Otherland by Tad Williams (Orbit, £6.99, 943 pages, paperback. 5 March 1998. UK hardback published by Legend, 1996.)
The basic plot is simple. Black South African academic Renie Sulaweyo has to save her young brother who has been spending so much time on-line that somehow he's got trapped there. Her mother is dead, her father an unemployed alcoholic. The only person Renie can call on for help is a Bushman student of hers, who grew up in the desert, away from the corrosive trappings of 21st century life.
Against Renie and the Bushman are ranged the secrecy-obsessed members of a vast, shadowy organisation. An organisation so powerful they topple governments and bankrupt multinationals without even thinking about it. Imagine the CIA with unlimited money and delusions of Godhood. Off-line, the mafia-like cabal are merely high-ranking generals, industrialists, etc. But on-line in 'Otherland' - with all its fascist/Soviet connotations of Motherland - they manifest as Egyptian Gods, rulers of a vast hidden worldscape drawn from every variety of Central American and European myth.
Otherland (the book) is Tolkien slung round with a supporting framework of hacker technology and slang. A world where a sickly child can take on the mantle of a short-tempered, skin-clad Barbarian swordsmen, and both characters can be real. And the one person/two characters angle can work because the otherworlds might be virtual, but they can still be written as real.
VR has given us back the fantastic, cutting out the need for those massive suspensions of disbelief that fantasy once demanded, before cybertech kindly took us back to being able to believe the impossible.
A thousand years ago, if a large guy with a big sword sat in the shelter of an upturned longboat and talked about battling monsters, no one would have thought, 'Hey, hang on, Grendal doesn't really exist...'
Monsters did exist, so did trolls and dragons, water spirits and elves. You might not have seen them, but you probably knew a mate who knew a mate who had. The supernatural was a fact of life, like God, kings and taxes. Monsters waltzed in and out of sagas - the real sagas - as often as the heroes and were just as real.
It wasn't really science that killed such superstition, it was snobbery. Educated people stopped believing in the fantastic. They still read about it but knew it was unreal. Well, now believing the impossible is possible again, courtesy of VR. And Tad Williams has embraced the concept of VR-based fantasy wholesale with a sequence of four novels, whose plotline reads as if the Illuminati read William Gibson and decided they could do it better.
Otherland is a very knowing book, full of intentionally easy-to-spot borrowings. Alice in Wonderland, chess, Grail myth. Early on, there's a brilliant pastiche of sub-Tolkienesque fantasy, all frightened innkeepers, evil woods and brave swordsmen. And just as you begin to worry that Tad Williams might really have lost it, you realise it's middle earth as seen through the eyes of a young teenager. Later on, as Renie dives into a virtual lake, you get a scene that could be straight out of Tomb Raider. But the big problem with borrowing on such a scale is it gives the reader the feeling of having been there before.
In fact, it seems to me the only really original character in Otherland is isn't really a single character at all, it's Wicked Tribe, a jabbering whirlwind of tiny hyperactive hacker monkeys, given to speaking in rapid-fire patois. Sort of what would happen if you took the standard template for a cyberpunk hero and then applied it to a bunch of obscenely-rich unsocialised five-year olds.
Otherland is a good book, easy to read and with some excellent set pieces, but I do resent fantasy sagas that don't make any attempt at giving an ending to separate books. Right up to the last 20 pages I was wondering how Tad Williams was going to wind up the threads ready for the next book. He didn't. It just stopped.
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© Jon Courtenay Grimwood 28 February 1998