Saturday, September 25, 2010

Otherland: Sea of Silver Light

Otherland: Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams
Otherland Series #4
DAW, 2001
Hardcover, 922 pages
ISBN-13: 9780886779771
very highly recommended


Otherland -- the private, multidimensional universe created and controlled by The Grail Brotherhood, an organization made up of the world's most powerful and ruthless individuals -- was crumbling. The Brotherhood's plans for immortality within the network had been shattered by the monstrous intelligence that ran the network, a presence known only as the Other, and by the even more monstrous human being who called himself John Dread. Seizing control of the network from his employer, Felix Jongleur, Dread had now made himself the god of this virtual universe and was systematically turning the network's worlds into killing grounds.

As helplessly trapped as Renie Sulaweyo, !Xabbu, Sam Fredericks, Martine, Paul Jonas, and the rest of the small band who had entered Otherland in an attempt to save the many children held captive within this virtual reality, Jongleur was now forced to make common cause with his enemies. Yet even as they struggled through the maze of invented worlds, striving to reach the true heart of Otherland, time was growing short.

My Thoughts:

The Sea of Silver Light is the fourth and final volume of the Otherland series. Williams includes a synopsis of the first three volumes, City of Golden Shadow, River of Blue Fire, and Mountain of Black Glass at the beginning, but trust me, it's better to just read them all together as one l-o-n-g book because that is what Williams considers them to be and that is how they are written. As previously mentioned, the Otherland series really rather defies standard classifications. It's a science-fiction-techno-cyber-fantasy-mystery-virtual-reality epic.

In this fourth Otherland volume, once again, Williams delivers the goods. More importantly, he provides a final conclusion to everything - and there is a whole lot going on in the virtual reality world as well as the real world. The Otherland series has a huge cast of characters and a complicated, multi-layered plot. Reading the four volumes together will help you keep track of everyone and the multiple storylines. I thought the characters were well developed and experienced personal growth. Let's face it, it's an accomplishment of the author if you learn something new about a character on, as an example, page 2800 in an approximately 3100 page story.

This final volume is not just a huge, padded conclusion to the first three parts. There were multiple new revelations, plot twists, answers and new questions. This is a detailed and complex series, but, I found it imminently readable. Where some reviews fault Williams for excessive descriptions, similes and metaphors, I enjoyed his writing style. (I included the last quote as an example of a simile that made me laugh.)

But I think the biggest praise I can give Tad Williams' Otherland series is that he wrote and created something new. Yes, there were plenty of references to other works in the context of the virtual reality world, but the series itself is unlike anything else I've ever read. It reminds me of the quote I saved from Orson Scott Card in the introduction to Ender's Game:
"In other genres, that desire is usually expressed by producing thinly veiled rewrites of the great work: Tolkien's disciples far too often simply rewrite Tolkien, for example. In science fiction, however, the whole point is that the ideas are fresh and startling and intriguing; you imitate the great ones, not by rewriting their stories, but rather by creating stories that are just as startling and new." pg. xii, introduction

The greatness I found in Otherland is clearly because Tad Williams created a brilliant idea for a novel and made a whole, new, complex world for his story. He did not just rewrite Tolkien (often the case in fantasy and why I tend to avoid it) or imitate any other author.
Very Highly Recommended


"I know. I hate the bastard-I'd like to throw him off the mountain myself. But we're going to have to live with Felix Jongleur until we get some answers to what's going on. What's that old saying about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?" Renie squeezed the girl's arm. "This is a war, Sam. Not just a single battle. Putting up with that terrible man . . . well, it's like being a spy behind foreign lines or something. We have to do it because we have a bigger purpose."
Sam looked down, unable to hold Renie's gaze. "Chizz," she said after long moments, but she sounded like death. "I'll try. But I'm not going to talk to him." pg. 16-17

She felt a brief desire for a cigarette, and realized with surprise that it had been a long time since she had thought about smoking.
Just too damned busy trying not to get killed, she decided. Effective, but there must be easier ways to quit.
Jongleur had his back against a rock some ten meters away and appeared to be sleeping himself, or at least his head was sunk on his chest and his eyes were closed. Renie could not help thinking he looked like a vulture waiting with the patience of millions of years of blind evolution for something to die. pg. 21

"I was just thinking about this place and how much like a dream it is. How nothing is quite normal, but in a dream that doesn't matter because you're waiting for something important to happen. And then I suddenly just thought, what if this place is a dream?"
!Xabbu cocked his head. "What do you mean?"
"Not a dream, really, but strange and unreal for the same reason that a dream is. Why is it that things happen all funny in dreams, things look funny? That nothing is ever quite . . . complete? Because your subconscious isn't actually very good at recreating the stuff the conscious mind usually sees, or else it just doesn't care."
Sam stirred in her sleep, disturbed by the urgency in Renie's tone, so she dropped her voice to a whisper. "I think the Other built this place. I think it meant us to come here, and it built this place out of its own mind, like a dream. What did Jonas call it? A metaphor." Spoken aloud, it did not seem as obviously true. It was hard to conceive of their own existence having any importance to that vast, suffering figure.
"Made this from its mind? But if this Other runs the system, then it has access to anything-all of those worlds, each one perfect." !Xabbu frowned, thinking. "It seems strange it should build anything so unreal."
"But that's just it," Renie said excitedly. "It didn't build those other worlds. Those were made by people-programmers, engineers, real people who know what a real world is supposed to look like, and how to make even an imaginary world look real. But what does the Other know? It's just an artificial intelligence of some kind, right? It sees patterns, but it's not a human. It doesn't know what would seem real to us and what wouldn't, just the general shape of things. It would be like giving a book to a very intelligent child who can't read, then telling him, "Now you make one of these books for yourself." The kid might have all the right letters to use from the one you gave him, but he couldn't make them into a story. So it would be a weird thing that just looked like a book. Get it?"
!Xabbu thought about it for a long moment. "But why? Why would the Other create a new world?"
"I don't know. Maybe just for us. pg. 23

Jongleur's smile stretched his lips but went no farther. "That is correct. So while you consider where your loyalties lie, take this into your counsels. That far-from-ordinary-psychopath Dread not only has control of the most powerful and complex operating system ever developed, that system itself has already managed to reach out of its Grail Project bottle and into my house network. Which means that the Other-and Dread, as its controlling force-can reach anywhere on the global net."
He stepped out of the crevice and onto the path, turned toward the downhill slope, then paused.
"The damage Dread can do here is nothing compared to what he'll do when he discovers his new reach." Jongleur spread his hands wide. "Just imagine. The whole world will be at his fingertips-air traffic control, critical industries, stockpiles of biological weapons, nuclear launch facilities. And as you have already discovered, Johnny Dread is a very, very angry young man." pg. 31

...she'd downed so much coffee the night before that even after five hours of ineffective sleep she could still feel yesterday's caffeine hustling around in her system like one of those horrible cheery people who live to organize neighborhood events. pg. 93

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