I, consciousness

When a little girl shows up on Margaret Quinn’s doorstep in the middle of a snowstorm, she doesn’t call Child Protective Services. Instead, she invites Norah in, makes her at home and concocts a plot to pass the 9-year-old off as her granddaughter.

Keith Donohue’s second book, Angels of Destruction, unwinds a quarter century’s worth of mystery by creating another mystery: Who is Norah, where did she come from, and what is her connection to the Angels of Destruction, a ’70s political cult even weirder, more violent and less organized than the Symbionese Liberation Army?

Donohue, whose first novel, The Stolen Child, was very well-received, isn’t writing horror or occult fiction so much as he is creating a mystic atmosphere around the mundane. Margaret Quinn’s daughter has been gone for a long time; she ran off with her boyfriend to join the Angels of Destruction and is presumed dead. But Margaret clings to the belief that she’s alive, and her desire for Norah to be her granddaughter is almost enough to make it so. The language is dense and dreamlike, reflecting the difficulty that the characters themselves seem to have with separating reality from the stuff of their dreams.

But what if the angel that answers our deepest prayers has an agenda of her own? Margaret’s dream of family and Norah’s insistence on having her own way set up a dramatic collision that Donohue navigates deftly. With lush language and a rich emotional terrain to cover, Angels of Destruction is a dark but hopeful fable of family.

And at the heart of family lies individual identity—consciousness, if you will. Science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer has tackled the subject of what makes us human in a number of best-selling novels, returning several times to the difference between intelligence and consciousness. In his latest, the first of a trilogy, Sawyer asks: What makes us alive?

Caitlin Decter is a math savant with wicked-good computer skills. She’s also congenitally blind and has given up on ever gaining sight. Then a researcher comes up with a new, Internet-based device, and she decides to give it a try. It seems to have failed; instead of seeing the world, Caitlin sees the inside of the Internet.

Then it gets really interesting: Caitlin is not alone inside the Web.

Sawyer’s fascination with the birth of consciousness and the relationship of consciousness to humanity makes this more than your typical “the machine is alive” story. Likewise, his compassionate writing lets us avoid the trap of assuming monstrosity in difference. As Caitlin and the consciousness of the Web learn to communicate, readers can easily begin to question what it is that makes us human—and whether or not that is enough to make us special, or just one variation among all consciousness, artificial or natural. Like all great science fiction, Sawyer’s work ultimately stirs up philosophical questions, and WWW: Wake is no exception.