Another fantasy/SF epic - except that I would like to point out that "epic" does not only mean "really, really long."
According to author Tad Williams, Otherland
is not actually four books, but one book split into four volumes for the sake of publishing limitations (i.e., no one would want to carry around a single volume approaching 3,000 pages.) Well, OK, but from Book 1 to Book 4 there's a five-year gap - I would think, if this was a single book, that in the intervening years some serious editing could have been done. There's a lot of repetitive nattering going on, both here and in the subsequent volumes. (If you read other reviews of mine, you may find similar complaints elsewhere. I can't help but wonder if they've gone back to the pay-by-the-page method of compensating writers.)
That said: it's been pretty fascinating thus far to read Williams' projected future of the Internet. I suspect it may be perceived as less impressive now, 15 years on, than it was when the book was first published in 1996, just as the Internet was coming into its own. No year is specified for the books' setting (just "21st Century" - although there are some hints that I'm sure a determined fan could use in narrowing the range), but Otherland
's massive development of and emphasis on interaction within Virtual Reality environments has not been borne out (at least to date.) However, the Middle Country (home to Thargor and Pithlit) bears a strong resemblance to online games like World of Warcraft, and many of the gathering places and shopping venues will probably seem familiar to anyone who built a Second Life online. The big difference is that Otherland
's online experience is three-dimensional and can involve sensory input as well, assuming that one can afford the sophisticated equipment required, where we have to be satisfied with plain ol' 2-D.
Book 1 sets up this world and introduces the reader to the main characters: Renie, a college instructor in 'net architecture; her student, !Xabbu, a Bushman, who is surprisingly quick in learning from Renie, despite not having been raised from babyhood with net access; Orlando and Sam, two young friends who go on missions together in the Middle Country but live on opposite ends of the country; Renie's teenaged brother Stephen, who is running wild since their mother's accidental death and their father's subsequent alcohol abuse, and whose online experimentation is about to get him in serious trouble; Christabel, a precocious but sheltered little girl who lives in a gated military community and has a secret friendship with a very odd old man in a wheelchair; and Dread, a psychopathic killer who works for an extremely wealthy and powerful mentor and has the ability to interact with computers and other electronic systems without even touching them.
When Renie's brother suddenly goes into a coma, she traces the cause back to his activities on the 'net, and decides to tackle the problem by hacking into the online venue she believes is responsible for Stephen's condition, with !Xabbu in tow. Along the way she encounters Orlando and Sam, who are on a similar journey and seeking the same destination, although none of them realize it. From the viewpoint of each of the traveling pairs, as well as the activities of Christabel and Dread, Book 1 of Otherland
leads the reader to the discovery of a massive and well-funded conspiracy, and reveals the existence of a mind-bogglingly detailed virtual universe called "Otherland."