Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Otherland - Tad Williams

On first glance, the title, the cover and the name of the author all scream "FANTASY NOVEL!" at me, but this actually turns out to be Science Fiction. Er, that is, Science Fiction that screams "FANTASY NOVEL!" at me. I'm not entirely sure whether this is Fantasy that desperately wants to be SF, or vice versa, but the genre-gap is alive and well right here and Otherland is straddling the divide very uncomfortably - a seamlessly-blended crossover it ain't. That's not to say the book is not worth reading, but you'll have to suspend your disbelief nice and high, and prepare to jump through a lot of hoops to follow the story.

The book was written in the early/mid '90s, when the Internet was young and fresh and a hot topic for SF writers to speculate on. Unfortunately, many of these speculations now look pretty dated, especially the one used as the central premise here, the Full-Immersion Virtual Reality Internet. As with silver clothing, flying cars and green aliens, it's not an impossible view of the future, but one that now just looks a bit silly, and that is quite a hurdle to get over if you want to take this book seriously. It also doesn't help that the central premise takes up so much space that plot and characters have to be sort of wedged in around the edges.

It's a promising premise, mind - Full Immersion VR! Hundreds of online worlds that you can wander around, shopping or fighting or role-playing! Like the Holodeck in Star Trek, you can use it to clip on events from any genre you like - where else can your characters rescue princesses, fight martians and then grab a virtual coffee at an internet mall? With all these new toys to play with, it's not entirely surprising that Williams got rather distracted from the story, but that doesn't really excuse the fact that this is a High Concept book, where the setting entirely drives the plot and the choice of characters. Let's see, we have a nearish-future setting with some complicated technology to explain, but we don't want to infodump straight to camera... aha! Why not put in a South African bushman who has it all explained to him by his computing lecturer? To see how kids interact with this net, we'll have teenage D&D online gamer with a super warrior avatar... and to show how real it is, someone lost in the virtual net, not realising he's online... and a huge shady multinational running the show with Nefarious Purposes? Great! Now to fit them together into some kind of plot!

When you do get to the story, it's not actually that bad. The main thread follows Renie the Lecturer and her Bushman protege !Xabbu - Renie's little brother falls into a coma after accessing a forbidden part of the net, and Renie attracts the unwelcome attention of some very nasty people while trying to investigate. Elsewhere, Orlando is a sick 14-year-old whose mighty warrior RPG avatar is killed in unusual circumstances; he is also investigating this. Paul has no memory and is lost somewhere in the net, being pursued by strange and horrible things across various virtual environments. A psychopath is working for an evil group of generals, business leaders and dictators called (brace yourself) The Grail Brotherhood, and a small girl is running mysterious errands for a strange old man that her parents have forbidden her to see. Some of the viewpoints are more interesting than others - Paul's in particular starts to drag after a while, as it seems to have least relation to the main events in the real world - but they certainly keep you turning the pages; with the fragmented pieces of the story all seemingly unconnected, you really don't know what's going to happen next.

When the connection between the characters is sort-of revealed at the end, it's disappointingly unconclusive, but does serve to set the book up for the sequels, which look like they will be set much more in the virtual fantasy-like world than the real one. I'm lucky in that I've borrowed the entire series from a mate, so I'll probably read on - despite myself, I still want to know what happens so I'll reserve judgement until I've at least read the next one. However, if I had to buy the next book it might be different; overall there's far too much explanation and not enough plot. I'm hoping that now the set-up is all out of the way and Williams is back in his fantasy home ground, things will improve and a real story may emerge. Watch this space...



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