Monday, June 14, 2010

WWW:WATCH by Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is the author of the novel FLASHFORWARD upon which the TV Series FLASHFORWARD is based.

OK, FLASHFORWARD is not Romance at all - it's very mundane and very simplistic SF with a mystery plot.

That's why it got made into a TV show by a network, not even scifi channel. It's aimed at that broad audience we've been talking about luring into the Romance genre with mixing genres.

Sawyer is an excellent writer, a seasoned craftsman and major award winner in the spotlight, which is another reason he got a novel made into a TV show by a network.

He doesn't write ROMANCE, or even Intimate Adventure actually, but he has been starting to toy with adding Relationship genre motifs to his SF.

And that could be why his SF is thriving while many other brands are wilting.

Last week, Tuesday June 8, 2010, on my post was about a question asked of me for an interview on SF Signal's mind-meld feature.

The question was about whether there is an inherent incompatibility between SF and Romance genres which causes a taboo response by SF readers to Romance elements.

My response was like this:

Ten years from now, nobody will remember that it was ever possible to write SF or Romance as separate genres.

The reason for that is that both SF(including Fantasy) and Romance are "Wish Fulfillment Fantasy" genres.

We enjoy the stories that show us how to get our heart's desire.

SF delivers the heart's desire of someone who wants to be loved as the one person who actually understands what's going on and can solve the problem innovatively, thinking outside the box.

Romance delivers the heart's desire of someone who wants to be loved because they are more important than war, work, politics or sports - loved, admired and valued because they are understood completely (no matter how far outside the box the guy has to think in order to grasp the intricate complexities of who this very special person (me!) is.

Now you explain to me how those could possibly be incompatible objectives?

Robert J. Sawyer has captured the essence of that blend of wishfulfillment in his WWW trilogy.

DISCLAIMER: the publisher sends me these novels free for my professional review column. But many publishers send me many novels, as I have discussed here:

I don't bring you all or even a substantial part of what I read.

Sawyer's work however is of interest in our analysis of how to raise the prestige level of mixed-genre-Romance in the eyes of the gatekeepers and the general public. Go to Amazon and read the customer (somewhat mixed) comments on these novels and think about the reader resistance to adding relationship threads.

WWW: Wake (WWW Trilogy)

and now

WWW: Watch

...soon be followed by WWW:WONDER

The worldbuilding premise is geekish wish fulfillment. The lost packets floating around the World Wide Web somehow reach critical mass and WAKE to become conscious, an AI personality, that is in the second book WATCHED by USA and other national intelligence agencies. A political decision is made to kill the AI.

The main human character is a blind, geekish (math whiz) girl of 16 who is given an implant behind one eye which allows her to see. The signal for her eye streams through the web, and she participates in the waking (and watching) of the AI.

She acquires a boyfriend who is also a math whiz, off the charts kind of guy, whose face is deformed by a birth defect and so he's also a social outsider in the teen world, not just for his brains.

WATCH is really the story of the AI learning to read everything floating on the Web (even private email) and interact with humans. The girl is his main tutor, and this project (bring up AI) becomes her main interest until she falls for the boyfriend.

So a boy and girl geek interact with an AI that emerges to consciousness and developes a personality -- while the Authorities of the world try to kill it. Pretty much a 1950's Heinlein plot.

There is a B-story that hasn't matured yet, about some scientists who have taught a Bonobo-Chimpanzee crossbreed American Sign Language, and had him sign via web-cam with an Orangutan. That thread seems intrusive and annoying at times, even though it's intrinsically interesting. Thematically, it's tightly related to the emerging AI because it's all about the definition of "person" of "consciousness" and "self-awareness." Very philosophical, symbolic, and scientific.

The AI does interact with the Bonobo-Chimp without humans knowing.

I expect that thread, along with some political actions from Japan and China to climax in the third novel.

But here in the second novel (which as you can see from Amazon didn't satisfy all readers expectations raised in the first novel) we have a very smooth integration of human sexual emergence (boy meets girl) with the geekish "raise an AI to self-awareness" story.

Thematically, the two are related, and there is an expository lump or two making sure the reader can see the relationship between genetics, evolution, survival of the fittest, survival of the species, and the survival value of consciousness itself.

As boy and girl start to make out in the girl's parents basement office, they discuss the reasons she doesn't want to have children, and how evolution has allowed self-aware consciousness to continue to exist because conscious decisions can over-ride genetic-survival of me-and-mine for the greater good.

There is also a tutorial on games theory included, all subjects of intrinsic fascination for geekish math types, but also philosophically integral with the artistic worldbuilding, not overly long, and not boring to the general reader.

However, that one kissing scene is cut strategically short when the AI tells them that "he" is under attack.

Yes, the girl chooses to regard Webmind (the AI) as a "he." And that is not properly discussed or explained.

But here's the thing. This very SF, very geekish novel has a pattern of RELATIONSHIPS rooted in deep characterization -- and that pattern actually resembles the pattern formed by the packets that are the substance of the AI's consciousness.

There is symmetry within symmetry.

And the whole, very sophisticated, very philosophical, very abstract, very geekish novel is set in an absolutely contemporary (Obama Administration - the Obama name as President is actually mentioned once in print) setting.

The worldbuilding is totally mundane, just like FLASHFORWARD, except for one thing that the ordinary science going on today MIGHT POSSIBLY produce.

Sawyer has created a formula for engaging the general, non-SF audience, in SF. Contemporary, mundane setting (just like many urban fantasies), plus detailed characterization -- and now adding just a hint of Relationship.

If you study these novels carefully, noting how Sawyer handles the geekish expository lumps, how long they are, what precedes them, what is built later on the knowledge imparted to the reader (the lumps include only the barest essence of what you need to know to understand what comes next) -- then in your mind substitute the typical ROMANCE GENRE passages of emotional introspection and speculation about others feelings, and the conversations about emotions -- you will come up with a pacing formula that could let Romance reach a broader general audience.

Sawyer's success is built on his firm grasp of this purely mechanical pacing technique together with the artistic and philosophical symmetry, and symbolism.

For example, our geek-girl heroine's father is an autistic Physicist at the very top of the field of Physics (works with Stephen Hawkings). Her mother is a Ph.D. in economics who specializes in games theory.

The geek-girl's mother and father exemplify an Alien Romance relationship. The geek-girl's relationship with the AI exemplifies an Alien Romance (but just in the way the girl's affections are engaged) that reminds me of Hal Clement's MISSION OF GRAVITY where a human male interacts with a very alien Alien developing an inter-dependency.

That kind of Relationship is exemplified on another level between the geek-girl and the geek-boy. While at another point, the Bonobo-Chimp hybrid declares he wants to be a father (he's being threatened with castration).

The loving, stable, emotional Relationship between the geek-girl's parents (which allows her to engage them in fostering the AI) mirrors all the other Relationships, and continues to probe the question of what is self-awareness and what has awareness of OTHERS to do with self-awareness.
What is the role of consciousness in Relationship?

Watch FLASHFORWARD (it's about to be cancelled, but I'm sure it will be on DVD, online, and rerun) and/or read the novel. Study the WWW Trilogy. Apply the lessons you learn to Alien Romance, and we may have the start of a formula for changing the perception of the genre.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg (current availability) (complete biblio-bio)


  1. Interesting and thoughtful analysis, Jacqueline. I wouldn't normally comment on such a blog post, but since we know each other a bit in real life, what the heck. :)

    Of course, I don't agree with all of your analysis, although I did enjoy reading it :). But I do think, given that you're writing about science fiction and relationships, you actually missed a significant point. You wrote, "Yes, the girl chooses to regard Webmind (the AI) as a 'he.' And that is not properly discussed or explained."

    Au contraire. Caitlin ruminates for some time in Chapter 8 of Watch about whether to address Webmind as male or female, and she makes her decision based on which of the people she has relationships with she feels Webmind most resembles: Webmind reminds her of her autistic father. As the novel says:


    She [Caitlin] looked at her mother, and at her father, and --

    Her father. Who thought in pictures, not words. Who was far more intelligent than most mortals. And who, she had to admit, really had no idea at all how to deal with human beings.

    "It's not an it," she said decisively. "Webmind is a he.




  2. I hate to say it, but when I read it, I didn't like his handling of female characters all that well. So I shudder to think of you applying the word relationship to this author. Romance or SFR is NOT something I would read from this author.

    *knee-jerk reaction sequence now complete*

  3. Robert:

    I'm glad you did comment, but gladder that you read this item. I hope it gave you other matters to think about.

    I will give this WWW trilogy top marks in my SF/F print review column.

    This blog is, however, focused on the mixed-genre Romance reader/writer. And there's turbulence at the interface between Romance and SF/F genres of all sorts.

    As you can see from the comment right below yours, those looking for a relationship plot can barely find anything resembling relationship in this SF world of WWW.

    The commenter did not see your comment before commenting -- I just now authorized both posts through blogger.

    So these are independent views from 2 vastly different perspectives -- which clearly and cleanly illustrate my point.

    I did read with microscopic analysis the portion where Caitlin ruminates over the AI's gender. I thought about that passage for a good long time.

    You have so captured the knife-edge balance between the SF novel and the Romance novel. And that's why you're reaching such a wide audience now.

    If you had written for the Romance reader, you might have lost some of the audience you've cultivated.

    My posts on this blog have mostly been about how Romance itself can reach the audience you are engaging.

    But of course, there's the reverse issue - how the SF writer can (without compromising) reach the Romance readership.

    Now I grew up on SF before "Fantasy" split off, and before Romance allowed any female character a college education and driving, ambitious career track.

    I like Caitlin because in many ways I can identify with her, and in other ways she's sooooo different.

    I can see how her ability to form Relationships is challenged by circumstances and personality, and how the tropism toward Relationship is awakening in her as Webmind awakens. I think the handling of that parallel masterful.

    But I can also see how it could be unsatisfying to readers looking for more Relationship plot.

    I followed Caitlin's reasoning in assigning gender to Webmind (masterfully artistic), but if this were a Romance, that issue would have pervaded every chapter, and every conversation with her boyfriend(s).

    It would not be a question answered firmly, and set behind -- it would be the core of the matter, an ongoing worry, and a plot-direction determinant.

    Having reached such a level of skill and artistry in your writing, you might consider attempting an actual Romance, just as an exercise to expand skills, not necessarily for publication.

  4. Bratty:

    It's really odd, considering what I just wrote to Robert whose comment you had not seen when you dropped yours, but I actually agree with both of you, and that is exactly why I love this WWW trilogy.

    It is a perfect example of SF approaching R from the SF side, while most of what you and I gravitate toward is R approaching SF from the R side.

    If we are to achieve the popularization of the mixed SF/F Romance genre (aliendjinnromances) that we look for (in say, a great Vampire Romance; magical beings in a galactic setting) we need to study Sawyer's entire body of work from the INSIDE OUT -- not just the outside in, and see step by step how he got here, and where he might go from here.

    It's not salient that you wouldn't read this author for a Relationship Novel - but it is salient WHY you would choose not to.

    And the why isn't about that you just don't like it, or it doesn't meet your standards in handling female characters so therefore it's not SFR -- the why I'm looking for lies within the masterful artistry of what he does, not what he doesn't do.

    To find this particular "why," we need to imbibe and actually enjoy novels of this type (and there are precious few!) for their own sakes, from the point of view of the intended audience, reveling in the payload the novel does deliver, not focused on what it does not deliver.

    If we can't expand our tastes, how can we expect the "general public" to expand theirs?

    I'm driving toward a kind of binocular vision found mostly among world-class classical artists, a depth-of-field focus that allows for both points of view at once and combines them into a richer, deeper image.

    As you can see from my posts on this blog, it's an ongoing inquiry with lots of hard questions. The point of those questions (and my blatant opinions) is to make you disagree then wonder why you disagree.

    If my questions bother enough people on enough fronts, we may actually solve this problem -- might even create world peace while we're at it.


    Is a YouTube video trailer for this novel trilogy - done with cast and crew just like a movie.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg