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Book Review: Otherland by Tad Williams

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It took me a while, but I finally managed to wade through the four volumes of Tad Williams’ Otherland series. Tracking down the second and third volumes took most of the effort, as they weren’t in my local library and not on the shelves of first-hand bookstores, so it meant checking back with secondhand stores on a regular basis in the hopes that a copy would show up. But now that I’ve read the quartet, City Of Golden Shadow, River Of Blue Fire, Mountain Of Black Glass and Sea Of Silver Light, I’m left with a couple of unanswered whys.

The first why is sort of two parts; why was thing written in the first place, and why did it have to be so long? The second why has more to do with me than the quality of the books: why did I keep reading the things? I even spent money on them that could have been put to far better use.

Sometimes after reading a book, I’m left feeling what was the point in writing the damn thing? Okay, sure, there is a story and characters and they do stuff, but for what purpose? Is there a reason for it all? True, works of fiction don’t have to have a point, they can just be riveting stories, intense character studies, or thrilling plot lines, but those in turn become the point of writing the book.

The author sets out to create a character study, or an exploration of style if he or she are exceptionally post modern. But there’s usually a point to the whole exercise. In Otherland, I missed the point entirely.

The plot is quite simple really. Children around the world are falling prey to a mysterious coma-inducing disease, somehow contracted while surfing the net. A sinister cabal of corporate leaders throughout the world are creating for themselves the means to live forever in artificial reality by recreating themselves as living parts of an organic operating system that controls a massive artificial reality. They are somehow utilizing the brains of the children to make the operating system function.

A small group of people from the outside the cabal find out about the plot and get hacked into the special system in order to try to find a cure for the people who have fallen into a coma. The four books deal with their attempts to get into the system, their adventures while there, and finding a resolution to the problems created by the simulated world.

One major problem for me was the fact that basic elements of this book had been done before and better by other authors. The whole idea of travelling a river through multiple worlds smacked of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series, while the live net concept has been done by many an author prior to this, with, to my mind anyway, the best one being He, She, and It by Marge Piercy.

Doing something that has been done before is not a crime, but it places the author under the obligation to come up with something marginally original enough that you don’t find yourself automatically thinking of the previous works. In that Mr. Williams was unsuccessful, as I was continually reminded of Mr. Farmer’s work (which I have not read in about twenty years) during his descriptions of the different worlds that his characters passed through.

Although his virtual world was more elaborate than Ms Piercy’s, it lacked the earlier work’s ability to convey something of the excitement this sort of experience should generate. In each situation the Net was taken for granted as a place where you could have full body access, and was considered an everyday sort of thing, but I just didn’t sense the same enthusiasm for the subject from Mr. Williams as I had in its predecessor. Perhaps it is his fascination with the technical details that alienated me, but there were too many times when it felt like reading a manual.

In cases where the plot isn’t effective, an author can save him or herself through the characters. If they are people we care about or can identify with, what they do is of less importance. Here again I found Mr. Williams lacking. He has four volumes with which to develop his characters as they go through a long journey, but they are all pretty much the same at the end as they were in the beginning.

It seems that he was content with providing us with types rather than characters. There is the noble savage in the form of a bushman, the strong black woman, the old white businessman intent on ruling the world, the sociopath killer and so on. They all have specific purposes to play that fit into their cliché, and there are only so many times that you can here the bushman talk about the interconnectedness of Cat’s Cradle, the operating system and the universe without wanting to gag.

Now you may be asking yourself, if he thought so poorly of this series why in hell’s name did you read the whole thing? Simple really, I’m an optimist and I kept hoping it would get better. After the first book, which got everyone into the virtual world and separated from each other, I still had hopes that it could develop into something more interesting now that we were into the virtual reality.

Once I finished the second book it became a matter of stubbornness on my part. I’d already invested so much time into the damn thing, I was going to read it if it killed me. Probably not the best reasons for reading anything, and not guaranteed to make you think favourably of it either.

I feel sort of bad for writing this negative review; it’s obvious Tad Williams put a lot of work into these books, what with researching various time periods of history, computers, and the stories of the San bushmen. Unfortunately good research does not a good novel guarantee. Otherland ended up reminding me of those mini-series they used to make in the seventies for television, where their reach exceeded their capabilities, and they ended up serving up large helpings of tedium.
Ed/Pub:NB

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Thanks for sticking with it, so we don’t have to!

  • He, She and It is Amazon 0449220605, in case anyone wants it — the New York Public Library Library Journal gave it a recommendation, too!

  • Umm, I included He She and It as an Amazon Link with the other books

  • I liked the first book; I thought it was a great setup. But the other three dragged and dragged, and it seemed the characters were going from one harrowing escape to another, and the actual ending of what was controlling the world was kind of lame.

  • Good review and good work slogging through the series. It is an Herculian effort; I know, I forced myself to do the same.

    You’re spot on when you ask, “What’s the point?” This entire four volume series could have, and more importantly should have, been written in a single book. But Tad Williams only rarely completes a story in the space of a few hundred pages.

    Memory, Sorrow and Thorn was actually pretty good. Otherland, forget it. I’m sorry that I paid good money for the entire series in hardcover.

    Double-u double-u double-u dot ebay dot com.

  • I managed most of the first book before I gave up. I still look at the rest of the series when I’m in the SFF section of a bookstore (they’re all easily available here in Bombay, probably old copies that never sold out!) and shudder at the thought of wading through another couple of thousand pages of the same. I loved his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy-in-four-books immensely. He’s a brilliant author, as even the Otherland saga proves, as well as his other dismal failure (to me at least), his War of The Flowers. So much hard work, research, detail, and for what? I’m very hopeful about his Shadowmarch series, just started. I believe he’s just too good a writer to be kept down for long, and will produce another M,S & T, in my opinion, one of the best epic fantasies ever.

  • Crap. Don’t say that. I loved the first book and have been eagerly awaiting the chance to purchase and read the others. >< Well, to each his/her own. Perhaps I will enjoy them. Thanks for the review though. I will keep it in mind.

  • Tom

    Accurate review. Four volumes, yet despite what should be some pivotal events and personal epiphanies the characters do not change, grow, or develop significantly.

    Still, for the most part I found it engaging and read it with enjoyment.

  • Zach12345

    Wow, Im kind of shocked by this. I thought Tad Williams Green Angel Tower books were the ones that were hard to read.

    Otherland was very good for me. Id give it an A-. Very inventive, easy to read. And I think the POINT that you are say is not there is extremely obvious

  • Ryan

    Thanks, just finished the first book, it was tedious at best and although part of a series it didn’t even end with any satisfaction that would give the desire to wade through another 3000 pages just to get to an end where the characters haven’t developed and no twist to the foreseeable ending. Thanks for the review, glad I’m not alone in my disgust for wasting all that time!

  • CGriffitt

    I feel completely differently about the book, myself. I would say that it was one of the best series I have ever read. Some would say that then I obviously have never read any good books, but I have read classics of both Sci-Fi and traditional fantasy, and I would say that the Otherland series measures up.Now you did have some valid points, the characters themselves were not always the most interesting. But the plot really intrigued me, with the details of the system and why it did what it did. Perhaps the overall story is weak if you consider it on it’s own, but the details make it.I do agree with an above commentator, the one who goes by Cass, in the regard that the ending was a bit poorly done.

  • Ben Wilder

    The review, and most of the comments, are snobby English majors who fail to see the REAL reason for stories- it isn’t clever character development, plot devices, or whatever snobbery you have in mind. It’s ENTERTAINMENT. I read them, and I was entertained. Reading this review and the comments, I feel like I’m choking on the smell of moth balls from the coat closets of shallow, empty, rich snobs. Get over your choice-wine-and-aged-cheese selves. You people are like musicians who lambaste popular music because it doesn’t conform to their narrow definition of skillful composition.

    Enjoy the music for the emotion it invokes in you, not because the musician copied some famous dead man’s complicated techniques. Read stories because they’re fun, not because you want to analyze their meta-structure and feel good about your own failures as a writer.

  • Battle Mage

    I completely disagree with you. I loved those four books. The worlds created were imaginative to me and well worth the number of words to describe them. As for as characters go, I really loved the development of Orlando Gardiner’s character, and Mr. Sellers was very interesting to me. I’m sensing that this just wasn’t something that resonated with your personality here. Maybe I’m wrong, but it feels like your dislike was more about a personality conflict with the style rather than real flaws in the story itself. I rather enjoyed the rich technical details. Maybe it’s because I’m a math/science kind of guy, but I’m totally not feeling the same vibe you are even remotely.
    lol ten years later. Hope you are well 😉

  • Trav

    I totally empathize with this review. I felt like Otherland was approached concepts already tackled, and combined them into one really long story, without significantly improving upon previous works. THINK I could have kept caring about the characters if it were a QUARTER—maybe 1/2—the length it is. By the end of the absurdly lengthy tetralogy, I had qualms with so many parts of the story that I felt a little frustrated in addition to underwhelmed (to name a few complaints: tedious loquacity; a foundational premise stretched too far; excessive verbosity; an interface mechanism either not completely thought/written out or just totally unrealistic; garrulous longueur; more than a couple character clichés; a voluble superfluity of environments ….did I mention the tedium? …and, oh yeah, one helluva deus ex machina!). After a while I kind of felt like yelling at the book, “Yes, yes, we get it! Amazing world building processing powers in your VR Otherland! Move along! …but not to more Renie!”). I think the thing that kept me reading but also got me frustrated was that everything was initially set up soooooo well for one of those P.F. Hamilton-esque intricately interwoven climaxes of characters’ colliding, but then [a couple books in] the edges of that potential tapestry started to fray. The outta-left-field resolution just unraveled the rest of it for me.
    I LOVE Sci-Fi with immense scope, complex characters and story-arcs, reality bending concepts, and surreal environments. So, I had high hopes for Otherland, and I was initially hooked. After a while though, I realized that my enthusiasm had finished dwindling a couple thousand pages back. Beyond the re-re-reiteration of the same “look at the pretty sparkly world” trick, I frankly got a little tired of the main characters due to frequent [somewhat repetitive] description of nearly everything going on inside and outside of them. The final nail in the coffin regarding my opinion of Otherland was probably the aforementioned apparent holes in the functional principles of the system—most especially the more technical aspects (and/or ignoring availability of more logical approaches for characters investigating/attacking/resolving the primary problem). Between the circuitous journey through this VR world and my skepticism of the ‘mechanics’ as presented, my patience finally wore out.
    …and I AM a mathy/sciencey type person.

    OK, now that I’m done thoroughly lambasting Williams’ work, I have to say that there were certainly redeeming qualities. All those trees that sacrificed themselves for this loquacious author gave their lives so that the reader could see, hear, and very nearly taste and smell the world Williams constructed. He does a spectacular job of immersing the reader (i.e. me) into the world of the characters. His main characters are also very well developed, complete with complicated emotions, multifaceted opinions/thoughts, and [occasionally excessively] fleshed out back-stories.