[Disclaimer: The Otherland series belongs to Tad Williams and D.A.W., Inc. All opinions stated are the author’s own.]
If you want to break up with reality, there are many opportunities to choose from nowadays: a variety of video game consoles, addictive MMOs and MMORPGs, competitive and thrilling MOBAs, and, just recently, fully immersive virtual reality systems. Breaking up with mundane daily life through digital worlds has never been so easy. Yet, the core ideas of modern gaming, and with them the experience of virtual spaces, didn’t develop overnight. The 1980s and 1990s were fertile ground for the seeds of today’s virtual worlds, the ideas for which were amply planted in the paperback literature of mainstream science fiction. It can be argued that one of the most profound and visionary science fiction series of the late 1990s did a lot to set the stage for the immersive digital worlds we have today: the Otherland series by Tad Williams.
A cursory glance at Tad Williams’ work on Amazon.com or in your local library or bookstore will demonstrate his prowess for the prolific. The man appears to have never written a novel of fewer than 500 pages, averaging about 600-700 pages per work. This feat alone is worthy of admiration, but upon reading, it’s clear that he also deftly weaves his fantasy and science fiction story universes with skill and aplomb. Fellow millennials may share my memories of reading one of his first novels in grade school, Tailchaser’s Song, a strange book (also 500 or so pages) about overlarge telepathic cat aliens living on a planet nearly identical to Earth.
Williams’ adroitness isn’t solely limited to science fiction. Besides the Otherland series, there’s his massive fantasy saga, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, a series which has inspired notable authors, including George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind,) and Christopher Paolini (Eragon.) Beginning with The Dragonbone Chair, the series is followed by Stone of Farewell and ending with parts I and II of To Green Angel Tower, which was so long it had to be split into two separate books.
It’s foreboding, eerie, and fraught with portent, an epic fantasy tale seeded throughout with the latent anxious feeling that not all of the main characters are going to make it, a theme capitalized most famously by the Game of Thrones books and television series. It’s also worth noting his standalone fantasy novel, War of the Flowers (also about 700 pages,) an exciting romp in a dangerous magical kingdom with notes of urban fantasy and mythological elements that feel akin to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Books of Magic graphic novel series. If you squint, there are hints of an adage to classic 70s and 80s rock peppered throughout.
Now that I’ve waxed poetic about Williams’ pedigree of the written word, let’s dive right into some main themes of the Otherland saga.
Otherland is, at heart, an exploration of another world, a fully three-dimensional virtual reality internet, digitally created and directly experienced through artificial encoded bodies, or avatars. Williams leads the reader into these virtual reality waters in the first book of the series, City of Golden Shadow. In 2018, virtual reality (VR) has finally become a common phrase. There’s a plethora of VR consoles out already: Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are among the most well known and advertised, but Google and even PlayStation have their own. A dedicated gaming community also exists in building and playing games in a 3D environment. However, VR is a technology that, while plenty high tech today, is still in its infancy. Those of us who grew up with 16-bit video game consoles like NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, and the like can remember how incredible the jump in technology to 64-bit systems like Nintendo 64 and the first Sony PlayStation seemed at first. The same jump to VR is similarly fascinating.
Undoubtedly, VR will be unrecognizable five to 10 years from now, its true potential yet untapped. Still, it’s possible to get a glimpse of what virtual worlds could soon be like.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer, released in 1986, told the tale of a cybernetic thief who explored a fully 3D internet called “the matrix” and was the first novel to mention the term “cyberspace.” Another popular novel released in the early 1990s, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, was the first novel to mention the term “avatar,” a digital online character that represents a real person’s character or persona. In Snow Crash, as in Neuromancer, avatars are embodied digital representations of real human beings used to explore a three-dimensional internet. This term is now vernacular in modern internet communities, demonstrating how today’s online experiences have been directly influenced by written fiction.
The Otherland series plays on these same themes but pushes them to the max. Otherland is less of the Tron-esque cyberspace frontier of Gibson’s “matrix” and the technicolor digitopolis of Snow Crash and more of the functional, sensation-enabled digital world of Ready Player One or The Matrix.
Sprawling silver metropolises reach up to a limitless sky, populated by millions of avatar-clad people wearing virtual headsets in the comfort of their own homes. Considering that today’s VR developers are coming up with ways to interpret game reactions into physical sensations using wearable tech and synaptic feedback, it’s interesting to consider that future VR might be similar to Otherland: as realistic as human ambition wills it to be.
Perhaps more than any of his other works, Otherland is Tad Williams’ genre-busting effort. Maybe genre-bending is more appropriate; it’s difficult to pin down this series to any genre, chock-full as it is with a combination of genre element staples. Of course, it’s science fiction, but whether reading it for the first time or settling in for a re-read, it’s obvious that science fiction isn’t all it is.
It’s also fantasy, replete with battles against fearsome monsters, deadly clashes, and the attainment of magical powers, albeit inside a digitally fabricated reality. Numerous immersive game worlds, reminiscent of the anime series Sword Art Online, Log Horizon, and .hack//Sign, exist for the playing. One of the main characters, a young man who plays a fierce barbarian, is one of the best gamers in the world, defeating entire armies of his fellow players with the ease that Achilles defeated the legions of Troy in The Iliad.
Then there’s the anthropology elements sprinkled throughout. Two of the protagonists are academic researchers who are studying the relationships between human cultures and how the nature of humanity itself might change as a result of inhabiting a virtual world full-time. Identity shift resulting from digital experience was explored in The Shockwave Rider, written by John Brunner and released in 1975. To a lesser extent, this theme of unreal experiences was also covered by Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven, where one man’s dreams begin to directly alter reality. Continuing from the first book with River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass, and concluding with Sea of Silver Light, the series takes a deeper look at these intellectual themes, the characters’ identities beginning to shift and evolve the more they experience within Otherland. Although this world isn’t real, the experiences are both good and bad, fantastic and terrible.
Both groups of protagonists take turns surveying the outer boundaries of Otherland’s bustling cybernetic world.
Organized crime lords, nefarious henchmen, data thieves, and even hitmen all hide in the shadows, available to anyone seeking application of their dangerous deeds. And above them all, a worldwide geopolitical conspiracy begins to unravel, its intricacy rivaled only by the “mythos” arc of The X-Files or the jarring plot of Lost.
So you may want to consider giving the Otherland series a try. You just might like it. And if you can relate it to the amazing digital worlds in technology that we have today, it can be considered a generous redundancy.