When finishing the first book of a trilogy, the urge to immediately pick up the next instalment is usually a good thing, but unfortunately, when reading the novels of Diane Duane, this can be something of a frustration. Her Rihannsu sequence of Star Trek novels started with 1984’s My Enemy, My Ally, but the story was not completed until 2006’s The Empty Chair – twenty two years for five books. Her other major series is the incomplete fantasy quartet known as The Tale of the Five, which still lacks The Door Into Starlight, even though it is over thirty years since she first opened The Door Into Fire, so while the second Omnitopia novel is scheduled for next year, I’m not holding my breath.
Omnitopia is a massively multiplayer online role playing game, the biggest on the planet, and game creator Dev Logan is about to release major upgrades. Already the eighth richest man in the world and head of a company with turnover larger than the gross domestic product of some countries, he is determined to ensure the best gaming experience for millions of users. Of course, in any competitive industry, there will be those who won’t want to see the expansion proceed without them getting a slice of the virtual pie.
Groups of hackers, out to make a name for themselves by taking a big name down, are being organised by Dev’s former business partner Phil Sorenson, now running rival game firm Infinity Inc, and not above industrial espionage to raise his own stock value.
Those familiar with Diane’s writing will know to expect fascinating characters living complicated lives against an intricately detailed technical background. Themes of family, friendship and loyalty abound – is it any wonder many of us first encountered her work through her benchmark Star Trek novels? What is surprising is just how technical this novel is. Not only from the description of distributed denial of service attacks and self-programming heuristic functions, but also a whole chapter devoted to a boardroom meeting discussing product rollout, marketing and strategy. While most novels would be bogged down with this necessity, the characters are written with enough wit and momentum to render the plot exposition compact and entertaining.
While the story focuses on the different work ethics of the rival companies, it sometimes feels as though the former partners are polarised for contrast more than authenticity. Dev is utterly ethical, riding his bicycle around the campus where he encourages his employees to call him by his first name, postponing a press meeting for an ice cream date with his daughter, while Phil is bitter, underhand and scheming, chauffeur driven and grudging time spent on the factory floor motivating workers whose devotion he expects simply because he pays them above minimum wage. Only once in the novel does he have doubts, which he curbs as swiftly as they arise. It is enough to take him away from being a "boo-hiss" villain, but not by much.
A repeated theme in the book is the near obsession with architecture and landscape, and fascinating though the detail of the campus is, is it really necessary to describe the route from freeway to visitor underground parking to staff cafeteria?
Within the virtual worlds of Omnitopia and the underlying realms of code, however, we are in the realm of the abstract, and this is where Diane has always done her best work. The deeper worlds of System Management are visually interpreted as luminous trees in a vast electronic forest, each representing one of the hundred plus macrocosms, the different worlds within Omnitopia. This is also where the Shuntspaces are found, a secret vital to the smooth operation of the game, but like folders tagged "hidden" on a desktop operating system, accessible only if you know where to look, and only if you know they exist in the first place.
In addition, there are the Microcosms – user created worlds, granted to those who have performed especially well within the games, not in terms of achievement, but in their style play. Omnitopia rewards altruism, as player Rik Maliani discovers when his in-game role as a healer working for MediMages without Frontiers results in him being awarded his own world to design, a possibility so unlimited as to be almost paralysing. If you had to design a world, original, unique and profitable, where would you even begin?
The collision of incongruent ideas working together is what makes Omnitopia work, both the game and the novel. The capital city of the main hub world is described as “the creation of someone who had visited Disneyland while on crack and then the Mall of America while on acid, and attempted to synchronize their styles,” populated with “elegant Elves burdened with swords and spears and shopping bags; Dwarrows wearing three-piece suits and carrying Armani ax-cases.”
Even the character names reflect the online community’s none too serious approach to fantasy roleplay, from the semi-mythical Lahrien the Excessively Well Travelled to the Doom Brokers, the in-game avatars of the company accountants, preventing cheating under the direction of the Chief Gnome, Bloomberg the Terrible.
One aspect of the world that is not looked at is how the environment will change. The significant change in technology is in processing power and virtual reality, and there are background references to growing political instability in the five years between now and when the novel is set, but the absence of a greater context is conspicuous in an otherwise well thought out novel, although it is possible that as the wider tale is told this may yet be addressed.
Although this novel is a complete story, with a satisfying (and surprisingly happy) conclusion, aspects of the novel do feel like a set-up for the longer vision. Characters are introduced at greater length than is justified by their importance in the immediate plot, presumably because they will become more important as the sequence continues. An offscreen character, twelve year old programmer Della Chun, is noted by Dev and tagged to be approached in six years for the Baker Street Irregulars, Omnitopia’s apprentice programme. Come the second novel, East Wind, will we be hearing this name again? Hopefully we won’t have to wait six years of real time to find out.
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