Saturday, May 07, 2011

Wonder a work of moral complexity

Book 49: Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer 

Since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a significant body of science fiction has explored the moral consequences of scientific endeavor. Other writers, Robert Sawyer among them, have extended the genre's exploration of moral consequences to decisions made by individuals, governments and humanity writ large.

In his most recent novel, Wonder, Sawyer concludes that humanity is doing just fine, thank you.

Wonder, part of a trilogy that began with Wake and Watch, examines what might happen when the Internet wakes up.  There is a long tradition of speculation among writers about what the emergence of an A.I. -- artificial intelligence -- might mean to the fate of humanity.

Mainly, the speculation is that a sentient machine is not good for humanity.  Recall Hal 9000 from Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Colossus by D.F. Jones (both which became films) or, in film,The Matrix. One of the characters in Wonder asks, Why are the representations of a sentient machine, in books and film, always evil?

Sawyer ask that question too in the course of the trilogy. His A.I., dubbed Webmind, is benevolent. First discovered and then tutored by a teenage girl, Caitlin Decter, the Webmind, is committed to aiding the advancement of humankind.

In the course of the novel Webmind cures cancer, sets to work eliminating AIDs, brings Democracy to China and is willing -- and most capable -- of serving as Dear Abby to millions of human on a one-to-one basis. Settling merely for an appearance on Jeopardy is far from this clever machine's mind.

Caitlin is one of Sawyer's most fully drawn characters. Her and her family (her father is autistic) and cast of school friends add richness to Sawyer's novel and help us to understand what the emergence of an A.I. might mean to a man rather than the collective mankind.  There is, for example, a scene late in the book when a high school bully who is threatening Caitlin's boyfriend is cowed by the "light" and enlightenment that Webmind has brought to the world.

Caitlin's mother, Barb, and Webmind engage is a "chat" about a moral arrow, the concept that through time humans have progressively widened the circle of entities they consider worthy of moral consideration -- men of other races, women, gays, the unborn, animals and, naturally in Wonder, a sentient machine. (It's also worth noting that Sawyer launched this moral arrow a long ago in others books where the moral arrow has encompassed aliens and Neanderthals.)

Not that everything in Wonder is sunshine and roses.  Whether it's a schoolyard bully, a zoo that wishes to neuter an exceptionally intelligent ape, oppression in China or a heavy-handed American government that fears what it doesn't understand, Sawyer acknowledges wildly varying levels of moral development. The tension in Wonder derives from our government's efforts to destroy Webmind before "he" becomes too powerful.

Sawyer delivers a thoughtful, entertaining exploration of what the emergence of a sentient machine might mean to the humanity. His approach -- to humanity's fate and to a machine that's smarter than us all -- is a rarity in the annals of science fiction.

For as we've come to expect from this author, Wonder is a work of moral complexity, filled with optimism and hope.

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