if it will become sentient?

  10. @hugh57

    Hilarious. Those are the three books that just arrived on my doorstep today from Amazon (Sawyer, Kress, and Steele, I mean – I read Anathem last fall. You should definitely take the plunge.)

    I deliberately didn’t read “Wake” when it was serialized in Analog, as I kind of hate the format, but can’t wait to crack this open.

  11. It was an interesting serial (although I felt like making some suggestions to the primate researchers by the time I got to the end of it; I felt that they missed some opportunities).

  12. I remember receiving “Hominids” as a birthday gift when I turned 16 from a friend who also happened to be a huge sci-fi/fantasy fan. It was the first novel by Sawyer I’d ever read. It wasn’t the last.

    “Wake” sounds even more fantastic to me now then “Hominids” did 6 years ago, so I’ll definitely be picking this one up. However, numbers two and three in “The Neanderthal Parallax” left me slightly underwhelmed. Here’s to hoping the same won’t be said for “Watch” and “Wonder”.

    hugh57:”I still have a couple of Hugo nominations to read (though if I decide to actually tackle Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, it could be a while).”

    Take the time. It’s definitely worth it.

  13. This should be an interesting book to compare to Peter Watts novel BLINDSIGHT, also largely about consciousness, and one of my favorite novels of the past decade (or any decade).

  14. I read Wake as it was serialized in Analog, and loved it. I did a kaffeeklatsch with Sawyer at WorldCon last year, where he said even more interesting things about the various seed ideas. (Such as, reading that Helen Keller said she was not aware of her own consciousness until she learned how to communicate. By becoming aware of another consciousness, she became aware of her own. She called it “soul dawn”.)

    I am eagerly awaiting the rest of the series.

  15. WWoW! (it had to be said… ;-) )

    Seriously, this sounds promising, I’ll be keeping an eye out for it!

  16. John, you’re making me go bankrupt because of all these awesome books you recommend. I haven’t bought a new video game in over three months! I’ve been all about the books lately.

  17. When I read this I went to Sawyer’s website and read a few of the sample chapters he had up. I was really intrigued. Later that same day I was looking for an audiobook to buy from Audible. On login the opening page with suggestions popped up with …. “Wake” by Robert J. Sawyer. After a brief “now, wait a minute” moment, I saw (!) that Audible really did a bang-up job of producing the book. They went with five separate narrators — which is probably the only way you can do it, the book shifting through various character viewpoints which you HAVE to keep straight if you’re going to follow the story.

    I’m almost through. The only thing I dislike is that I’m going to have to WAIT until the next volume comes out, and even longer for the last.

  18. Hi Nick #6 here (not Nick #2),

    John, just wanted to say thanks for the RJ Sawyer Big Idea post. I’ve known of Mr. Sawyer for years, but not actually picked up any of this books before now. Based on the post, I bought WWW: Wake this weekend (from an independent bookstore). I really enjoyed it.

    Not to post a long book review but, unlike other books I’ve read recently, this one was a breeze to read and kept me engaged. I read it on a flight to Texas. I started the book when I got to my seat, barely registered the takeoff, and was startled by the descent. Finished it that night in the hotel room. Now awaiting the sequel(s).

    So here’s more evidence, if more was needed, that the Big Idea successfully gets authors’ works into the hands of new readers while it makes your readership aware of works they might want to check out. A good deal all around.