Wake a Ray-Gun

For the past 48 hours I have been reading Robert J. Sawyer’s most recent novel: Wake. It has been awhile since I’ve read Sawyer, or any science-fiction, so I was surprised by Sawyer’s writing style: it is clean writing, simple in its structure and vocabulary, and the effect is crisp and compelling story-telling.

I am not usually a fan of stories from the viewpoint of teenagers or children – Wake is partially told from the point-of-view of a teenage girl – because I find them inauthentic. Perhaps because this is science fiction, I’ve allowed myself to suspend my disbelief more than normal and I’m enjoying this character. However, the character is, IMHO, far too bright, rational, and articulate to be a realistic portrayal, but in the age of witty televised teenage characters (Gilmore Girls, Dawsons Creek, etc) the end product is not too disjointing and is effectively enjoyable.

Wake is situated in the present or the very near present, and the book is peppered with real-world references: many of them are Canadian. Indeed, Sawyer goes out of his way to reference Canada, and some of the time it feels a little forced. I remember this from previous Sawyer novels, so this won’t shock any Sawyer readers. It is interesting to note that Sawyer brings out mainly stereotypes and worn tropes that Canadians constantly use as touchstones in their own national conversation, everything from public health care to Margaret Atwood. I haven’t detected anything new on this front.

I am being perhaps overly critical of Sawyer. This is probably because I’m suspect of Sawyer’s philosophical worldview. This might be baseless, but I’ve felt this was ever since I read his op-ed piece in Macleans magazine in 2002, “Privacy: Who Needs it?“. I realize this was a promotional piece, nevertheless…

The central theme of the book is the concept of consciousness or sentience. Several plot-lines in the book revolve around exploring this theme. Overall, Sawyer does an excellent job.  The problem Sawyer identifies and seeks to overcome is that (for all we can conceive) intelligence can only evolve if it has some sort of sensory data of and active agency in the real world. It is difficult to imagine how an artificial intelligence could possibly overcome these obstacles. In the end Sawyer does a decent job – given that he has limited space in which to work out such an evolution.

a Ray Gun
a Ray Gun

I was moved by certain elements in Wake to go to Sawyer’s website. It was there that I was referred, almost randomly, to The Ray-Gun: A Love Story. This short piece of science fiction was written by a friend of Sawyer, James Alan Gardner, whom I’d never read before. Sawyer conveniently posted a link to an online version of the story. I read it while sitting at my desk at lunch.

What a great read! As long as you are okay with the stripped down, slightly wry narrative, you’ll be rewarded with an excellent story. The Ray-Gun was shortlisted for a Hugo this year, and has half-a-dozen, mostly positive, reviews kicking around the web.

This simple, straight-forward story centres on a teenage boy who finds a ray-gun. The ray-gun subsequently goes on to play a central role in his life, affecting his relationships and his path in life. Despite the simple narrative, the story has an allegorical power in it. The ray-gun device is somewhere along the continuum between a McGuffin and Chekov’s gun, depending on how much weight you give certain theories about the ray-gun that arise during the story. The story ultimately has a lot to say about relationships and growing-up. The story – in spite of its ray-gun centerpiece – rings true, with believable characters.

The Ray-Gun failed to win the Hugo in its category, likely because (as pointed out in one of the reviews I read) it isn’t very “science-fictiony.” But I don’t think it serves the genre very well to take that approach.

Regardless, it is a great story, a quick and fun read, and I highly recommend it.

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