Book: The Blackstone Key

This book was written by Rose Melikan and published in 2008; I "read" it as an audiobook - a format I increasingly find myself using - and enjoyed it immensely. In style it is Historical Romance and Mystery combined and is set in the year 1795, mostly in East Anglia.

The story concerns the adventure of a young lady, Mary Finch, who has been orphaned and then receives a message from her estranged Uncle...

Book: "WWW: Watch" by Robert J Sawyer

WWW: Watch continues the story started in WWW: Wake about the emergence of an artificial intelligence on the world wide web and the girl, Caitlin, who helps mentor it in this journey. By the end of the first part of the book, Caitlin and the intelligence have "met" each other and Caitlin has decided to help the intelligence, who has chosen the name "Webmind" and which she has decides to dub "male". As with the previous book in the series, I listened to it as an audiobook from Audible, a production that involved several readers. As before, the characterisations imposed by the readers are good and the reading pace is excellent.

Another strand in the book, that of the bonobo monkey researchers, is starting to become more detailed too, and in this book it is becoming more obvious than before why the strand is there: the developing conciousness of the ape mirrors to some extent that of Webmind. The final strand, lightly touched on in the first book, is that of WATCH, a US internet agency tasked with ensuring that US national security is not breached. In WWW: Watch, we see the first understanding in WATCH about the existence and nature of Webmind and see how they, Webmind and Caitlin react.

As the story develops, we get to understand more of the backstory of Caitlin and her parents,and the reasons for their current situation and move into Canada from their previous home in Arizona. We also see the rapid growth of intelligence in Webmind as it absorbs new knowledge and develops ways to process information more effectively.

More importantly and more interesting, Sawyer's narrative through the book describes a view of conciousness and morality that is interesting and enlightening, and I for one am glad that this is so: good SciFi should expand on human understanding and experience, not just reflect it. Partly through Caitlin's guidance we see Webmind advance from a being that simply does whatever it wants to one that understands constraint can be a good thing that you chose to impose on yourself.

In book one, we learnt that Webmind is supposed to be built on top of stray packets on the web that in aggregate form the building blocks. In this book, that thought is amplified and yet I still don't believe it. Knowing what I do about the way the internet is structured, it makes no sense that stray packets can be manipulated in the ways suggested. I ended up thinking "whatever" and ignoring it; the book is worth it despite this, but I would have been much happier with either something I could believe in, or at least without an explanation I found so unbelievable.

Again, despite the reservation above, a very good read and much recommended. And again, I'm looking forward to book 3!

Book: "WWW: Wake" by Robert J Sawyer

WWW: WatchWWW: WatchWWW: Wake is a sci-fi book centred around the emergence of an artificial intelligence through the medium of the world wide web, and its interaction with a human, a girl called Caitlin who has been blind from birth. This book is the first in a series of three novels; it will be followed by WWW: Watch and finally WWW: Wonder.

I "read" this book in audio form as a download from Audible. It has been recorded using several reader, rather than by just one.

The book has three strands of narrative. The first is that of the artificial intelligence itself - we "hear" its thoughts although nobody in the book-world does so directly. The second is the group of people centred around Caitlin - her parents, friends and others. The final group, seemingly unconnected, is a group of scientists who are studying a bonobo ape who has been taught to communicate in sign language.

One aspect that I found very interesting was that of Caitlin's blindness. Sawyer in the foreward states he asked in the blind community for feedback on this aspect and what results is both believable and illuminating. Early on in the book we get a simile on what it is like for a blind-from-birth person not seeing: it is said to be like a sighted person not being able to detect magnetic fields - that is, you has no comprehension of what it is like because it is outside of their experience. Being sightless in this case is not "dark" because there is no concept of "light". Later in the book, Caitlin finds out what it is like for a sighted person to lose sight, and even for her it is a very different thing.

I enjoyed this book very much and the narration (esp. the choice of different voices) helped in the characterisation. As the author notes at the beginning, the perspective of someone who has never seen is an interesting one, and the changes that happen as the story evolves only serve to accentuate that. It became the audio equivalent of a page-turner for me, and I am eagerly looking forward to 'WWW: Watch'.

One thing that did appeal is that the approach Sawyer takes to the book is very different to that used by most sci-fi authors. As someone reasonably well read in sci-fi world, I have become somewhat bored by the constant reworking of similar ideas and plots. The characters Sawyer portrays are believable and of sufficient depth (while not being so deep that we get lost in descriptive text), and though the plot is relatively simple it is not too predictable either.

Minor Spoiler Alert:

The only disappointment, from my perspective as someone who understands how the net works very well, is that the way the net intelligence is supposed to have evolved didn't make sense. In some ways I would have preferred not having that explanation - just 'somehow it happened' - although a more believable version would have been even better! The author's description of automata is essentially Conway's 'Game of Life', which is well known and indeed capable of quite amazing things given the simplicity of the rules. However, Life does rely on condition rules - if this then that - and to my knowledge, this doesn't happen with packets on the net as described here.

However, and despite the above disappointment, a good listen.