Review of Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams

July 14, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Sea of Silver LightSea of Silver Light (Otherland Book #4)
By Tad Williams; Read by George Newbern
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: 17 March 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 37 hrs, 32 mins

Themes: / science fiction / cyberpunk / virtual reality / virtual worlds / serial killer / Otherland /

Publisher summary:

A group of adventurers searching for a cure for comatose children find themselves trapped in a sequence of virtual worlds, the only opponents of a conspiracy of the rich to live forever in a dream. Now, they are forced to make an uneasy alliance with their only surviving former enemy against his treacherous sidekick Johnny Wulgaru, a serial killer with a chance to play God forever.  Few science fiction sagas have achieved the level of critical acclaim-and best-selling popularity-as Tad Williams’s Otherland novels. A brilliant blend of science fiction, fantasy, and techno thriller, it is a rich, multilayered epic of future possibilities.

The finale to the Otherland series, Sea of Silver Light wraps up the multitude of story lines that began in City of Golden Shadow. While the book dragged in places, and some may find that the book (and the series, especially in the middle books) wanders a bit too much, it is hard not to appreciate Tad Williams’ amazingly prescient series, especially if you’re a fan of a) the internet and b) classic literature. It’s probably safe to say that the wandering will not be for everybody, but for those that enjoy the mystery and the references to other works, the series could be a lot of fun.

A series written in the mid-late 90’s, the books cover amazing breadth of topics with a wide cast of characters in this world and in a parallel online world. What started as a cyberpunk story quickly unfolded into a much larger world with many players with significantly different motivations–on all sides of the story. With unlikely/atypical heroes (a South African woman, an African “bushman”, a blind woman, two teenagers, a mom, and a guy who doesn’t know his own past, not to mention a 5 or 6-year old girl, an ancient man…the cast is huge!) and a sprawling world, it’s easy to see why some people are overwhelmed. The more intriguing part, though, is trying to piece together the entire story, trying to figure out who’s involved in the world and for what purpose…and what the online world really is. I will admit that when the world was pieced together, it seemed pretty out there…but I was so engrossed that I didn’t really mind. The only part I really did mind was the end; the book felt maybe a little too neat, and a little too drawn out at the end. That said, it does leave an opening for Williams to return to the world (and looking on Goodreads, it seems as if he may have done just that with a short story in Legends II.

It’s hard to describe the book and what happened in the series without venturing into spoiler territory. Basically, Renie, a young South African woman who is a sort of professor or teacher of computer engineering-type classes at a local university, finds one day that her brother is in a coma of sorts, a result of playing an online game. Games in the future world that Williams created are played online in a virtual reality simulation type schema, where users have different levels of gear that immerse them (fully or to varying degrees) into a virtual world. Some users go so far as to get neural cannulas, so that they can “jack in” and have the VR system provide a direct link to their brain, become fully immersed. Renie, wanting to try to find out more about how her brother came to be in the coma, went online to try to learn what she could of what he got into. Unsurprisingly, she found herself sucked into and literally stuck in a virtual world, unable to disconnect (sort of like Sword Art Online). While there, she meets others who have family members with the same affliction as her brother, and still others who have been recruited by an unknown agent to help Renie and those who are trying to help their children/family members. In parallel, there is the story of the Grail Brotherhood, a private group of the world’s most powerful and wealthiest elite, who wish to achieve immortality, and invest heavily in a system to do so. In a third story line, there is additional intrigue about a psychopath who calls himself “Dread” and seems to seek out ways to torture and kill others, online and in reality. His story ends up weaving and in some ways connecting the Grail Brotherhood and those of the people trying to help the children. Throughout, there are a multitude of worlds created by various users of the online system, many with literary references (such as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The War of the Worlds) or other evolving schema (such as a virtual rainforest that actually begins to evolve in the simulation world, similar to how it might have on earth). Williams uses cyberpunk, the idea of virtual/simulation worlds, and some more fantastical elements (some characters have special abilities, particularly abnormal/special mental powers) to weave a tale that leaves the reader picking up puzzle pieces and slowly piecing things together, just as the heroes do in the story.

I’m most amazed at how prescient Williams was. The book was written in the mid-90’s, yet there are references to things in the world today, innovations that were barest ideas of science fiction in the 90’s. The first and most obvious observation is that the VR world, while more immersive than anything we really have today, is very much akin to the internet of today, with people spending entire lives and making entire livelihoods on the internet. People use tablet-like devices to connect to the networks, to make calls, to shop, to go into their simulation worlds–much like an iPad or other tablet of today. People watch movies on the internet, so-called “Net Flicks” (I really wonder if that’s how Netflix’s name came to be), and an automated robotic floor-sweeping robot (Roomba, anyone) makes an appearance or two. Kids have “storybook sunglasses” which sound a bit like more immersive (and frankly more fun) versions of Google Glass. Just today, I read an article on Slashdot about body hacking through the vagal nerve, a topic that’s actually brought up in the book (as a therapy that is abused, oddly enough). There are other examples, which reading in 2015, are fun nuggets to pick up along the way. It’s crazy how forward-thinking this book was, how much it got “right” even for 2015 (I think the book is supposed to take place closer to 2050).

I liked this book and really enjoyed the series. I think that listening was a fantastic way to experience the book, to be able to lay back and shut my eyes and become immersed in the book as the characters are immersed in their world. The narration was (as I’ve said in my other reviews) great, if a little slow. But that meant that I could speed the book up slightly in the playback, cutting down some of the listening time.

The book (and series) may not be for everyone. I think it’s fair to criticize this book for going on a little “too long” or for being a little “too neat,” and it’s equally fair to think that Book 1 started slow or that books 2 and 3 wandered a bit (they absolutely were “middle books” in a series, which not everybody enjoys). But I still really liked the series. I look forward to reading it again in the future, maybe in a few years, to see how much I can pick up in advance, knowing as I do now, how the book ends.

Posted by terpkristin.

Review of Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams

July 7, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Mountain of Black GlassMountain of Black Glass (Otherland #3)
By Tad Williams; Narrated by George Newbern
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: 17 March 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 27 hours, 17 minutes

Themes: / techno-thriller / science fiction / Greek mythology / game simulation /

Publisher summary:

Mountain of Black Glass is the third volume of Tad Williams’s highly acclaimed four-book series, Otherland. A truly unique reading experience combining elements of science fiction, fantasy, and techno-thriller, it is a rich epic tale in which virtual reality could prove the key to a whole new universe of possibilities for the entire human race – or become the exclusive domain of the rich and the ruthless as they seek a technological pathway to immortality.

The sequel to City of Golden Shadow and River of Blue Fire, this is the third installment (of 4) in the Otherland series. As with River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass picks up where the last one left off. Where I rated River of Blue Fire 3 stars (it was a solid “middle book” in a series), this one gets 4 because of the time spent in Greek mythology, something I’ve always loved.

As a “middle book” in a series, it’s hard not to say things about Mountain of Black Glass that I didn’t say in my reviews for City of Golden Shadow or River of Blue Fire. The story started with key characters still separated (as they were at the end of River of Blue Fire), though much of the book was spent either a) moving them back together, b) exploring their pasts, learning more about their history, or c) giving the reader more insight into the Otherland network itself and the motivations of the people running the network. Unlike River of Blue Fire, in this book, many details seemed to “finally” be pieced together, so more complete histories of characters were formed. It was also a transformative time for some of the Otherland network owners/operators, as they put the final pieces together to try to gain immortality. Other characters, such as the psychopathic servant of the Otherland founder also get a lot of time in this book, as do the police officers looking into his murderous ways. Sellers, the old man who remains quite a mystery but seems to be some of the force that brings the heroes together, also has a key storyline, though it took quite a different turn from what I expected going into the story.

An adventure from proverbial cover to cover (since I listened to the audiobook), a lot of time in this book was spent with the characters all trying to reach the Otherland‘s version of Troy. One of the characters is actually Odysseus, while others play key characters in the Trojan War, including Achilles, his companion Patroclus, and even Diomedes. The character who became Odysseus was forced through the Otherland simulation to re-enact Odysseus’ story somewhat in reverse, having seemingly gone through the events of The Odyssey prior to living through the Trojan War, as told in The Iliad. Our other heroes also eventually ended up in Troy, but not without enduring some trying circumstances in a few different worlds. As one might expect, though, these experiences allowed them to learn more about the network itself, and will undoubtedly help them in their quest to overthrow the Otherland founders (The Grail Brotherhood) and save the children who seem to be trapped by the network.

It’s not all sunshine and roses, though. After finally learning more about each character, becoming significantly more invested in each of them, it seems that one or more of them may have actually died through the course of the narrative. It’s hard to tell for sure, and I suspect I’ll find out what exactly happened when I finish the series with Sea of Silver Light, but the emotional gut punch was harder than I expected it would be. It’s a credit to Williams’ writing that I could simultaneously know how literally frail each of these characters are, playing a life and death game where they don’t know the rules and the rules seem to change, yet still be surprised and saddened when harm (or death) comes to a character. Or how much I really hate Dredd, the servant turned monster, preying on Otherland users/members for his own fun and games.

Tad Williams again seemed to have fun with the simulation worlds, making alternate worlds of popular stories such as the previously-mentioned The Iliad and The Odyssey. There were at least two other worlds explored in this book. One seemed to be an “empty” world, what someone might consider the null space of code to be…since the Otherland network is only code, after all, it does make some sense that the users (our heroes and our villains) would sometimes find literally empty space. There was another world, a world of a house, the reference I didn’t connect (if there was a literary reference, which I suspect that there was). Still, the worlds all felt real, were able to bring me in. This is especially true for the Trojan War. I have long been a fan of Greek mythology, and it was a fun but unexpected surprise to spend so much of this book in that world…at least, that simulated world.

The audiobook was great to listen to, if the narration was slightly slow. I listened to it slightly sped up (using the 1.5x feature for spoken word playback on my iPhone) and it seemed perfect. George Newbern does a great job making the characters come to life. Where some narrators can seem flat or one-note, he always makes it clear which character is talking, and further engages the listener by taking on the exclamation, the feeling of the words. If someone is surprised, for example, his voice lets you know it, you don’t have to rely solely on supporting descriptors. He brings the book to life.

I’m looking forward to starting into Sea of Silver Light, which is queued up and ready to go. It’s a good bit longer than any of the other books in the series (~10 hours longer than this one), but that just means I’ll have to find more excuses to listen.

Posted by terpkristin.

Review of City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams

February 11, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

City of Golden ShadowCity of Golden Shadow (Otherland #1)
By Tad Williams; Narrated by George Newbern
Publisher:  Penguin Audio
Publication Date: 30 October 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 28 hours, 42 minutes

Themes: / cyberpunk / virtual reality / science fiction /

Publisher summary:

Surrounded by secrecy, it is home to the wildest dreams and darkest nightmares. Incredible amounts of money have been lavished on it. The best minds of two generations have labored to build it. And somehow, bit by bit, it is claiming the Earth’s most valuable resource – its children.

Review:

I hate to admit this, but I judged this book by the cover at first. I knew nothing about the book when I started listening, I hadn’t even read the blurb in the description. I saw a fantastical-looking image on the cover and, knowing that Tad Williams typically writes fantasy novels/series, I just assumed it was a fantasy novel. I was wrong. This is actually a cyberpunk book, a quite good one at that. There was only one downside to the book, which I may as well get out of the way now: it’s not a complete story. The book ends with no plot lines resolved and more questions than answers…so, if you read this book, be prepared to read at least the next book in the series (River of Blue Fire. I say “at least” because I have only just started that book (and it’s 24.3 hours long!), and I have no idea if it resolves any of the story. There are 4 books in the Otherland series in total (City of Golden Shadow, River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass, and Sea of Silver Light, the first two of which are available in audio so far).

The plot is intriguing. In a future-world setting (the book was written in 1996), virtual reality (VR) in the form of using an avatar to explore the “net,” is fairly commonplace. Many people, instead of congregating/living in cities with malls and town centers and such, live good parts of their lives in the virtual world. At least, the younger people seem to do this. Main character Reny (a nickname for Irene) is a teacher of computer science/VR manipulation at a university. One day she comes home to find her little brother, Steven, comatose after spending some time in the VR world. Setting out to try to figure out what left him in the coma, she comes across a hint of a world called “Otherland,” a world within the VR world. In parallel, a kid named Orlando is exposed to “Otherland” in a part of his online video game. They find themselves searching for answers on Otherland, enlisting the help of some others who have also found out about the mysterious world, all seeking answers for what it is and why it’s harming kids. There is another story in the book, of a man named Paul. He may or may not have been a soldier in World War II, but somehow has found himself stuck in the world of Otherland without the ability to escape. There is also the story of those running Otherland, some with more nefarious reasons than others…

The entire plot is engaging, if sometimes a little confusing to keep track of who is where (especially at first, as the world and characters are introduced). That said, the book drew me in more or less from the get-go, and I found excuses to listen more as I went about my days. Williams, unlike many authors I’ve read recently, is able to describe the world and the technology organically through the telling of the story. Where some people would spend time info-dumping, Williams is able to make the world comprehensible by explaining things to characters, or having the reader go along with the process of discovery with the characters. For a book written in 1996, Williams was somewhat a visionary of technology and how people use it. In the book, there are VR systems (think: Oculus Rift taken to the extreme), normal day-to-day use of the internet, tablets, videophony…things that are in the early years of widespread adoption now.

The characters in this book are very interesting. I’ve read a lot of complaints, recently, from people who wish that there were more women and/or minorities in the books that they read, especially genre fiction. This book doesn’t have that problem. Reny is a South African black woman, and one of her closest friends through the story is a native African. One of the main villains is Australian and there seem to be people from across the globe involved in either the world or trying to study the world. When Reny needs help, she turns to another woman (another professor in computer science-type fields) for aid, and though men are involved, they are on an equal footing with the women. While I normally don’t fault a book for having weak female characters, it was refreshing to have such diversity in the book.

George Newbern’s narration was fantastic, if a little slow. I found that I had to bump up the playback speed slightly, otherwise it felt like the pauses were a little too long, the speech a little too slow. This made some of the characters or world aspects a little hard to understand at times (pronunciation-wise), but that didn’t detract from the story. It was always easy to keep track of who was talking and what was going on, thanks to Newbern’s voices for the characters and for the main narration.

All in all, I really liked this book. I wish it had come to some form of closure, or at least given some more hints on the motives of the villains, but that’s a minor complaint. I’ve already started the second book and can’t wait to see where the story goes.

Posted by terpkristin.