The Web: Gulliverzone by Stephen Baxter
(Dolphin, £3.50, 121 pages, pb). July 1997.
This one's fun.
It's February 7th, 2027: World Peace Day. And to Sarah, the protagonist of this story, the most important thing about today isn't the fact that the World Peace Movement has lasted twenty years. She's not interested in the worldwide celebrations either -- the Robot Beatles playing Sergeant Pepper, the simulated all-star football matches, not even the astronauts preparing to go to Mars.
No, what interests Sarah more than anything else is that today Gulliverzone -- the best theme park in the Web -- is going to be free!
The Web is supposed to be entirely safe: cut-outs in the web suits prevent anyone from being hurt. The only publicly acknowledged problem is websickness: spend too long in the suit and you end up with nausea and headaches.
Naturally, it's not as simple as that. As Baxter skilfully reminds us, no matter how real the virtual reality Webworld appears, it's really just a complex set of computer programs. A magic shrinking powder, for example, is really a size-control program. And people can interfere with programs, they can over-ride them to their own ends. The Empress of Lilliput is doing just that and when Sarah and her young brother stumble into the middle of her evil scheme they are suddenly involved in a fight for their own survival.
Baxter's clear, sharp writing style is ideally suited to a fast-paced story like this. He does, however, come close to writing down to the audience. Repeated references to Sarah's rivalry with her young brother get a bit grating, as does the over-use of exclamation marks (nine of the eighteen chapters end with exclamation marks, and often italics, too, just to make the point that it's a cliffhanger). I don't really know if this kind of thing is acceptable style in children's fiction, but it's certainly off-putting to adult readers who stray into the territory.
But these are minor quibbles. It's a good, entertaining read and the inventiveness for which Baxter's adult fiction is renowned is also evident: in the setting of the Web, for example, computer viruses have evolved into sentient beings that are central to the unravelling of the story. This kind of clever touch makes Gulliverzone far more than just a kids' adventure romp. Anyone who's enjoyed Baxter's adult fiction should take a look at this one. Come to think of it, a lot of people who haven't enjoyed some of his adult fiction might be pleasantly surprised, too.
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© Keith Brooke 17 August 1997