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The Web: Dreamcastle Stephen Bowkett (Dolphin, £3.50, 104 pages, pb). July 1997.

In the verisimilar world of the Web -- a virtual reality extrapolation of today's Internet -- how do you stop the real and the illusory from blending into one? If you spend too long immersed in the Web you suffer websickness when you return to the real world -- everybody knows about websickness, it's a part of the shared experience. But it's easy to assume you're suffering mere websickness when it's actually something far more sinister, something that threatens your survival.

Because someone's messing with the underlying machine code of the Web. Making it more real. Reaching into the brains of the susceptible and distorting their perceptions. One day you might go into the Web and never come out.

Bowkett's contribution to the Web series is concerned with the fuzzy borderland between the real and the virtual: what happens when you lose sight of the dividing line? What happens when someone deliberately muddies that distinction?

Surfer, Kilroy and Rom have formed a team that has successfully reached the higher levels of the Dreamcastle game zone. They have already earned a lot of credibility because of this, but Surfer is driven by an ambition that has become obsessive. He wants to be the best. And then, he catches sight of a girl imprisoned at the heart of the 'castle. The most beautiful girl he has ever seen. He determines to rescue her, and the new direction of his obsession threatens to break the team apart, and he doesn't really seem to care.

Trouble is, for a lot of the time, neither did I. The story is really Surfer's story, but he's too selfish and insensitive to win your sympathies; Kilroy is just too bland; and Rom, the most potentially interesting in his precocious genius, is also the most peripheral of the three main characters.

In the Web, you encounter a mixture of real people and computer-generated characters called phaces. The latter are well done, but never entirely convincing to the real Web-surfers.

Surfer, Kilroy and even Rom are the literary equivalent of phaces. Only in the last quarter of the book do they appear to come alive: as the cleverly constructed plot rollercoasters towards its conclusion you suddenly realise that you've started to care about what happens. And then you realise you're falling into the trap, losing the distinction. The characters don't suddenly become more real in these final pages, it's just that you're getting swallowed up in the illusion, in Bowkett's grand construct. Yes, something, somewhere, is still missing, but by the end of Dreamcastle, you're not quite sure what it is.

Review by Nick Gifford.

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© Nick Gifford 23 August 1997