Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

I was blind for six days

by Rob - July 23rd, 2010.
Filed under: Wake.

When I was twelve, I was blind for six days.

I live in Toronto. Back then we got a lot of snow in winter, and kids had a blast making snowballs. But, as the saying goes, it’s all fun and games until some loses an eye — and I came darn close. A snowball hit me smack in the eye, causing a severe hyphema. I had to lie flat on my back for six days with patches over both eyes, in hopes that the damage would heal.

And it did: I’ve long since forgotten which eye was injured, and my current ophthalmologist can’t tell which one it was. But, still, that period of blindness has stuck with me: ever since those six days, I’ve been fascinated by the notion of sensory deprivation. I knew I was going to get my sight back when the patches came off (even in the worst case, I’d still have sight in one eye). But what, I wondered, would it be like to have always been blind? What view — and I used that term advisedly — of the world would one have if one couldn’t see?

And that, in many ways, was the seed from which my novel Wake grew. The main human character is Caitlin Decter, a 15-year-old math genius who has been totally blind since birth.

But there’s another character in Wake who can’t see, either: a nascent consciousness that’s emerged in the background infrastructure of the World Wide Web. It thinks — and maybe even feels — but cannot perceive. It is utterly alone and isolated.

Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. I had neither will nor intellect. My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith.

I wish I could take credit for that poetically beautiful bit of writing, but I can’t. The author is Helen Keller, in her 1904 book The World I Live In. She was blind and deaf from her 18th month, and had descended into an abyss. The teacher she alludes to was Annie Sullivan, a young woman who herself had spent much of her life almost blind. Annie reached down into that abyss and brought Helen out, uplifting her.

And perhaps Caitlin Decter — who understands in a way very few others possibly can what it’s like to live without light — can uplift the nascent consciousness she’s stumbled upon, too.

Of course, I drew on my own boyhood taste of blindness in writing Caitlin, and also on my experience of having had a blind grandfather. But, in a fitting move given that I was writing about the World Wide Web, I also received enormous help online from members of the BlindMath mailing list — a group for visually impaired people who do the kind of sophisticated math my Caitlin revels in. Five members of the list read the entire book in manuscript (using refreshable Braille displays to work from an electronic file), and their input was invaluable.

Caitlin has a fascinating journey in Wake, and so does the consciousness she’s discovered. But that book is just the beginning: their story continues in Watch and concludes in Wonder, making this — yes — the WWW trilogy. Although these are my 18th, 19th, and 20th novels, they’ve proven to be the most difficult — and most rewarding — ones I’ve ever written. I hope you enjoy them.

Robert J. Sawyer is one of only seven writers in history to win all three of the world’s top awards for best science fiction novel of the year: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. His physical home is just outside Toronto; in webspace, it’s

Robert J. Sawyer online:

2 Responses to I was blind for six days

  1. I always love hearing the inspiration for novels–that’s amazing that even at that age, you were inspired and thinking about what it meant/could mean. Love the trailer for “Watch” btw. Looking forward to the books…

  2. Yup, I grabbed Wake from the library, and saw Watch right next to it. I already had five books lined up, so I didn’t want to take Watch… and of course, when I came back for it after a week, it was gone.

    So I just started at the far left, and grabbed every book of yours I haven’t yet read. :P

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