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Review 150: Otherland 3 – Mountain of Black Glass

Otherland 3: Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams

This is easily my favorite book in the series, short though the series may be.

Otherland is a strange story, really – it’s like a hybrid science fiction/fantasy tale in that you can easily forget which genre you’re in. It’s clearly science fiction, in that the whole thing is taking place in a massive computer simulation, but on the other hand, it owes a lot to fantasy – especially the world-crossing aspects of it.

Our Otherland heroes have been trapped there for some time now, running through the system with very little understanding of where they are or where they’re going. The whole thing is run by a cabal of the world’s richest men and women in an attempt to foil Death itself, and was built as their eternal playground. Thus, there are countless worlds to choose from. There are places where you can re-live entire historical epochs, where you can fly in rivers of air or play in a cartoon kitchen. You can be a cowboy in the Old West or a Knight of the Round Table or anything that your mind can conceive – and your programmers can work out.

Not every virtual god is a good one, of course.

The complexity of this system is such that it is indistinguishable from real life. It is multi-sensory, so you get the full experience of actually being there, with none of the obvious CGI cues that we’ve come to expect from the virtual world. What’s more, the owners of the system have nearly godlike power within it. They plan to not only live forever, but have absolute power while doing so.

Two of these simworlds – one original, one derivative – are the reasons why this is my favorite book of the series. The original simworld (not based on any well-known work or historical event) is the House. After being betrayed by the assassin Dread, who has been masquerading as one of their number, Renie, !Xabbu, Martine, Florimel, T4b and Emily are stuck in a kind of… unfinished world. It’s a place where the programming hasn’t really been settled, and where the unreality of the whole thing can be deadly.

They manage to escape by following Dread to a new simulation – a great House that is, in itself, a world. It goes on as far as anyone knows, but is home to countless tribes and nations. Our heroes meet runaway lovers – a cutlery apprentice and a girl from the linen cabinets. They are aided by the Library monks, whose expertise encompasses everything from House history to the minute details of plasterwork. They are nearly killed by attic bandits and hunted by nomadic bands of steeplejacks.

You get them abducted by aliens, of course.

Aside from imbuing the House with a deep sense of history and complexity, Williams raises an important point that anyone who has ever played “The Sims” can recognize: what do you do when you start to empathize with a computer-generated being?

During their time in the House, they meet people who seem to be genuinely good, perceptive, interesting people, qualities that we don’t know how to confidently imbue in real humans, much less coded simulacra. The residents of the House have passions and dreams, they love and hate just as “real” people do. They can’t be written off as “just code,” because they don’t act that way. They help and hinder our heroes just as people out in Real Life might.

I don't know the answer, but this young... man seems interested in finding out.

This brings up an interesting ethical problem: while they can’t be sure what their ultimate goal will be, our heroes are pretty sure that the system will eventually have to be destroyed – as far as they know, it is the Otherland system that is keeping them trapped, and their loved ones in comas. Will doing this be, in essence, genocide? By shutting down the Otherland network to save the children in comas, and to save themselves, will they be condemning thousands – perhaps millions – of coded “people” to extinction? Are these “people” really people? After all, the Grail Brotherhood was planning to become immortal code themselves – would they be any less alive than their meat incarnations?

While this is not a problem that we have to grapple with yet, it’s one that may come up eventually. Tad Williams has done a very nice job in this series of predicting technological advancement, so he may have seen forward on this one, too.

The other simworld that makes this my favorite book is a derivative one. This means that it is based on an extant work, much like the Alice in Wonderland world that Paul Jonas goes to, or the bizarre cartoon kitchen from which Orlando and Fredericks had to escape. This world is one of the oldest stories there is, and was the first simworld to be created when the construction of the Otherworld began.

It is The Iliad.

Somehow, I don't have a Sim of Achilles. (Art by NegativeFeedback on DeviantArt)

I’ve read the original poem a few times, and I’m impressed with it every time. It’s a massive story, full of heroes and villains, bravery and treachery, and death. Lots and lots of death. It’s an epic poem, and it deserves the title, as it pits nations, men, and gods against each other in what is ultimately a tragic and terrible ten year war. For Tad Williams to use this as the climax for a novel is nothing short of audacious, but he pulls it off wonderfully.

Not only does he manage to keep hold of the terrible horror of war that Homer put throughout his poem, Williams integrates his characters into the story, putting them in the roles of key figures such as Achilles, Patroclus, Cassandra and Odysseus. They all want to get into Troy so they can find their way to the Black Mountain, but to do so they must go through the war that has served as the archetype for human conflict for the last few millennia. Their choices, freely made, reflect the choices of the characters they inhabit, which are themselves models for heroes of fiction throughout literary history.

In one wonderful scene, Sam Fredericks, who is inhabiting the character of Patroclus, is wondering what to do about her sick friend, Orlando Gardiner, AKA Achilles. He cannot fight, but the Argives need him, and throughout their long friendship as online gamers, it was always Orlando who was the hero. Sam was the sidekick, the buddy, but when you made the movie poster, Orlando’s character would always be in the middle of the shot.

But much like another Sam in another story, Fredericks knows that heroism isn’t just muscles and swords and snappy dialogue. It’s about doing what has to be done, even if you don’t want to do it. Nearly crippled by progeria, a debilitating childhood illness, Orlando has nonetheless continued to fight on in the Otherland. Now the hero cannot fight, and Sam realizes it’s the sidekick who has to pick up the burden. Thus, Sam unknowingly fulfills the destiny of the character she is portraying, puts on the shining armor of Achilles, and goes out to inspire the Argives to fight so that she and her friends might live.

Chocolate! It's full of chocolate!

The entire Troy sequence is amazing, and every time I read this book, I feel compelled to read The Iliad again.

But the series doesn’t end there, of course. Suffice it to say we hit a major climax by the end of this book. People are in danger, secrets are revealed, battles are fought… and one of our brave heroes makes the Ultimate Sacrifice. We are brought to the heart of the operating system, the Black Mountain which entombs the Other. The Grail Brotherhood sets their immortality sequence in motion, and the amoral killer Dread makes his bid for virtual godhood. Setting us up for the final book, we are left with our heroes in disarray – divided and lost, dropped into an entirely new environment that is beyond their understanding and forced to cooperate with their gravest enemies for their survival.

You may look at this book and think, “Holy cow. 924 pages. There is no way I’m reading 924 pages.” But you will, and it’ll go a lot faster than you think. Williams has done a great job of making a multi-layered, fast-paced story that you can enjoy on many levels. You can revel in the action and the mystery, you can ponder deep philosophical problems, or you can comb through the great attention to detail and see how much work he must have done to get the Trojan War sequence right.

Hats off to you, Tad Williams.

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“Jesus Mercy. There have to be easier ways than this to save the world.”
– Renie Sulaweyo, Otherland: Mountain of Black Glass
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Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
Mountain of Black Glass on Amazon.com
Tad Williams’ Website

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Filed under adventure, existentialism, fantasy, friendship, Homer, internet, meta-fiction, quest, science fiction, story, Tad Williams, virtual reality, world-crossing

Review 31: The Iliad

The Iliad by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

Sing to me, O Muse, of a long damn poem,
which saddled the backs of many a Freshman English Major before me
and brought the mist of term papers down around our eyes

Can you tell me, O Muse, of the deeds done in this book
in less time than it takes to fight the actual war
in which the blood of many a legendary, some say mythical, figure
was spilt and lost, fed into the hungry earth of Troy?
Sing to me of feasting and fighting and the filching of treasure
of Dawn and her Rosy Fingers as they greet the tenth year
of the War of the Acheans (which are also known as Greeks,
but only by the terribly uneducated)
against the great city-state of Troy.
Tell me of ten years’ warfare, the great hollow ships
ranged against the shining walls of Ilium!

Of all the Acheans, only one could be the Hero of this war
a man spawned of a Goddess, a son of the oceans and a scourge
on all who oppose him, who would flee and crap their singlets
at the very sight of his blazing armor.
As a three year-old child sits in his room and sulks
upon not receiving a bicycle for his birthday,
ignoring all the treasure heaped upon him by otherwise doting parents,
crying to the walls and his toys in the closet
and raging against the injustices of those older than he,
so does Achilles, the greatest of Egos in the Achean army
sit in his tent and whine about Briseis,
the woman he won in warfare, only to have her taken by Agamemnon.

“Help me Mother, goddess of the ocean’s foam,” he cried.
“Agamemnon’s pissing me off and I want him to suffer for it!”
And so did his doting mother appeal to Zeus,
he of the Thunderbolt Libido with a Thing For The Ladies
and the King of Gods did make it so,
giving the troops of Troy and their leader, Hector, advantage
only to crush them in the end so as to increase
the glory of Achilles.

Who can sing the insanity of this plan, this war?
Should I live a thousand lifetimes, I would wither of age
before I could recount the acts of treachery and pettiness
brought about by gods and men on the blood-soaked plains of Troy.
Would that I had the time to list the dead and dying
the blood and the viciousness of unholy war,
balanced by rare acts of humanity and kindness.
If only I possessed that rarest of gifts, the patience
to list the atrocities of the Gods wrought upon men.
Such was the gift of Homer, to do so long ago
what we cannot, weak as men are now.

Great Agamemnon, whose pride and stubbornness rival Father Zeus
Himself. Achilles, the mighty, the hero who becomes human
only when all that he truly loves is taken from him.
Hector, breaker of horses, the father and defender of a city
doomed from the outset.
Priam, Aged King of Troy, watching his sons die one by one.
The libidinous Paris, whose inability to think
with the right head started all of this,
and Helen, would that she drowned before reaching Troy,
watching the terrible battle from her rooms.
And her rightful husband, the red-haired Menelaus
whose rage brought a thousand ships across the wine-dark seas.
Patrolcus, incapable of following one simple little instruction.
Godlike Telamonian Ajax, clever Odysseus, and aged Nestor
always with a long-winded, vaguely relevant story at hand.
These are the heroes of this play, O Muse.

And there are certainly villains –
those immortal Gods whose every whim costs the lives
of noble mortal men.

White-armed Hera, scheming against her husband
Zeus, who grants the ascendancy of Achilles at the cost
of uncountable Trojan and Achean lives.
Aphrodite and Ares, fighting for Troy,
grey-eyed Athena and Poseidon with his blue hair, urging on the Argives.
All playing their games, and in the end, the same as they began.
For, being deathless Gods, they cannot change
and what cannot change cannot learn.
And so the Gods, whose machinations set this tragedy in motion
escape unscathed during the passage of many a mortal soul
into the dark arms of Hades.
And the mortals, playing parts in Zeus’ puppet show
dying to bring greater glory to Achilles.

Would that I had the time to underscore the glory of this tale
and how centuries of the written word have been built upon it.
Give me the strength, O Gods, to tell of this cornerstone!
As a single oak tree, growing tall and splendid towards the sky,
reaching for the sun and spreading its roots into Demeter’s
fertile earth, put forth leaves whose numbers are unknown to man
so has this epic poem inspired more works than can be counted
by a writer as simple and humble as myself.
So reach out, dear Reader, reach out and find this tale,
and as a vast tank holds enough rainwater to replenish
fields and fields of fecund earth, bringing forth
crops to feed people by the thousands,
so will you become a repository of literature and history
and be able to show the world just how utterly
utterly
cool you really are.

Come with me, O Muse. I need a drink.

———————————————-
“And now as the armies clashed at one strategic point,
they slammed their shields together, pike scraped pike
with the grappling strength of fighters armed in bronze
and their round shields’ bosses pounded hide-to-hide
and the thunder of struggle roared and rocked the earth.
Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath,
fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood.”
Homer, The Iliad (8:71-77)
———————————————-

Homer on Wikipedia
The Iliad on Wikipedia
The Trojan War on Wikipedia
The Iliad on Amazon.com

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Filed under classics, history, Homer, made into movies, poetry, war