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The Web 2028
by Stephen Baxter, Ken MacLeod, James Lovegrove, Maggie Furey, Pat Cadigan and Eric Brown.
(Millennium, £6.00, 630 pages, paperback, 1999; first published as six separate volumes, 1998-1999)

Three years ago, British publisher Orion had the idea of bringing together six of the UK's leading genre authors to write a series of short novels in a shared VR future. Aimed at younger readers, the series worked on the whole for two audiences:

  • for adult readers it provided an interesting snapshot of these authors' abilities and approaches when working within the constraints of a shared world and the requirements for straightforward pacy sf aimed at a young audience;
  • and for the main target audience the series offered six good and intelligent reads from authors whose work they will grow up with.

The Web 2028 is a second series, set a year after the first, using three of the original authors - Stephen Baxter, Maggie Furey and Eric Brown - and three new recruits in Ken MacLeod, James Lovegrove and Pat Cadigan.

A note on packaging.

Both series were published a single short novel at a time and later bundled as an omnibus anthology. The single volumes were clearly marketed as juveniles. The fat anthologies appear more ambiguous: published under the Millennium imprint with no reference to target audience; and, consequently, shelved with adult sf in the bookshops...

When read with an awareness that the books are primarily intended for younger readers, they are well worth the attention of an adult audience. Read in the mistaken belief that this is an adult anthology containing works more typical of these authors, many readers are likely to feel misled.

Which is a shame, because this second series is, if anything, stronger than the first.

In Stephen Baxter's Webcrash, we renew acquaintances with Metaphor, first encountered in this author's Gulliverzone in the first series.

Metaphor is working as an observer in Galaxias, a Web domain set up as a fast-forward simulation of human interstellar exploration. Her current role is as pilot for evil villain Numinus Torca. When a major disruption of the world's computer networks occurs - the Webcrash of the title - Metaphor goes back into the Web, fearing the damage Numinus may cause if his domain is breached. As Baxter says, in the slightly breathless confessional tone he adopts for these books, "Big mistake."

Gulliverzone was one of the strongest in the first sextet. Webcrash is a solid follow-up, although no substitute for the author's more mature work. It's at its weakest in the lengthy educational data-dumps, as in the three-page exposition of (simulated) Viking life; and in the concluding sequences where readers must accept the engineering genius of a fifteen-year-old.

Webcrash does a hard job well, though - launching us into this world without giving too much away, leaving us wanting more.

Ken MacLeod's Cydonia reveals an inconsistency in the series' tone that is more apparent when you read all six stories together and not as separate volumers. Where Webcrash is clearly a young person's read - ideal for ten to twelve-year-olds - Cydonia is a much older read, better for teenagers (who would probably prefer adult books, in any case). Indeed, many of the references are likely to go right over the readers' heads as in the opening sequence alone we find references to Heinlein, Wells, 1970s computer games, The X-Files, Alien...

Cydonia is a conspiracy WebZone, based on a simulation of the Face on Mars. Would conspiracy theorists use such a place? Wouldn't they think it was set up as some kind of conspiracy to trap them or monitor their activities? Pretty soon that doesn't really matter as MacLeod leads us on an entertaining romp through this VR future.

One problem remains from the first series: with six independent stories set against a common back-plot, any other than the opening and closing stories tend not to offer much - variations on a theme - revealing the back story by a process of hint and passing reference. Cydonia is a good example: a professional piece of work with some clever touches, but ultimately little more than a diversion.

James Lovegrove's Computopia tells the story of Jax, a rich kid whose mother died when he was three. His father spends all his time managing his inherited wealth, to the neglect of his son - Jax has everything, after all, doesn't he?

J Edgar Glote, the Dickensian-named inventor of the Net (a more adult alternative to the Web, in which Jax's father has invested heavily) is dislikable from the outset, a pantomime bad guy, oozing ingratiatingly and just waiting for his comeuppance. He duly receives it, after leading Jax into the dark side of the Net, in another entertaining, if slight, Web tale.

Maggie Furey's Spindrift brings back more characters from the first series: Cat, Eleni and the authors' favourite shared character, Rom.

Cat's chase-nightmares, where her only refuge is offered by the Sorceress, arch-villain of the first series, bear disturbing echoes in reality - and virtual reality. Disturbing intrusions into private webzones, mysterious graffiti appearing both in dreams and in the Web, odd news reports about all kinds of people doing out-of-character things... Something odd is happening and the Web is at the centre of it all.

Although we know the Web isn't going to take the blame, all this is a refreshing hint of subversion, as the stories tend to present an unremittingly positive view of the Web phenomenon: VR is perfect for education; for loners (and particularly orphans and those from broken families) to find friends; it leads to reduced crime; etc. The writers, in their 25 to 30,000 words, have all tended to take an unquestioning approach to this shared future, giving both series too much uniformity in attitude.

Unfortunately, Spindrift is perhaps the weakest of this set of six, making too many distracting references to Furey's earlier Sorceress, and concluding with a disappointing plunge into a shadow zone where data goes after it has been deleted, an unconvincing character-reversal which leaves too many questions unanswered, and a hurried, off-the-page defeat for the bad guys.

Pat Cadigan's Avatar is a bit different: a writer fully immersed in her work, fully engaged with the ideas behind the shared future.

VR as an escape for the disabled is already something of a cliche, but who cares when it's handled so well?

Max is almost completely disabled after a diving accident. He lives in a hospital bed, able to communicate only through the use of a tongue-sensitive touchpad. Everything changes for him when his back-to-nature community consents to the use of a modified VR rig - not for VR, but for reality: he wears VR goggles and someone else wears a camera and microphone so he can share their experiences. Several people try to act as his eyes and ears, but he ends up developing a close - near-telepathic - relationship with his old friend Sarah Jane.

Yet just as Max is trapped in his hospital bed, Sarah Jane feels trapped by the community. She breaks the rules and uses the rig to spin in to the Web and soon she and Max start to explore VR together.

But when Sarah Jane changes, Max knows something is very wrong indeed...

The writing in Avatar is superb - the staccato, touchpad voice of Max expertly delineated, his tensions and frustrations sensitively tested. This is a writer taking an undercurrent of this series - increased intimacy, blurring of personal boundaries - and running with it, delving into it in a way that the best sf strives to do.

At this point I must declare an interest. I've known Eric Brown, author of the concluding story Walkabout, for years. We've written stories and books together, we provide feedback on each others' work before it's submitted - I first read an earlier draft of Walkabout nearly two years ago.

So, perhaps, you wouldn't expect me to write a bad review of Eric's work. That's probably a fair assumption: if he'd written a turkey I would remain diplomatically silent.

I don't have any problem writing about Walkabout though: I enjoyed it first time round and it didn't suffer on re-reading for this review.

Suzie Wollagong is the first Aboriginal Australian girl to be picked for a national mixed football team (the under-16s) and she has a chance of making it to an exhibition game at the Delhi Olympics. Upon selling her story to the press she spends the money on a secondhand Websuit and for the first time discovers what it's like not to be judged by colour or race (in the Web you can look however you want).

And then strange things start to happen: leakages between webzones introduce steam engines, cars and giant bananas into the prehistoric zones, the zones themselves threaten to break up, lizards desperately want to speak to Suzie... In the real world, Suzie's uncle, her guardian since her parents died, is preparing to go walkabout in the Outback and wants her to accompany him and learn the traditional ways of their people.

Walkabout is a striking conclusion to the series. It suffers a little, in that most of its big surprises are not really very surprising by this stage, having been hinted at heavily in earlier stories, but it gains impressive depth from the author's knowledge of, and affection for, his Australian and Indian characters and settings.

The Web 2028 is, then, good light sf, but its greatest value, as with the first series, is that it introduces the next generation of readers to some of our best practitioners. No word yet if they plan a third series, but given the conclusion of this set it's hard to see where they'd go next.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 12 August 2000