Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Otherland: City of Golden Shadow

by Tad Williams


At over 940 pages, J K Rowling's Order of the Phoenix has nothing on Tad Williams for sheer length. Otherland is a trip into virtual reality worlds that are so immersive it's hard to tell what is real and what isn't. Three years before The Matrix, Williams was writing about malignant virtual realities that trap people in their illusions.

We begin with Paul Jonas, a soldier trapped in the mud and destruction of the First World War trenches. At least that's where he thinks he is. We barely get to know him before we meet Renie in her completely unrelated reality as a lecturer in VR in South Africa of the future. With her mother dead and her father an alcoholic, she plays the role of mother to her younger brother Stephen. Stephen has been up to no good, and has been getting into trouble online. Going into VR should not normally affect real life. But one day Stephen hacks into a forbidden area, and is struck into an inexplicable coma from which he shows no signs of emerging.

Renie takes it upon herself to investigate, but a series of bad things start to happen. It becomes obvious that these are no coincidences, and that she is being warned not to keep looking for answers. With Stephen's condition failing to improve Renie is forced to use desperate means to find out the truth.

Orlando Gardiner has his own reasons to want to investigate, after his virtual reality game is interrupted by a fabulous vision, and a character he had used for 5 years is killed off unexpectedly.

Williams jumps abrubtly from one perspective to another, through a large cast of characters. As well as the various settings, any character can play someone completely different in VR. Occasionally it's hard to work out just who is supposed to be who. The author is endlessly inventive with his virtual worlds, punctuated by little Netfeed snippets. In fact he is too inventive sometimes, so we pass from one virtual world to the next with little advancement of the basic plot. After a while all this variety of exotic landscapes gets a little tiresome.

There's real danger both online and off for Renie, her bushman friend !Xabbu, and anyone else poking their virtual noses where they're not wanted. But why? It seems like a lot of trouble to go to just in order to protect a futuristic MMORPG dungeon for the elite. But the most shocking revelation at the end of this book is not who is behind it all. It's that Tad Williams is only just getting started. This is high-tech virtual reality of epic proportions.

The technology for creating realistic VR environments is advancing all the time, and Williams' vision of the future will be upon us before we know it. He plays on our fears of the way the internet seems to take over people's lives and turn them into zombies. As well as being a cautionary tale it's a cracking story, and although it could do with some pruning in places it should keep fans of both science fiction and fantasy occupied for hours.

Book Details

Decade: 1990s

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

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4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
More about Tad Williams