A lot of really great books get overlooked by the general public and best-seller lists, a fact which saddens me. Of course, "great" is a subjective opinion. Still, sometimes I'm baffled when I find gleaming treasure that no one else seems to have noticed.
I just finished re-reading Tad Williams' four book Otherland saga. This series is everything The Matrix films should have been, and better. It's just a stunningly awesome tale. It's deep on many levels. It's about the nature of reality, the nature of religion, the way humans perceive things, the nuances of the human psyche, all wrapped in a shell of epic science fiction with romance, adventure, and overtones of fantasy. It blows my mind that so few people have enjoyed this series, or even know what I'm talking about.
The only reason someone might be off-put by Otherland is the density of the writing. Tad Williams is wordy. He's obviously a LotR fan, and he delights in fantastical descriptions. But you know what? He's good at it. His descriptions are masterful. I'm happy to sit there and let him describe the horror of being chased by a giant Egyptian god, or the wonder of stepping off a cliff and finding yourself able to fly.
The first Otherland book was published in 1996, and it's a tiny bit dated in terms of technology. It was written during the end of the virtual reality craze. But it still holds up well! Otherland is about a near-future where people have integrated their daily lives with online lives. People wear virtual sims (avatars) to do their online shopping and business. Kids spend their free time in virtual worlds that sound a lot like World of Warcraft, although Tad Williams wrote this series before WoW or Everquest. People form close friendships with people in distant countries, whom they've never talked to or seen in real life. People take pride in making their virtual reality bodies look super-awesome or super-realistic, or both. Aside from the virtual reality factor, this is visionary stuff, considering that it was written in the early 1990s.
In a virtual world where real people choose their own body/voice/identity, relationships get complicated. It's great. Two of the main characters are a teenage boy & girl (friends) who wear heroic male identities. When the boy finds out that his best friend is really a girl, he starts having protective feelings towards her, and worries that he's gay. For her part, the girl thought it was fun to be a guy, but she has to sort out the way people react and treat her differently when they discover that she was lying for years.
There's a blind woman whose virtual body looks very generic--but she is a pivotal character and not at all generic in personality. And best of all, there's a man who wears the body of a baboon, which really complicates his love life. There's also a teenager who looks like a giant robot. That's always good.
Enemies? This series has awesome antagonists. Felix Jongleur is a multi-trillionaire whose body resides in a vat of gels designed to keep him alive. He's over 200 years old, but he wants immortality, and he does some truly vile things in pursuit of that goal. I mean REALLY vile. I can't say it without giving away the ending of the series, but it involves incest and clones.
My favorite character is Paul Jonas, the amnesiac wanderer and target of everyone. Paul is simply awesome. In the beginning of the series, he believes that he's a trench soldier fighting in WWI. He has no memories of being placed in a virtual simulation world. As the series progresses, Paul slowly figures out that 1) he belongs in the 21st century, and he must be in a virtual network more realistic than any he's ever encountered, 2) he's being hunted by scary figures with weird abilities, a la Agent Smith in The Matrix, and 3) he has no idea where his real body is, or why he can't disengage from the network.
Paul's memories come back to him bit by bit, like puzzle pieces, as he flees from virtual world to virtual world. He hides in a post-apocalyptic version of London, and remembers 21st century London. He glimpses a princess in another virtual world, and recognizes her as someone he loved in real life. He talks to a swashbuckling hero and finally meets someone real, whom he's sure isn't just A.I. He interrogates an oracle in a Venetian underworld, and learns a few secrets that allow him to travel through the Otherland network more easily. But through all of this, Paul is lonely and terrified, unsure who to trust, or who is real. Paul isn't even 100% sure that he's real, himself.
Paul eventually meets up with the rest of the ensemble cast, other real people stranded in the vast Otherland network, unable to unplug. Their real bodies are in comas. Some of them are in hospitals, or are cared for by family members. But there's a difference between Paul and everyone else: Paul did not plug himself into the network. As far as Paul remembers, he doesn't even have a neurocannular (a jack that allows him to plug into virtual reality). No one else is being hunted by the most powerful agents in the network; only Paul. And only Paul is visited by a strange angelic apparition who gives him riddles and advice, sort of like a brain-damaged game character. When Paul stumbles into a virtual simulation of Homer's Odyssey, he finds himself in the title role, assailed by sea monsters and goddesses. Since everyone who dies in Otherland winds up dead in real life, Paul is desperate to survive. He is very much an ordinary man who has to become a hero.
I could rave on and on about how awesome this series is. Aside from the battle between the forces of narcissistic trillionaires and ordinary people trying to save their comatose family members, and aside from the question of who is real or not real, there is a central mystery that gets answered in a stunning reveal at the end of the series. The mystery: What is Otherland? Otherland is a collection of interconnected virtual worlds, but those worlds seems indistinguishable from reality, far beyond any technology known to mankind in this series. People trapped in Otherland can die there, or go blind, or feel as if they're being tortured. People trapped in Otherland can't unplug. Otherland seems more than the sum of its human-designed code. Strange figments roam the Otherland worlds, virtual children who have the traveling privileges of real people (users), but who have no memories of any other life. Then there's Paul's angel, the woman who appears to him in different guises and different worlds, but who seems drawn to him. The angel can only appear to him once in each world, and she follows game logic, a set of hard-code rules--she's unable to converse on a human level--yet she also embodies elements of a real person whom Paul once knew.
I guess it takes a certain kind of patience to read this series. It is dense with words. Still, I can't believe it isn't more popular. I can't believe Hollywood hasn't made it into a trilogy of movies yet. The second time I read it was just as amazing as the first time. This is a work of genius, one of the few books/series I will ever speak of in such terms.
I can be cynical and critical, but right now, I'm a raving fan girl!