Tom Cool,
Secret Realms
(Tor, 1998)

Tom Cool's novel Secret Realms begins in a place peopled by fourteen humans possessing a primitive, atavistic culture. It is a virtual world made real to its inhabitants by means of machine/brain interfaces. Within the context of modern SF -- so far, so ordinary. However, these people have inhabited this world almost since the day they were born (we meet them in late adolescence), and know of no other reality but this virtual (VR) one -- in short, they are the unknowing subjects/victims of a vast, elaborate and hugely costly experiment. Their brains are not isolated (this is no crude "brain-in-a-vat" tale), the bodies move and are cared for, but awareness of this is denied the brains who perceive corporeality only as avatars moving in virtual space.

The setting is early in the 21st century, the place is China and the virtual world in which this "tribe" live is controlled by System (in reality, the project director) who is the arbiter of all things, who sets problems (country-spanning battlefield scenarios) for the tribe to solve, and who achieves behavioral control by means of fairly crude social and physical mechanisms. When we meet the tribe they are being drilled hard in order that they will be able to take total command, again unknowingly, of China's coming war against Japan. Shades here of Orson Scott Card's Enders Game, but Cool is not concerned with battling monsters from outer space, but rather with inner space, and an exploration of those intricacies of human genetic and cultural evolution which seem to drive the brutal geopolitical/military conflicts on this planet.

The backdrop for this exploration is the battlefield of the 21st century, when the imperative to preserve the functionality of the three "Cs" (command, communication and control) turns any battlefield into a single enormous virtual arena, the domination of which decides the difference between victory and defeat. A good illustration of the power of the tribe to win and make mischief in such an environment is when, in the course of a simulated battle, they use the huge capabilities of the VR-brain synthesis to break the command code of an enemy missile battery to devastating effect -- its new firing coordinates are positions occupied by the battery's own forces.

Meanwhile out in the real world a shooting war between China and Japan is heating up, with the United States keeping a watching eye on events. We learn of this role from the perspective of Lieutenant Commander Mike McCullough aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. The main protagonist from the tribe is Trickster, possessed of strong pent-up seething energies fueled by doubts about the nature of his reality (the existence of other "realms"), hatred of System, burgeoning sexuality and high creative intelligence. The action occurs fast on many fronts -- the tribe's internal power dynamics, the challenging of System, the Sino-Japanese war, the tribe's and the Abraham Lincoln's role in that war. Initiating, planning and driving much of this action is Trickster who is also, understandably, almost constantly in a state of existential crisis.

"There seems to be no human thought so primitive as to have lost its bearings on our thought, nor so ancient as to have its connections with our own times." This was penned by anthropologist E.B. Taylor in 1871, and it could be said that Tom Cool's book Secret Realms sets out to explore its validity. Trickster epitomizes the question as to whether everyone, each of us, is spiritually the same at a level of being much deeper than that of our differences. Towards the end of the book we witness his argumentative conversations with McCullough, that is those between a serving U.S. naval officer at war and a human warrior who is a stranger to much of human culture. These thought-provoking exchanges are symptomatic of the extra dimension contained within this excellent, fast-paced piece of technophilic SF. To articulate this dimension fully is more than can be attempted in a short review. However, a sure route to its perception is within your grasp -- simply read the book.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]



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