Watch brings Robert J Sawyer’s WWW trilogy to its midpoint, where the protagonist Caitlin is adjusting to life with eyesight, and the artificial intelligence Webmind is beginning to grow in sapience and understanding, but flags up the attention of the National Security Agency in the process.
Like Wake, the first in the series, Watch is a fascinating novel. Its blend of the fantastic, the technological, the literary and the logical flows effortlessly through the power of Sawyer’s words. We’re not trying to be too hyperbolic by any means, but it’s hard not to get swept away in his distinctive hand, and by the ideas that he presents within the body of the text. The balance of the characters is Watch’s strong point – the titular division of the NSA is neither presented as wholly evil nor totally altruistic, Caitlin is likeable and an able teacher, yet flawed in her own way. Webmind, of course, is the most intriguing character here – one used both as an indirect vessel for Sawyer’s own polemic on technology and science, but also as a baby with the ‘body’ of a superman. He has access to the sum of human knowledge, but doesn’t have the capacity or the ethical programming to make the correct use of it. In the same way, though, it’s refreshing to see a technological character not portrayed as one who will absolutely incinerate all of us, à la Skynet. The danger is there, but it’s the same with all intelligent creatures, and Sawyer’s exploration of that in the context of cyberpunk and science fiction is thrilling.
Unfortunately, flaws lie in the overabundance of pop culture references and the sometimes strenuous presentation of Sawyer’s own views. But all in all this is a great science fiction novel, a melding of Frankenstein, high technology and our own perspectives as people, brought into the context of the modern world with the skill and panache of an exemplary practitioner of the form. Reading the first in the series, however, is an absolute must.