Novel * Tad Williams * Cyberpunkish VR Fantasy * 1996
I like this book a lot, but it’s one I can’t really recommend to everyone. I mean look at this thing. My worn-out paperback edition has 780 pages, and this is only book one of a four-part series. It’s the slowest of slow burns, and while I enjoy the world and character building, I totally understand anyone who just wants to get on with it already. Seriously, the main overall plot doesn’t start in earnest until about page 645 or so. If that’s your jam, then by all means jump in. You’ll be rewarded with well-crafted characters and a rich, detailed world. If you look at these page counts and die inside, maybe move along. Williams is something of a fantasy-writing stalwart and has always seemed to me to be a less obnoxious Robert Jordan. Like, his stories are huge but they actually do eventually go somewhere. Characters have one obvious personality trait, but it’s actually justified in the text and balanced by other characteristics. The language is still pretty PG-13 (hell, he doesn’t even use his one allotted f-bomb), but at least Williams doesn’t make up stupid swears to jam in awkwardly alongside otherwise normal English. Seriously, fuck the Wheel of Time books forever.
Okay, let’s reel it in a bit here. The Otherland series is absolutely fantasy fiction, despite the fact that it appears to be science fiction. I know, genres, but it’s an important distinction considering I’m thinking about this story in contrast with works like Neuromancer and Snow Crash. While this series is certainly epic in scope, it still lacks the impact of those seminal works in large part because the idea of a virtual reality Internet is old hat. Further, because Williams is very much a fantasy writer, the language Otherland deploys is more concrete and descriptive than that of Gibson or Stephenson, which is to say that it lacks the unique voice and style those guys employ in their works. This is not a knock on Williams’ skill as a writer! He’s doing a very different thing with these books, and I believe he executes his intention very well. However, if you’re going into this series in search for a true cyberpunk experience, you’re going to be disappointed. The only stylish cyber-ninja here is an Australian serial killer who is also an obnoxious, self-aggrandized prat.
Enough disclaimers, then. Like any good fantasy series, Otherland is told from the perspective of a wide range of characters. Think Game of Thrones (I think this is accepted shorthand for A Song of Ice and Fire, right?) and you’re pretty close. Each chapter is told from a particular point-of-view, and occasionally these plot-lines intersect. Also, like Game of Thrones, there is occasionally a character’s viewpoint you dread getting to because, ugh, Bran chapters. Anyway, it’s mostly a strong group. The principal pairing is Renie Sulaweyo, a fiercely independent South African woman, and her friend !Xabbu, an even-tempered Bushman (the exclamation point represents a clicking sound in the Bushman language, and boy does Word hate everything about that sentence). The story begins with these two at the university where Renie works as an instructor in Durban, South Africa. Actually, there’s a prologue, but remember how I said there are boring chapters about boring characters like Bran? So anyway, Renie has a younger brother and an alcoholic father and eventually the brother gets himself in some trouble online. He and some netboy buddies hack themselves into a shady place and wind up in a mysterious coma. Renie and !Xabbu investigate, and in so doing find themselves embroiled in a weird VR conspiracy.
In addition to these two, you’ve got Orlando (a 14 year old netboy) and his friend Fredricks. There’s a little girl name Cristabel and her mysterious friend, an old man named Mr. Sellars (I assure you it’s not gross, you monster). There’s the aforementioned cyber-ninja baddie, with the painfully try-hard handle Dread (I’m pleased the author makes fun of this on behalf of the reader). This disparate group of weirdos are all slowly but surely brought into the schemes of The Grail Brotherhood, which is a straight-up villainous cabal of the world’s most powerful people. They’ve all pooled their resources in order to construct a closed VR system of incomprehensible power. And this is where the fantasy kicks in, because Williams sets up the Otherland network in such a way that for the characters involved, what happens in that VR environment is utterly indistinguishable from reality.
This book is detailed and vast in scope, and is only but the beginning of a much larger story. All the themes that City of Golden Shadow works with continue throughout the series, and as such I’ll limit my discussion to the three aspects of the book that fall in line with my own peculiar interests. The first is the world itself: not the Otherland network, but the actual vision of a future society. This is most heavily represented in this first book, but is always in the background in large part because of a rather ingenious trick used by Williams. Each chapter begins with a snippet of information “randomly” sampled from the net. These range from bits of dialogue from movies to breaking news to entertainment gossip. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the world surrounding the troubles of the primary characters. It is quickly discovered, through both these excerpts from the net and various real-world descriptions that the future is all kinds of fucked up. The world is mostly a corporate structure: one of the sneaky details is that the United States Senate is now meant to represent corporate interests. Wage disparity is out of control, as seen in the difference between the Brotherhood and the vast warrens of the utterly destitute living in “honeycomb” villages beneath American freeway systems. The massive VR information network is certainly amazing and useful, but only as much as your income can afford. Bandwidth is everything, after all, and the better your equipment the better your experience.
This brings us to the second major theme, which is the sinister conspiracy of ultra-1%ers that calls themselves The Grail Brotherhood. They have all the money, so their equipment is light-years beyond what even the peasant “rich” could comprehend. The Otherland network is convenient fantasy, yes, but it is somewhat justified by the principal of “more money equals better tech.” Now, I happen to think conspiracy theories are dumb, but generally harmless. This comes from a pretty cynical place, which is a little weird because conspiracy theories are born from mistrust and cynicism in the status quo and the powers-that-be. I understand and empathize with that mistrust! However, I also think that the rich and powerful are still humans and still prone to moments of idiocy, hubris, miscalculation, and gossip. In other words, the bigger the conspiracy, the more people are involved, and the more people involved, the more likely it is someone is going to fuck it up. Also, the more information is easily acquired and disseminated, it’s less likely a massive conspiracy will remain secret. All that said, this is fiction so whatever. The important thing is the impulse behind the belief in such things. It’s that mistrust and dread, and within the context of The Grail Brotherhood, it is well deserved. This group is comprised of generals and financiers, tech giants and dictators. They are the logical endpoint of neoliberal capitalism fifty years or so down the road, in other words, and while the manner in which they are portrayed here may be fantastic and unrealistic, it still feels plausible. The system is set up to reward the ruthless and cunning, so it stands to reason that all these people are terrible and wouldn’t bat an eye at putting thousands of children in comas for their own benefit. Yeah! These guys suck, and are a concrete manifestation of our fears of the rich and powerful.
The last thing that sticks out to me is !Xabbu, and his desperate efforts to somehow maintain his ancestral Bushman culture. I like !Xabbu quite a lot. He’s an ideal counter to Renie’s frustrating impatience and hotheadedness, but he’s also just a cool guy who knows a lot of weird stories about hyenas. Oh, and he eventually turns into a baboon, which is fun (and totally not racist in the context of the story, what is wrong with you?). It’s because he’s so damned likeable that I feel so bad about his stated mission statement to preserve his people’s way of life. All cultures and civilizations decline and fall. It is as natural as life and death. Everything changes, everything moves towards the inevitable entropic end of the universe. Shiva devours all, in the parlance of the book. Even poor !Xabbu understands that he might be the last living member of a dead culture, and his intention is not to save them, but to recreate the world of the Bushman in virtual reality. I find that to be a noble goal, but much of the story is in some way about the melancholy that !Xabbu feels about the slow dissolution of a culture. What is specific in the case of the Bushman is more general when considering the world at large, which seems to become more global with every passing moment. Even the Brotherhood are seeking to escape the slow-motion, grinding collapse of the global culture by escaping in to their fantastical virtual worlds. As the series progresses, all of these things begin to tie together with the overall story.