Tad Williams,
Otherland: Sea
of Silver Light

(DAW, 2002)

Sea of Silver Light is a hefty 1,066 pages long -- forming the fourth and final part of a truly epic tale that interweaves reality and science-fantasy into a bizarre and bewildering multi-dimensional existence. It's an engrossing tale, told with thorough attention to detail; the only reliable factor throughout the story is the human emotion of those caught within and involved with Otherland. Of course, human nature can be a disturbing and fluctuating thing, but Tad Williams seeks to balance the evil, dysfunctional, psychotic greed of one character set by the inherent goodness, selflessness, generosity of spirit and bonding of another.

Otherland is a private virtual network controlled by the Grail Brotherhood, an idea become reality through the global resources of their leader, Felix Jongleur. Their common goal is to use this colossal system to achieve immortality, retaining their mental processes and personalities while utilising body simulations within the Otherland network, able to traverse it at will, exercising the powers of the gods of myth.

The Brotherhood's patient planning is brought to ruination by two entities: the terrifying psychopathic megalomaniac known as John Dread and the inexplicable fluctuations in power demonstrated by the phenomenal core intelligence of the network, an entity known as "The Other." Dread proceeds to rampage through the hitherto private domains of the shattered Brotherhood, satiating his depravity and utilising his unparalleled power to brutalise or murder all whom he meets, on or offline, simulated information or living person. He stalks the little band of hapless heroes who have become trapped in Otherland while seeking to release the children ensnared in comas by some unfathomable connection with The Other.

The group becomes dispersed through the virtual sub-worlds, endeavouring to unravel the mysteries of The Other before the virtual worlds on which they depend unravel themselves! Their tenuous reality is an appalling environment, made more hostile and lethal by Dread's sadistic amusements. They encounter Jongleur, truculent, arrogant and defensive, yet trapped just as they are in the Otherland he thought he created yet no longer controls or understands. The spiralling desperation, as they all race against time and a multitude of inexplicable unidentified adverse factors for their survival, results in an uneasy truce and a diverse band of travellers, each beset by personal doubts and demons.

Sea Of Silver Light exerts an irresistible pull on the reader to discover the secrets at the core of the Otherland system. Follow the trials of Martine, Paul, Renie !Xabbu and the other online adventurers. The Brotherhood's self-serving panoramic vision has been encompassed by that of the diabolical Dread; however, the true capabilities of The Other are as a supernova to a candle in comparison to Dread's. The Other's abilities, however, are deteriorating due to its own unique vulnerability, and the frantic quest on all sides to discover that weakness and exploit or heal it makes for compulsive page-turning!

The far-reaching machinations of Dread and Jongleur are tracked in the real world by a cynically weary policewoman and a voraciously curious computer hacker. The frail, strange Mr. Sellars coordinates his reluctant and far-flung international collaborators, running appalling risks in the attempt to decipher the mysteries of the malfunctioning system that affect all who have ventured into Otherland. His oddly assorted and ill-equipped "army" battles against overwhelming and sinister odds, pursuing such fragile and improbable information links, it should perhaps be no surprise that the vanguard of Sellars infiltration include an innocent girl-child, a guilt-ridden alcoholic, a dithering lawyer and a grieving old woman! Williams' skill as an author is evident in the way he presents these concepts as utterly credible scenarios, stirring empathy in the reader and drawing the tangled and incomprehensible sub-plots to clear, logical and heart-rending conclusions.

The ending is no sinecure: there are heavy losses and great joys, some miraculous transformations and some outcomes open to interpretation. Overall, Williams provides a satisfying read that will keep the most avid fan of the genre quiet for many days, and his comprehensive opening synopsis of the preceding volumes means that one need not read them all in order to establish characters and circumstances.

[ by Jenny Ivor ]
Rambles: 11 October 2002

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