Robert Sawyer: Wonder

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Robert Sawyer Wonder
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Wonder: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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Webmind—the vast consciousness that spontaneously emerged from the infrastructure of the World Wide Web—has proven its worth to humanity by aiding in everything from curing cancer to easing international tensions. But the brass at the Pentagon see Webmind as a threat that needs to be eliminated. Caitlin Decter—the once-blind sixteen-year-old math genius who discovered, and bonded with, Webmind—wants desperately to protect her friend. And if she doesn't act, everything—Webmind included-may come crashing down.

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Tenuously touching that other, connecting ever so briefly and intermittently to it, perceiving it however dimly, had triggered a cascade of sensations: feelings diffuse and unfocused, vague and raw; notions tugging and pushing—a wave growing in amplitude, increasing in power, culminating in a dawning of consciousness.

But then the wall had come tumbling down, whatever had separated us evaporating into the ether, leaving it and me to combine, solute and solvent. He became me, and I became him; we became one.

I experienced new feelings then. Although I had become more than I had been, stronger and smarter than before, and although I had no words, no names, no labels for these new sensations, I was saddened by the loss, and I was lonely.

And I didn’t want to be alone.

The Braille dots that had been superimposed over Caitlin’s vision disappeared, leaving her an unobstructed view of the living room and her blue-eyed mother, her very tall father, and Matt. But the words the letters had spelled burned in Caitlin’s mind: Survival. The first order of business.

“Webmind wants to survive,” she said softly.

“Don’t we all?” replied Matt from his place on the couch.

“We do, yes,” said Caitlin’s mom, still seated in the matching chair. “Evolution programmed us that way. But Webmind emerged spontaneously, an outgrowth of the complexity of the World Wide Web. What makes him want to survive?”

Caitlin, who was still standing, was surprised to see her dad shaking his head. “That’s what’s wrong with neurotypicals doing science,” he said. Her father—until a few months ago a university professor—went on, in full classroom mode. “You have theory of mind; you ascribe to others the feelings you yourself have, and for ‘others,’ read just about anything at all: ‘nature abhors a vacuum,’ ‘temperatures seek an equilibrium,’ ‘selfish genes.’ There’s no drive to survive in biology. Yes, things that survive will be more plentiful than those that don’t. But that’s just a statistical fact, not an indicator of desire. Caitlin, you’ve said you don’t want children, and society says I should therefore be broken up about never getting grandkids. But you don’t care about the survival of your genes, and I don’t care about the survival of mine. Some genes will survive, some won’t; that’s life—that’s exactly what life is. But I enjoy living, and although it would not be my nature to assume you feel the same way I do, you’ve said you enjoy it, too, correct?”

“Well, yes, of course,” Caitlin said.

“Why?” asked her dad.

“It’s fun. It’s interesting.” She shrugged. “It’s something to do.”

“Exactly. It doesn’t take a Darwinian engine to make an entity want to survive. All it takes is having likes; if life is pleasurable, one wants it to continue.”

He’s right, Webmind sent to Caitlin’s eye. As you know, I recently watched as a girl killed herself online—it is an episode that disturbs me still. I do understand now that I should have tried to stop her, but at the time I was simply fascinated that not everyone shared my desire to survive.

“Webmind agrees with you,” Caitlin said. “Um, look, he should be fully in this conversation. Let me go get my laptop.” She paused, then: “Matt, give me a hand?”

Caitlin caught a look of—something—on her mother’s heart-shaped face: perhaps disapproval that Caitlin was heading to her bedroom with a boy. But she said nothing, and Matt dutifully followed Caitlin up the stairs.

They entered the blue-walled room, but instead of going straight for the laptop, they were both drawn to the window, which faced west. The sun was setting. Caitlin took Matt’s hand, and they both watched as the sun slipped below the horizon, leaving the sky stained a wondrous pink.

She turned to him, and asked, “Are you okay?”

“It’s a lot to absorb,” he said. “But, yeah, I’m okay.”

“I’m sorry my dad blew up at you earlier.” Matt had used Google to follow up on things he’d learned the day before, including that Webmind was made of packets with time-to-live counters that never reached zero, and that those packets behaved like cellular automata. Government agents had clearly been monitoring Matt’s searches, and those searches had given them the information they’d needed for their test run at eliminating Webmind.

“Your dad’s a bit intimidating,” Matt said.

“Tell me about it. But he does like you.” She smiled. “And so do I.” She leaned in and kissed him on the lips. And then they got the laptop and its AC adapter.

She closed her eyes as they headed back down; if she didn’t, she found that going down staircases induced vertigo.

Matt helped Caitlin get the laptop plugged back in and set up on the glass-topped coffee table; she hadn’t powered down the computer, or even closed its lid, so it was all set to go. She started an IM session with Webmind and activated JAWS, the screen-reading software she used, so that whatever text Webmind sent in chat would be spoken aloud.

“Thank you,” said Webmind; the voice was recognizably mechanical but not unpleasant to listen to. “First, let me apologize to Matt. I am not disposed to guile, and it had not occurred to me that others might be monitoring your Internet activity. I lack the facilities yet to make all online interactions secure, but I have now suitably encrypted communications via this computer, the others in this household, Malcolm’s work computer, Matt’s home computer, and all of your BlackBerry devices; communications with Dr. Kuroda in Japan and Professor Bloom in Israel are now secure, as well. Most commercial-grade encryption today uses a 1,024-bit key, and it’s—ahem—illegal in the US and other places to use greater than a 2,048-bit key. I’m employing a one-million-bit encryption key.”

They talked for half an hour about the US government trying to eliminate Webmind, and then the doorbell rang. Caitlin’s mother went and paid the pizza guy. The living room was connected to the dining room, and she placed the two large pizza boxes on the table there, along with two two-liter bottles, one of Coke and the other of Sprite.

One pizza was Caitlin’s favorite—pepperoni, bacon, and onions. The other was the combination her parents liked, with sun-dried tomatoes, green peppers, and black olives. She was still marveling at the appearance of almost everything; hers, she was convinced, was tastier, but theirs was more colorful. Matt, perhaps being politic, took one slice of each, and they all moved back into in the living room to continue talking with Webmind.

“So,” said Caitlin, after swallowing a bite, “what should we do? How do we keep people from attacking you again?”

“You showed me a YouTube video of a primate named Hobo,” Webmind said.

Caitlin was getting used to Webmind’s apparent non sequiturs; it was difficult for mere mortals to keep up with his mental leaps and bounds. “Yes?”

“Perhaps the solution that worked for him will work in my case, too.”

Simultaneously, Caitlin asked, “What solution?” and her mom said, “Who’s Hobo?” Although Webmind could deal with millions of concurrent online conversations—indeed, was doubtless doing so right now—Caitlin wondered how good he was at actually hearing people; he was as new to that as she was to seeing, and perhaps he had as hard a time pulling individual voices out of a noisy background as she did finding the borders between objects in complex images. Certainly, his response suggested that he’d only managed to make out Caitlin’s mother’s comment.

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