Most science fiction/fantasy books are simple. One or two main characters, an evil villain, and stuff happens. But every now and then comes along a work of fantasy or science fiction that approaches something resembling literature. Otherland by Tad Williams is such a book. It features not one, not two, but five main characters, each with their sidekicks, backgrounds, families, motivations and environment. An African professor and her zulu ‘bushman’ sidekick. An online barbarian, invincible in virtual combat but is suffering from progeria and about to die in the real world. A serial killer with the power to disrupt electronics. A wheelchair-bound hacker whose story is told through the eyes of a five-year old girl. And the character who dominates the book, Jonah, who is permanently lost in the belly of a virtual reality based on literary classics.
Each chapter of the book jumps between these characters. Each character has their own plot, and as a reader you feel like you are reading five different books where nothing happens. Eventually things start happening to each of them. One’s brother falls into a strange coma. Another experiences online visions. Another finds out about this mysterious virtual reality called ‘Otherland’, the hacker seduces a little girl, and Jonas, the lost one with amnesia, well, I just started skipping all his chapters once I figured out the author was just using those chapters to recreate literary classics such as Through the Looking Glass, The Odyssey, Peter Pan, Wizard of Oz, Aesops Fables, and more surreal adventure-type books.
By the end of the book the characters come together and you manage to piece together the plot: A bunch of bad guys have discovered a way to trap people in virtual reality while their real body falls into a coma. They plan to build their own virtual reality, called Otherland, one where they can alter reality. They plan to trap humanity in Otherland and become gods. The only one who can stop them is the guy with amnesia, Jonas. We’re not sure how yet.
So the main characters and their sidekicks – a British vampire; a kid who only talks in annoying techno-babble; a faithful archer; an almost-sentient robot – nine in total, just like The Fellowship of the Ring – set out to traverse the depths of this crazy virtual Otherland, find Jonas, and save the world. Oh, and one of them – you don’t know which – is hacked by the serial killer, who is planning to kill them all and seize the god-like powers for himself, waiting to strike at any moment.
The book is an epic setup of a thousand pages. It’s complicated, requires patience, and is not for the casual reader. I’m looking forward to book two.