Novel * Tad Williams * Virtual Apocalypse * 2001
I did it! Yes, I know, well done for reading a whole book. Slow clap for me. But man, these were some seriously long novels, and as we’ve seen they’re not exactly briskly paced. Therefore, just getting through them feels like an accomplishment. I don’t want to sell the series short, though, as I truly did enjoy the series as a whole. The disclaimer of the first three novels bears repeating, though. This is a certain kind of fantasy/sci-fi epic. It’s long, it’s detailed, it meanders, nobody says ‘fuck.’ If you’re looking to spend a long time with engaging characters in a well realized world, you can do much worse. Also, despite the length, it has a definitive ending. You know going in that there will be a conclusion. More importantly, you should know that there is a good conclusion. Somehow, someway, Williams has tied up nearly every loose end in a satisfactory manner. Questions are answered and they largely make sense. Characters end up where they probably should. The ending made me happy. I’m pleased with these books. I should probably talk about it now, so spoilers ahoy.
The biggest shift of the fourth novel from the rest of the series is in its move away from the virtual worlds of the Otherland network. The ending of the third book left our heroes separated again and the network itself in chaos. The final novel begins with Renie, !Xabbu, Fredericks, Jongleur, and an idiot version of one of the other Grail dudes. They are in a nowhere place atop a vast mountain. Then they spend too much time on a grueling hike down the mountain, only to find themselves in an endless mist where their party is fractured even further. If I have one knock against this final volume, it is the meandering, vague, and frustrating beginning. Still, slow burns are par for the course with this, and to be fair, once an actual world appears around these characters it is very cool.
Meanwhile, the ancillary characters are all lining up for the finale. Sellars, who to this point has been saying “I’m super busy” a lot, finally starts giving answers, including his backstory. Ramsay the lawyer, Olga the net performer, Calliope Skouros the Aussie cop, and even Beezle (Orlando’s digital assistant) move into position to fulfill their roles in the action. As the story progresses, the situation becomes more desperate and finally the pages begin to turn more swiftly. Dread, now in control, has fulfilled the previous promise of entropy within the system so that the entire network is corrupted. Sadly, Dread is more a caricature of evil than ever, and has pretty much zero depth to him. For this kind of book, however, that’s totally fine. He’s a near-future version of Sauron, after all. Pure evil with no other qualities. It is up to our scrappy heroes to figure out a way to dethrone him.
It takes a while. After a while we discover that Renie and company are actually within the operating system itself, and it only gets more weird from there. Actually, the entire back half of the novel is an exercise in strangeness. It turns out that the Other is in fact a human child. Or was. It seems that Jongleur, in his mad quest for immortality, abducted this poor kid at birth because it had latent psychic powers that Jongleur could harness to power his network. Somehow. Look, don’t worry about it. There are a good many staggering coincidences throughout the explanations of this story which may or may not make sense within the confines of the narrative, but just go with it. Anyway, Dread has figured out a way to hurt the operation system, because all Dread understands is pain. It’s poor leadership. However, the Other still has a self-built refuge within the network, which until now has been the untouched refuge of an abused child.
The Other’s safe space is populated by oddball versions of various children’s stories. Because of the horrid treatment at the hands of Jongleur’s engineers, the Other still views itself as a child, and therefore looks at the world as a kind of giant story. This all ties in with one of the main themes of the series as a whole, which is the power of fantasy. Imagination is all the Other has, and so far it is what has kept it from abject despair. Dread changed that, irrevocably. Now the operating system has withdrawn, and has thrown up last ditch defenses in what amounts to its imagination in order to protect the life it has given its stories. If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Dread has hurt the Other so much, that it has given up and wishes to die. Unfortunately, if the Other dies, so does everyone trapped on the system, and that would be bad.
So, the set up. Renie has befriended the super charming Stone Girl, who is a manifest of the Other’s imagination, and has found her way to a place called The Well, which is the Other’s last stand. She is then promptly sucked into the very heart of the operating system. Eventually she is joined by !Xabbu, and he tells more Bushman stories. Outside of The Well, everyone else is huddled around waiting for Dread to come and finally finish everyone off. Paul and Martine seem to have a thing. Finally, Jongleur makes a play for the lighter and bounces out, playing everyone for saps. Orlando comes back and it is glorious. Outside, Dread’s unwitting assistant finds his stash of murder-videos just as Skouros bumbles into Dread’s lair. They are both immediately stabbed and/or shot and left for dead. Jongleur, back in his body and home system, attempts to pull the plug on the Otherland network. This entails firing the satellite that contains the Other (which is a satellite-filling mass of brain matter, ew) into deep space. Olga, with the help of Beezle and Ramsay, stands over the tank that houses Jongleur’s body.
And then Williams sticks the landing. It’s actually pretty impressive. There are so many moving pieces to this vast narrative that watching everything come together is quite satisfying. I’m not just talking about the complicated plot, either. Characters grow, change, and wind up in satisfying places. Renie and !Xabbu finally get it oooooonnnnn. Orlando is back! In pog form! By which I mean he’s a virtual copy of his old self, which is great. Paul makes a brave sacrifice and decides to quit drifting, which makes poor Martine very sad. Still, it turns out that Paul’s body is not dead, and that the Grail process is simply a matter of making a copy of the brain/personality. Of course, he remembers nothing of his adventures or his own growth, so that’s kind of a wash. Skouros and Dulcie manage to not die, and get Dread’s ass thrown in an asylum. Meanwhile, the Other crashes its satellite into Jongleurs tower, blowing the shit out of everything. Before he died, however, the Other was able to basically steal Dread’s mind and cast it into an eternal nightmare. Confident, cocky, lazy, dead, motherfucker.
So where does all this leave us? Well, the state of the world is somewhat restored. Outside of the Otherland network, the world is still plenty messed up. I think I’ve mentioned the clever device of the Netfeed in every entry I’ve written, and Williams continues to use it as a window on the larger world here. The Grail Brotherhood is dead and disbanded, but the Otherland network continues to exist. It turns out that it doesn’t need child brains to work after all, and can continue to exist at a slightly lower resolution indefinitely, which is good news for Sellars and Orlando, who cannot remain alive without the network. Meanwhile, the coma-kids who initially drew everyone into this whole mess are still in comas. However, there is hope for their recovery. And this demonstrates why the ending works so well. Nothing is a total victory, yet there is hope.
There is one event that happens towards the end which comes out of nowhere, and that’s the little information-creatures that Sellars apparently created while he was bored one day. They’ve evolved, and the Otherland Crew had to decide whether or not to allow them to live. They’re essentially artificial life forms, which may or may not pose a threat to humanity. The Crew, of course, decides to let them live and beams them up into space. Again, this is treated with cautious optimism for the future of humanity. We did a nice thing! Maybe they’ll remember!
In the end, the good guys are damaged but victorious. The bad guys are vanquished, their evil plots overthrown. They do not, however, live happily ever after. The world is still wobbling with uncertainty, and the society that Williams depicts is every bit as mean-spirited and shallow as ours can be. Yet there is hope, because good, determined people still exist. Shit, if Long Joseph can quit drinking, anything is possible. What the Otherland series has done is to contrast the individual with the society. Otherland is a parable of entropy – things will fall apart – yet they can also be rebuilt. The world doesn’t know it, but it is better off without the Grail Brotherhood in control of such a powerful tool. The good guys have each other, and the will to make something better of the technology at hand. There are no guarantees in such a profoundly flawed civilization, but as always, there is hope.