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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 142: Otherland 1 – City of Golden Shadow

Otherland 1: City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams

Let me just start by saying this: the first time I finished this series, I immediately went back and started reading it again. I can’t think of any other series that I’ve done that with.

This is one of Tad Williams’ “economy-sized manuscripts,” similar to his fantasy classic Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Similar in size and scope, anyway – four giant tomes chock full of all things awesome. It’s a series of grand scope, amazing scale and great imagination, well worthy of your time. It’s a complex, interweaving of tales, full of vibrant characters, implacable enemies, and important questions about destiny, identity, consciousness and the very nature of reality itself.

Seriously, top-shelf stuff here, people.

Mind you, Second Life's dreams aren't all that big.

It begins in a near-future world, and it begins with the children. Renie Sulaweyo, a teacher in South Africa, has a brother in the hospital. He, like many other children around the world, has gone into an inexplicable coma, the causes of which defy medical science. The only clue she has is that the outbreaks of these comas coincide with the availability of access to the Net – a virtual reality internet that is what Second Life dreams of becoming. Here, depending on your equipment, you can live in a virtual world that is more vibrant and exciting than anything the real world can offer. And you can do it in full sense-surround 3D.

Renie’s brother, Stephen, engaged in the usual mischief that any kid with access to his own virtual universe might do, and finally got caught. Something shut him down, and Renie was determined to find out what did it. With the assistance of her student, a Bushman named !Xabbu, Renie uncovers an amazing virtual world, something that puts the best virtual reality to shame. It is the Otherland, a playground for the obscenely wealthy. And it may hold the secret to what has afflicted her brother.

And if you think WoW is nuts now? Imagine it fully immersive. Okay, nerds, get back to gold farming...

That’s the short version, and since Renie is the one we’re introduced to first, it would be easy to think of her as the protagonist of the story. That would be highly inaccurate, though. There’s a lot of other storylines going on in there as well. There’s young Orlando Gardiner, who compensates for a crippling illness by being the baddest barbarian on the net. His best friend, Sam Fredericks, has stood by him for many years in an online game that makes World of Warcraft look like pen and paper D&D. They and others are lured into a deadly quest by a vision of a great golden city, more realistic and magical than they ever thought they could find.

Out in the real world, there’s little Christabel Sorenson, upon whose earnest desire to help the funny-looking Mister Sellars the entire future of the Otherland rests. There’s the aptly-named Dread, an assassin extraordinare whose strange “twist” gives him an edge in all things electronic. And, of course, there is Paul Jonas, a man trapped in an imaginary world, whose escape threatens the greatest dreams of the richest men the world has ever known.

All of this, as the series title suggests, centers on the Otherland project, a virtual reality of monumental proportions. It’s a digital world that is more real than the real world is, a world of computer-created, but very deadly, dangers. The slightest misstep could spell disaster and death – die in the Otherland and you die in real life.

This doesn't happen in Otherland, by the way. Lucky them.

And just FYI, Otherland predates The Matrix by three years and, kung-fu aside, is a much better story. So if you’re thinking, “Man, this is just a Matrix rip-off, you’re very, very wrong.

It’s a daunting series to begin. After all, it’s four books, each one clocking in around 800 to 900 pages. There are at least fifteen major characters, and the Otherland itself shows us seven different “worlds” in this book alone. There’s a lot to take in, and on top of all that, there’s a whole world happening outside the story – each chapter is preceded with a small news blurb that tells us about things that are going on in the world. Cops rounding up homeless kids in lethal “snipe hunts,” homicidal artists, legislative representation for the industrial sector of America – this world is both familiar and alien at the same time.

Then again, neither does this. Tad Williams does have his limits.

The good news is that it is a lot of fun to read. The pacing is very good, so you never get too bored watching any one character for a while. What’s more, Williams pays homage to some of the greatest fantasy and science fiction the English-speaking world has to offer. At one point, even the characters admit that they seem to be caught up in a very familiar story. So my advice is to just dive right into it. Once you get going, things clip along at a good pace and you’ll find yourself on page 943 in no time flat.

The really fun part is re-discovering things in this series. There are some things I remember very clearly, but other little details that pop up and make me think, “Oh yeah, I forgot all about that.” I enjoy seeing Williams’ prescience – after all, he wrote this just as the internet was really becoming popular, and a good ten years before things like online gaming and social media took over our lives. His vision of an immersive, VR world may have seemed a little wild and out there back in the mid-nineties, but not anymore.

So, make a sandwich and find a comfortable place to sit. This’ll take a while, but I guarantee – it’ll be worth it.

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“If you have found this, then you have escaped. Know this – you were a prisoner. You are not in the world in which you were born. Nothing around you is true, and yet the things you see can hurt you or kill you. You are free, but you will be pursued….”
– Sellars to Paul Jonas, Otherland: City of Golden Shadow
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Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
City of Golden Shadow on Amazon.com
Tad Williams’ Website

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Filed under adventure, brothers, fantasy, fathers, friendship, gender, gender roles, internet, quest, science fiction, sisters, survival, Tad Williams, transhumanism, virtual reality, world-crossing