Those who know me well know that I cry. It doesn't happen terribly often in real life situations, but it does happen, and I'm not the sort of person to be ashamed of tears. Most of the tears I've shed in my life, however, have been brought on by fiction in various forms. I used to cry like a baby at the end of Disney's Stone Fox every time I saw it, and I have no doubt that the same would occur now. The end of Ender's Game has me crying every time too. More recently, Donnie Darko has managed to make me sob at the ending every time I've seen it.

While the actual physical end of the Otherland series did not have me crying, there was quite a long stretch in the last novel when I had to keep removing my glasses to wipe away the tears.

Okay, you ask, that's all well and good. But what the hell does that have to do with the quality of the movie? I know you. Even crappy chick flicks can sometimes make you bawl. How is this pertinent to a review of the series? And I could answer glibly and say that, well, it's my damn review, and I'll talk about whatever I like in it. But that's not the real reason. The reason that I bring it up is because, in Otherland, the tears did not flow because of crass manipulation by an author, like so many movies. No, I cried because--for all intents and purposes--the people involved in Otherland were real to me, and they were so real to me that I felt their pain, their fear, their anguish, and even their hope.

Ever have one of those books that you are so absorbed in that it actually forces you to put it down, because reading it fills you with so much nervous energy that you can't think straight enough to finish reading it? You actually have to take a breather, let your brain simmer down, before you can jump back in?

Otherland is one of those.

Tad Williams makes it fairly explicit that he didn't really want to break the books up into four volumes; it simply had to be done because no single printed volume would comfortably hold the three thousand or so pages that the story covers. I imagine it would have been torture to read the series as it was being published, since the endings in the book are the worst sort of cliffhangers: they're the ones where you know the author's already started on the next part, and the only reason you can't find out what happened to the heroes is a matter of practicality instead of any sort of planned suspenseful pausing. So while Otherland is printed in four separate volumes--City of Golden Shadow, River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass, and Sea of Silver Light--I will simply refer to them as one whole work, as they are meant to be read. [It's actually fairly amusing to note that the last book is three hundred-odd pages longer than the first three; it seems that Tad Williams was bound to finishing the thing up in four volumes, and so he had to make the last one inordinately long to tie up all of the loose threads.

Like most good books, it's nearly impossible to discuss the finer points of the work without giving away important details. So, in general, Otherland details a very motley crew of individuals trying to figure out What The Hell Is Going On, an Evil Conspiracy out to Do Bad Things To The World, and a Whole Bunch Of Neat Technology To Tie It All Together.

The genius of the series is that instead of being entrapped by these exceedingly standard tropes of science fiction, it manages to bend them to its will, forming something completely different out of timeworn ideas.

A quick rundown of the major characters reveals an independent African woman, a Bushman, a blind Frenchwoman, two teenagers, a mysterious old man, several other mysterious older men, a psychopath, a lesbian policewoman, and a super-hacker. Many of these characters fit into fairly typical archetypes, but almost all of them manage to transcend their proscribed boundaries and flesh out into truly original characters, ones you care about.

And at the centre of it all is the Otherland itself, a vast computer network containing virtual realities that put most flights of fancy to shame. Tad Williams approaches Greg Egan in the sheer number of amazing ideas he runs through while his characters explore the virtual universe, tossing out in a couple of pages what others would write novels on. Admittedly, he spends a hundred-odd pages on them instead of the two or three that Egan uses, but even that is a major accompllishment. And it never really feels hackeneyed; the various worlds that you see are all self-contained, with their own--perhaps vastly skewed--internal logic. It's always an exciting moment when people enter a new world.

To say much more about the story would give too much away. Suffice it to say that the characters must indeed Save The World, but even that doesn't seem tired here.

There are many little touches that made the book much more exciting for me. A surprising wealth of well-written female characters made me smile; it's far too rare in good science fiction to have both genders represented fairly accurately in the same work. The amount of technical detail used in the book delighted me--being a computer nerd, I don't believe there's any such thing as too much jargon--and the fact that I only felt cheated by the technology in one or two places made me even happier. It's a fairly rare accomplishment in non-hard science fiction, and I was pleased to see virtual reality represented much like I feel it should be, with latency and bureaucracy and all the other sort of crap that the Real World has to deal with but novels often skim over.

Yes, the book has minor issues. It has the sophomore-volume slump that I've come to expect in almost any epic. [That same slump is the reason I've never finished Lord of the Rings; I just can't get through The Two Towers.] A few of the major characters are not detailed nearly enough, whereas others have many hundreds of pages devoted to their point of view. And Williams has a habit of lapsing into the sort of rhapsodic speech that I find in Internet fan fiction, using turns of phrase that simply wouldn't occur to real people to describe their situations. Just because a phrase is evocative doesn't mean it's sensible or in character. But these minor annoyances are just that, and the book as a whole enthralled me. It took me much longer to read than I would have liked, but Life tended to get in the way, and the sophomore slump killed my reading momentum for a while. After getting into the home stretch, however, I tore through the rest of the book over a couple of nights, and the questions that it brings up have kept me pondering since.

Otherland is not a light read in any sense of the phrase, but it's one of those series that deserves to be read, if only for the fantastic places it takes you, the realistic characters it forces you to care about, and the questions it raises about what it means to simply be.

Of course, aren't those the goals of most fiction?

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Last Updated: 2002.09.22.2114