Otherland: River of Blue Fire

Novel * Tad Williams * Entropic VR Fantasy * 1998

Synopsis

Now that I’m ostensibly half way through this series (by book if not page count, the last two entries are real shelf-breakers) I am reminded of the various disclaimers I gave about this series as a whole. These books are long, they tend to meander, and there are characters who are straight-up boring. Oh, and the insistence of using the word “lock” as a substitute for the word “fuck” is dumb. At first I thought it was just weird future-slang, considering there are other, actual curse words used. But no, it’s just a straight word-swap and its use is just painfully locking weak. See? Ugh, I feel dirty.

Okay! The Negative Nancy stuff is out of the way so I can briefly focus on where the story is going and why I’m still invested overall. The second Otherland volume spreads the narrative around a little more than the first book. Not only are there some new plot-threads headed up by new characters, we are also given a window into other character’s viewpoints. Renie and !Xabbu are clearly still the primary characters, with Orlando and Fredricks contending for a close second, but with a narrative of this size it is nice to see the viewpoint move around relatively quickly. That said, Paul is still boring even if he’s fleshed out a little more, and Dread is still over-the-top as a villain. While some of the new characters are a bit flat, the important ones have all the life and uneven personalities that the more established people in this story have. This is to say I enjoy Calliope Skouros, the Australian cop tasked with investigating an old murder (hint, it’s Dread), quite a lot. Obviously the narrative could use some selective editing, but the inclusion of these new characters is both necessary for the unfolding plot as well as a welcome relief from the at-times-plodding nature of the main story.

That story, of course, takes place within the Otherland VR network in which our heroes were trapped at the end of the first book.  Over the course of the novel, the assorted weirdos who have found themselves buried in a massive conspiracy become separated and scattered throughout the system. This is where the fantasy kicks in hard. You see, the technology is so utterly advanced that people within the system can’t really differentiate between what is virtual and what is real. The owners of the network have used this capability to create hundreds (if not thousands) of virtual worlds based on all kinds of things: history, science, and (exclusively public domain) fiction. It’s a cool conceit, and it’s always fun to see what kind of simulation each group of characters will end up in next. That said, there is an aimlessness to the proceedings that is unfortunate. We’re given information slowly – the system is unstable, there is a possible supernatural component to the whole thing, the Brotherhood is under considerable strain – and this has the effect of making a good deal of the action feel superfluous. We’ll see where it goes from here – I have fond overall memories of reading this like 12 years ago – but Williams is really going to have to pick up the tempo a bit.

otherland robf

Once again, a higher quality version of the cover image by Michael Whelan. I dunno, it breaks up the text.

Discussion

To be fair to Tad Williams, his worlds are richly imagined and extravagantly detailed, so I can understand his desire to linger in them. The Otherland network is a brilliant concept that allows him change the setting on a whim, which I imagine kept Williams from getting bored as a writer. As a reader he’s not always successful in this, if only because like the characters, some settings are more interesting than others (although, now that I think about it, the settings I find dull pretty much coincide exactly with those in which Paul finds himself, so perhaps I am just conflating the boring character with the setting). For all of the wildly different simulations that are presented in this story, however, there is one striking similarity between them. Entropy, which is a common theme around these parts, is baked into each and every simulation of the Otherland network. It is pointed out to us repeatedly in the text that this network is so vast and complicated that the simulated worlds are grown rather than manufactured, and as such even the owners of the network are unable to directly control what happens. Further, it is a closed system functioning under a mysterious, possibly supernatural, operating system. Therefore, when a problem arises, it is difficult to pinpoint and has the capacity to filter throughout the network and eventually destroy everything. Renie brings up the e-word while trying to navigate a fucked-up Oz:

“The Scarecrow’s palace, and endless functionalist warren of concrete walls and linoleum floors, could have doubled for a municipal structure in Durban, or indeed anywhere in the Third World…. Entropy, she told herself. Isn’t that the word? As though these things were filled up once, and then just allowed to run down, fall apart.”

Renie’s thought process is pretty simple. Given all of this concentrated money and power, why would anyone involved want to create a world only to create something so tedious and dull? As it turns out, it didn’t exactly happen that way. The version of Oz that appears in this book is an industrial, dystopian nightmare, and probably the most effective setting in the book. The contrast between what we know of the Land of Oz – a Technicolor fantasy land filled with whimsy and delight – and this terrible place filled with lifeless clones and authoritarian horror is stark. Now, it’s certainly possible that a power-mad, sadistic member of the Brotherhood reflected on The Wizard of Oz and decided to “improve” it by turning it into totalitarian nightmare, but given the overall tone of the book, that’s not likely. Rather, this Oz is an extreme example of what is happening throughout the Otherland network. We recognize alongside Renie and the rest that things fall apart, the center cannot hold. If anything, the Otherland network mimics reality a little too closely.

Meanwhile, in RL, there is also evidence that the global society in which this network exists is also slowly falling apart. While we see less of the outside world in this book than in the first volume, there is enough to suggest that things are not going so great for most people. Again, this sense of unrest and that of ominous, incoming calamity are delivered through the pre-chapter Internet snippets. Many of these are silly asides, but as the narrative moves forward they begin to indicate things going sideways. American police rounding up homeless kids and “disposing” of them. Corporations taking direct, violent action against dissenters. Art and entertainment becoming more and more violent. Fun stuff like that. These tiny windows into the larger world appear alongside moments where characters say things like “strange days are coming.” Okay, I get it.

This atmosphere of dread and foreboding are a necessary component to the story being told, and once again it is !Xabbu and his own experience with a dying (or, frankly, dead) culture that make these otherwise ethereal notions feel concrete. Perhaps !Xabbu is more comfortable than the others in these simulations because he has grown up living and experiencing what is essentially a fallen culture. He knows it when he sees it, in other words. Yet he is still unrelentingly upbeat about it all, and still somehow manages to not be obnoxious about it. !Xabbu is also adept at placing events into some kind of emotional context by telling his weird Bushman stories.

There is a story that he tells near the ending of this volume that speaks to Renie in particular, but in general about the ending of things. In this story, the O.G. God of !Xabbu’s people, Grandfather Mantis, comes across domesticated animals for the first time. He promptly shoots them for food, and is alarmed at how easy they died. Then actual people showed up, understandably upset that this anthropomorphic bug just killed their sheep. Mantis takes off, but falls ill. It’s not stated baldly, but it’s pretty clear his soul is sick with the invasion of a new people into his ancestral lands. So he calls for his daughter-in-law, a Porcupine, to go fetch her father. The All-Devourer. I mean, you can see where this is going. The All-Devourer does what his name denotes and wreaks havoc. Eventually Porkypine and her sons manage to pin her dad down so that they can escape the world, which they do. The reason being, “everything has changed.” Now, the in-fiction reason !Xabbu tells this story is to explain to Renie that she needs to stop being a little bitch and do her fucking job, but the actual reason for the story is to underscore the overall theme of this series. Everything changes. All things must come to an end, if only to make way for something new.

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