My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As I sat down in the darkened theater to watch M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable I experienced a moment of almost psychedelic dislocation as the film began. Without preamble of any kind, the words “There are 35 pages and 124 illustrations in the average comic book” appear on the screen. The screen is then quickly filled by several lines of similar comic book statistics. I didn’t know what was going on. I felt almost light-headed at the shock. I wondered if I was in the wrong theater, seeing a movie that I hadn’t intended to. The sound of a baby crying came from the screen and we are suddenly in a Philadelphia department store in 1961. None of this was in the trailer. Almost four minutes pass before the opening titles begin and the word “UNBREAKABLE” finally appears on screen.
As I began to read the first page of Tad Williams’ Otherland Volume 1: City Of Golden Shadow I had the same kind of sensations that I had experienced while watching Unbreakable. I read the back cover over and over as I worked my way through the first chapter of the book, all the time wondering if I was reading the right book. I have read very little Tad Williams, and what little of his work I have read has been Fantasy of the typical overwrought post-Tolkien sort. Add to that the way that Sci-Fi and Fantasy are shelved in bookstores and the books bright yellow Michael Whelan cover, I had assumed for years that this was a fantasy series. What else could the “City of Golden Shadow” be, if not some fantastical place that a group of adventurers who met in a tavern on a moonless fog shrouded night would have to slog through monsters and dungeons collecting plot coupons to reach. So imagine my surprise as the opening pages start out in the middle of the hell that was trench warfare during World War I.
The book opens with Paul Jonas in the middle of battle on the Western Front. He is injured and has a dream that he is climbing an immense plant, like in Jack and the Beanstalk, all the way up past the clouds to a giant’s castle. There he meets a woman who has the wings of a bird. She gives Paul a feather (our first plot coupon!) and he awakes to find that he is back on the Western Front with his brothers in arms, Finch and Mullet. But they seem strange and Paul begins to mistrust them. As he notices that the feather that the bird woman gave him is actually in his hand, Paul deserts the war effort and flees. Then Otherland drops us into late 21st century Durban where we meet Renie Sulaweyo, a university teacher and VR programmer and her student ,!Xabbu a Kalahari Bushman who has come to the city to learn about Virtual Reality systems for very personal reasons.
At this point in the novel, I realized that I was not reading a tacky Fantasy novel, but rather (considering that this first volume of the Otherland tetralogy was published in 1996) a surprisingly forward thinking bit of Sci-Fi. At first I was pleased with the knowledge that I wasn’t going to be stuck in the middle of a plodding swords and sorcery series, that I was going to get to see a bit of the author’s views on the future of the Internet and digital media culture from a period that the WWW was becoming a thing used by average people but still undergoing massive changes on a nearly daily level. But this is also the point in the novel that problems start to show up. We are introduced to Orlando Gardiner and his friend Sam Fredericks who play a fully immersive MMORPG called The Middle Kingdom, a young girls named Christabel Sorensen who spends time sneaking out of her house to hang out with a deformed old man named Mr. Sellars whom her military security officer father is charged with keeping under house arrest, some child hackers called the Wicked Tribe, a blind French computer expert named Martine, and a mass-murdering half-Aboriginal Australian assassin name Dread who works for the oldest man in the world, Felix Jongleur who was a boy during WWI.
There are so many characters that have so many side plots going that it becomes difficult to care about what any of them are doing. Tad Williams has several of his characters mention the Lord of the Rings, and you quickly get the feeling that the authors main goal is to out type Tolkien rather than write a better book. The labyrinth of interwoven plots and subplots leave one feeling as if they are being made to flip pages for the mere purpose of making this story seem to be an epic along the lines of Lord of the Rings or the Dark Tower. The reader is also given very little opportunity to decide whether they want to root for a certain character or not. Most of the players are given a label of “good” or “evil” very early on in their introduction. That is not to say that the characters are two-dimensional. But I also couldn’t call them fully formed either. Two extend the metaphor, let’s say that the vast majority of characters come off as 2.5D isometric projections. But at least they live in a fully realized environment.
The world that Tad Williams has created is magnificent. It feels real, immersive and plausible. He builds a world that is modern and vibrant and extremely multicultural. No monolithic future of sandy-haired Anglos in pleat free polyester jumpsuits are to be had in the Otherworld universe. Here it is Bushmen and Black South Africans and South East Asians and Aboriginals and Latinos. There are hardly any characters on hand with a low melanin count. Tad Williams has done an impressive amount of research into the different cultures that he is writing about. He peppers the book with myth and story from the cultural background of the people that he is writing about. His 21st century Terra is an impressive literary feat. He has written into existence a world that is as diverse and messy as the real world, a world that is as fast paced and over saturated with media as ours. His musings on the future of the Net are a bit less convincing, though.
The Virtual Reality worlds that Tad Williams creates in Otherland mostly seem to come off as cheats. His Neverwinter Nights MMORPG knock-off, The Middle Country is clearly Tolkiens Middle Earth. But as it is supposed to be an online role playing game, I can let that slide. If it wasn’t a Middle Earth knock-off, it wouldn’t be anything like a real swords and sorcery MMORPG. Where the cheat comes in, is that as a Fantasy writer, the author has found a way to write hundreds of pages of Fantasy between the covers of what is supposed to be a Hard Science Fiction novel. The other lands (see what I did there?) that Williams creates to move the action along are mostly cheats as well. Spins on “Through the Looking Glass” and “War of the Worlds”. The most interesting virtual world that is created has to be abandoned almost immediately after it is found. In another place, Paul Jonas finds himself face to face with Neanderthal man in the frozen wastes of an Ice Age earth, only to find out that the novel is finally over.
After nearly a thousand pages of questing for plot coupons and stories, the book just ends. It is not just a cliff-hanger, it is as if the book just stops in mid-sentence. It’s a frustrating moment. You realize that you have just consumed over a thousand pages of one of the most believable and well crafted science fiction worlds that you have ever come across, and then it all just fades away. You get no answers to any questions. You get no resolution or satisfactory conclusion to any of the events. Now as this is part one of a four-part epic, I expected this to some extent. But the abruptness of the ending still managed to surprise me. I shut the book with a realization that after a thousand pages of well crafted prose, I still had absolutely no idea what was going on. I knew what certain people where doing, but I definitely didn’t always know why they were doing it. Even after chalking some of the looser threads up to deep foreshadowing, I ended the book in much the same fashion as I began it. Very confused.
Not that this confusion really stopped me from enjoying Otherland. I have to reiterate how impressive Tad Williams’ world building is. It is one of the few truly believable fictional worlds of the last twenty years. If William Gibson invented Cyberspace, Tad Williams is the person who saw net culture and made the correct extrapolations and in 1996 built his fictional network as a pretty good simulacrum of what online culture looks like in 2012. The only thing that we’re missing in the real world is fully immersive VR, and Tad Williams was smart enough to set his story late in the twenty-second century to allow for this to develop. But as much as he was telling me about the future back in 1996 when Otherland Volume 1 was written, I’d have been just a bit happier if he would’ve told me more about what was happening in the universe of his book.