If you’re like me, you’re about to spend some of the upcoming winter holiday AFK–either squished between Fatty and Snorri the not-very-attractive dwarves on a cross country flight or trapped in your relatives’ house with only dialup to connect you to the virtual world. Fear not, intrepid gamer. Instead of reading the quest text this holiday season, curl up with an enormous novel. I hear that reading is (almost) as effective as Wow for lifting mind and spirit beyond the little inanities of mundane existence. In other words–a good book can help cut down on holiday boredom.
Of course, Professor Syd has a particular book in mind for you this holiday season. It occurred to me the other day that gamers must love Tad Williams’ Otherland series.
Why Read Otherland?
This four-book series will satisfy fans of either sci-fi or fantasy novels in general, but it has a special appeal to the gamer. I’m more of a fantasy reader myself. I read this series in 2004, and at that point, I had never even heard of online gaming. In fact, I think I might not have been willing to play WoW at all if I hadn’t become familiar with the concept of virtual realities through Williams’ novels. In the Otherland books, the evocation of both character and (virtual) landscape is masterfully done. Those of you who’ve already read the series may wonder what my favorite “world” is–I’ll just go live inside The House. Incidentally, I am of the opinion that The Makers in WoW are a reference to Williams’s Builders of the House.
A Short Plot Summary
I have to admit that my memory was fuzzy on this point after four years, but the story centers around Renie Sulaweyo, a South African programmer whose little brother Stephen mysteriously goes missing. It seems that he’s been literally sucked into the computer–or rather, his personality has been downloaded into an extraordinarily detailed virtual world. This virtual universe, Otherland, has been designed as a kind of afterlife for the rich and computer literate. All the self-styled gods (programmers) of this world have created their own fantastic refuges in which they can store their personalities and memories after their physical deaths. Pretty cool huh?
However, of course the whole thing goes awry, and each programmer’s heaven becomes Renie’s hell as she tries to find her brother. To the rescue: a cast of motley characters, including a click-language speaking romantic lead who spends most of the book transformed into a baboon, an avatar who’s somehow managed to escape an endlessly-repeating WWI campaign, and two teenage MMO players. One of these gamers, Orlando, is an invalid in real life, but in his virtual life, he is the most famous hero of the fictional MMO The Middle Kingdom. Interestingly, it is his Middle Kingdom avatar that appears in Otherland. The relationship between teenage “real person” Orlando and his avatar Thargor (who I picture as an orc warrior) is the most fascinating part of the book. Looking back, I can’t believe that Otherland came out in 1998, which means that it was probably in the works as early as 1994–the Dark Ages as far as MMOs are concerned.
With a series like Otherland, the ideas often leave a longer-lasting impression than the plot line. What, four years after reading the novels, do I still think about from time to time? Here is a short list of philosophical questions that Williams’ series is able to answer.
Q. What is the best way to connect to the internet?
A. Clearly, a neural device implanted in the skull is superior to clunky computers and cables. The characters are able to interact directly with the virtual world without the mediation of the computer screen.
Q. What is the difference between real life and virtual life?
A. None at all. The experience of the mind is just as real in either case.
Q. Where do gamers go when they die?
A. The good ones become Rangers in their own idealized Lord of the Rings world. Duh.
I hope you’re convinced. Put Otherland on your reading list or, if you’ve read it already, consider sending a copy to a gamer friend as a holiday gift.
As a side note, I’d like to invite readers to recommend books for me. I was addicted to reading long before WoW existed, and I’m still able to burn through some pages every week.