Otherland IV, Fine Prey

Besides the title titles, I recently spotted that cool top-bound edition of Philip K. Dick’s “The Minority Report” in the library. I have to say, I liked the plot of the movie better. In the original short story, John Anderton pre-kills an army general and ends up in the middle of a conflict between a power-hungry army and the equally suspicious police force. The story rolls along at a faster pace than its internal logic can handle - no surprise for Golden Age sci-fi. (The original copyright was 1956.) I did enjoy the resolution, but the movie wins on technical merit.

On to the real books: My seven-month struggle with Tad William’s Otherland behemoth is finally over. I read I in the spring and II and III over the summer. Volume IV, Sea of Silver Light, brought the series to an end, but it didn’t resolve my problems with the books.

I’m not saying the books sat on my windowsill for months with bookmarks in the middle - far from it. Each was an engrossing read; only their length (3270 pages total in paperback) kept me from finishing them in a day or two as I would any other good sci-fi novel. At no point in Otherland did I experience the eternal suffering of Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars. I will pass the books on to other people, rather than shuffling them off to the sell-to-a-gullible-used-bookstore pile.

Despite the wonderful characterization and vivid VR worlds, I let months go by between volumes. I cared what happened to the characters, especially Orlando and the Aussie policewoman, but not enough to pick up the next volume in the infinite series. I wasn’t getting something out of the individual volumes, and having finished the series, I haven’t gotten that same thing out of the work as a whole.

Though nominally sci-fi, Otherland wandered, as fantasy tends to, across the vast tapestry of its own setting. The quest was there and did succeed in the end, so I wondered whether it was the structure alone that put me off. I’ve complained already about the plot shifting in every chapter from one set of Our Heros or Villains to another. If those chapters had been grouped together Lord of the Rings-style, however, it would have become even more obvious that nothing was happening. Yes, the characters went from place to place, collected clues, met one another or were accidentally separated, etc., but nothing of sufficient plot-significance happened in books I, II, or III to make me want to see what happened in the next volume.

Otherland is certainly days of reading enjoyment, but it’s too big and diffuse to be a novel. The action at any particular time isn’t quite important enough to the plot - there’s a different proportion of action to meaning than I’m accustomed to. (There was also a gun on the mantle the whole time that was never fired - the little construction robots on Mars. I was really looking forward to them.) If like me you prefer the lean style of most sci-fi (Kim Stanley Robinson always excepted), you may not want to commit to a long-term relationship with Otherland. If you’re the sort of person who reads or writes trilogies, though, this is the series for you.

I’d like to coin a new term, to add to the novelette/novella/novel sequence, that signifies this trilogy style of writing. Novelogy is unfortunately taken, and refers to a series of short stories, probably by different authors, that together form a novel (more or less). Trilogy itself is from the Greek and refers to three dramas, rather than one drama taking up three times the space. Maybe novelitis or noveloma

Anyway, on to Fine Prey, a novel of the usual length by Scott Westerfeld. It was in the first person, and it took me chapters to figure out what gender the main character was. I suspect it took the author a while, too. I turned out to be a she. In no way did Our Hero ever act like a woman. In fact, I suspect she started out male and got neutered somewhere in the editing process.

We meet Our Heroine at the approximate age of seventeen. She has been cloistered at an alien school for most of her life, but she likes to spend her summers participating in an up-close-and-personal blood sport involving alien animals killing one another while she’s wired directly to the predator’s brain. Just what I’ve wanted to do since I was five years old!

On this particular summer off, Our Heroine gets addicted to drugs as part of her involvement with a sado-masochistic woman. I’m not calling her a lesbian because no mention (never mind motivation) was made of anyone’s sexual orientation. Our Heroine and her lover are the only people in the book who appear interested in sex at all, and even their relationship was just filler.

All along, Our Heroine retains her abiding interest in language, especially the alien language Ayan which is all she studies in school. She knows next to nothing about human culture, except for her favorite blood sport. The parts of the novel which deal with the alien language are a bit overdone, but still quite interesting, and the resolution is about language. It’s a good read, marred only by the fact that Our Heroine isn’t male.

The story would have made a whole lot more sense if she had been a he. When Our Heroine falls for Miss Right, she behaves like a male teenager, not a woman. (I didn’t know her gender at the time, and the scene did not entirely clear it up.) Soon afterwards she has a fit of teen rebellion in which she blows off her lifelong blood sport ambitions with no particular new goal in mind. Under the influence of Miss Right, she starts doing drugs, neglecting her summer reading, and running with the bad boys. All of it would have made much more sense if she had been a boy. Because women (of any age) are so much less likely to (1) sleep with women, (2) kill animals for sport, (3) dive headfirst into the bondage scene with a strange lover, (4) get addicted to recreational drugs, (5) blow off school, or (6) alienate their entire social circle than men are, Our Heroine requires that much more motivation for doing all these things. As a Hero, she would still have been largely unmotivated, but many times more believable.

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