From the first blog post I wrote about books with blind characters, I’ve been regularly encouraged to read and review Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW series, about a blind teenager who becomes friends with the World Wide Web. In my defense… I tried to read the first book, Wake. I tried more than once. But science fiction really isn’t my thing, and I found I couldn’t give the book an objective review because of it.
Thankfully, my dear friend Meagan stepped up and offered to read and review the book, and graciously allowed me to edit it and publish it here on my blog. Thanks, Meagan, for taking time out of your hectic schedule to help a friend!
About the Book
Caitlin Decter is young, pretty, feisty, a genius at math – and blind. Still, she can surf the net with the best of them, following its complex paths clearly in her mind.
But Caitlin’s brain long ago co-opted her primary visual cortex to help her navigate online. So when she receives an implant to restore her sight, instead of seeing reality, the landscape of the World Wide Web explodes into her consciousness, spreading out all around her in a riot of colors and shapes.
While exploring this amazing realm, she discovers something – some other – lurking in the background. And it’s getting more and more intelligent with each passing day.
this book is like so many sci-fi books I’ve read: the premise is absolutely fascinating, and the research is impressive. Here, our author spares us no details, and it’s clear that he’s given this book an enormous amount of careful
thought. I like his imagination, his intelligence, and his clear
commitment to fleshing out a complicated idea in a way that’s accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, character development, stilted writing and narrative flow are sacrificed in the name of a good plot. The science, while being fascinating and necessary, often crowds the story itself, dismissing the characters to a shadowy corner while the author embarks upon complex trains of thought.
Even with a unique protagonist, it seemed that Sawyer attempted to insert excess emotional depth while leaving some characters stilted and wooden.
This isn’t to say that the author did not sometimes strike gold. There
were moments of startling brilliance in this book, where I actually
found myself tearing up. Caitlin’s interactions with Webmind, for example, while awkwardly written, are fun and engaging and wonderfully quaint. It made me
wonder what it would really be like to converse with a whole new kind of consciousness–something I’d often pondered briefly but never been moved to really sink my teeth into.
How do the Blind… do… Anything? TMI!
I began this book being quite dismayed, and mostly stayed that way throughout the book. The author, in typical scifi writer fashion, gave us far too much information about how Caitlin does every little thing. He goes so far as to explain the precise keystrokes she uses to operate her screen reader, which interrupts the flow of the text and was really distracting to me. We do not need to know that she has just hit a command to shift her computer’s focus or make her screen reader read an entire email aloud. I understand that the author is trying to help us understand blind people, but the execution is downright painful. Sadly, this pattern continued, broken only occasionally by relevant information (for instance, describing cane travel). Right through to the end, though, we’re bombarded with essentially useless trivia about how Caitlin navigates her world, even at times when it really disrupts everything else.
Nuggets of Gold
Now, the author did get a couple of things exactly right–so right it was almost uncomfortable. He pegged the social isolation, the transition from a dedicated school for the blind to a mainstream school, and the general anxiety a teenage girl will feel when she’s getting to know a new boy. When the boy in question mistreats her because of her blindness, the devastation and humiliation she experiences are achingly familiar. I sucked in my breath and skimmed for a while, not wanting to linger in that place longer than I needed to. I imagine this will have an impact on sighted readers, who understand intellectually why this behaviour would be wrong but may not be able to tell exactly how it might feel until they are forced to imagine it directly.
The other thing I liked about this character was her frustration with the world at large. She’s fiercely independent, gifted and capable, but she still has to deal with people’s perceptions of her. Her struggle to preserve bodily autonomy and personal agency are, once again, very familiar to me. While she’s still getting used to her new school, her tray is physically taken from her hands, even after she has said she does not want to have it carried for her. Her own wishes are considered irrelevant, which so often happens to us when we don’t want help and are given it nonetheless. I can identify with her annoyance and sense of futility.
The author also portrayed well the assumptions and mistakes made by parents, even when they have parented a blind child for such a long time. Caitlin still has to remind her parents that she does not use a mouse, or that she can’t perceive this or that. The moments of awkwardness stand out sharply because her family is so used to her the rest of the time. I have experienced this with my own family: 22 years later and they still slip up sometimes. I see it as an encouraging sign: it means they’re not constantly thinking of me as “other.”
Regaining Sight: the Miracle Cure
Now, to address the part of the story I have little knowledge of: the process of gaining sight when you’ve never had any. I’ve been severely visually impaired my whole life, but I do have enough sight to understand concepts like colour and light. Caitlin didn’t have any of this, so when she was given it almost all at once, I expected her to be more than excited. I expected her to be overwhelmed, anxious, even scared. I thought that all the new stimuli going to her brain would, at the very least, throw her off for a bit. While she is definitely dazzled by her new vision, and it takes her a while to learn how to use it, the transition seems far too easy to be realistic. The author portrays the blindness cure as something that will somehow turn Caitlin’s life right around and fix her. She is so gloriously happy and comfortable with her new sense almost right away, which rings false to me. Again, I can’t say what it would be like, but judging by deaf people’s reactions when they hear for the first time, it would be far more impactful than this author is making it look. Again, we have a case of the plot moving relentlessly onward, giving Caitlin hardly any time to adjust.
The author had the right idea, and was working with some very interesting plot points. He captured moments of raw emotional power, and tackled controversial issues with grace. That said, the prose was often stilted, the characters poorly-developed, and the blind character awkwardly-written. I would not recommend the book to a blind person, and would hesitate to recommend it at all, as a general reader. I have little patience with clumsy writing, so while I really did want to like this book, I could hardly even finish it.
Simon Jaeger said:
When these books were first being written, the author reached out to people on a mailing list for details on how blind people could accomplish things. I don’t know how many of his fictional experiences were based on this information, but I suspect the level of detail seems normal to him, while the activities (and exact methods) seem normal to us. It’s clearly meant as a demonstration, and I suspect many sighted people would have their own complaints if some of the details were removed. Whether we like it or not, they want to know how we do things, and sometimes refuse to acknowledge a possibility until it’s explained in painful detail. Just try giving someone a one-sentence explanation when asked how you use your smartphone. Everyone knows they can talk, but nobody stops to consider the other use for that technology, even when confronted by someone who needs it.
I was a lot younger when I first read these, and wasn’t nearly as observant then, but I recall having similar thoughts about the characters. Some of them seemed very underdeveloped. He doesn’t seem to have the usual misconceptions, which makes me want to read his other books to see if character development is an actual problem or not. For the most part, I did enjoy these books and plan on re-reading them when I have the chance. Webmind was oddly realistic, even if certain small details were a bit of a stretch.
Interesting thoughts! Would be interested in hearing what you have to say after rereading the book. 🙂
I’m with you, blindbeader. I just cannot connect with science fiction. Have you ever tried books by Ray Bradbury, though? They hint a science fiction but somehow stay in reality, kind of like your fabulous Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. If you’re going to try RB, I suggest you start with Dandelion Wine or Fahrenheit 451.
Confession time! I have never read Margaret Atwood. Should change that, yeah? 🙂