The Web: Webcrash by Stephen Baxter

The Web is a series of children’s sci-fi novels about virtual reality, written by well-known names such as Eric Brown, Peter F. Hamilton, Ken MacLeoid and others. Baxter’s stab at the series concerns February 12, 2028, the day the Web crashes.

The Web is not quite the internet of the future. It’s more a worldwide virtual reality experience; people suit up, plug in, and experience the future, the past, or something from fantasy, for entertainment or educational purposes.

The story concerns a 15-year-old girl who goes by the alias Metaphor. She becomes trapped inside a future virtual reality called Galaxias and finds she can’t get out again. The bulk of the story however, takes places in the past – the era of the Vikings, or a virtual world called WebVin – where Metaphor befriends a woman Viking warrior called Thyri.

I guess there’s plenty of scope for originality in a theme so varied as virtual reality, but unfortunately all Baxter does is tread over familiar ground. Worse still, the story is told from the perspective of Metaphor having successfully returned to the real world, recalling the events of her adventure; since we know she gets out safely, there’s no real tension. Metaphor even assures us during the novel that it’s only a matter of time before someone on the outside wakes her up – how gripping.

The real drive of the story centres around how Metaphor comes to view the artificial people around her as real people and is unable to distance herself from the awful things that are happening to them. But it’s totally unconvincing. The detail is so sketchy and the characters themselves so one-dimensional. We have the power-hungry overlord from the Star Empire of the future and the revenge-driven warrior Viking woman from the past. There’s not much there to relate to!

I picked this book up because I know Baxter is a very talented writer. I’ve read short stories by him, and one other lengthy novel, and I was very impressed. So what went wrong? Maybe it was difficult having to abide by the rules of an existing franchise; maybe it was an opportunity to earn a quick buck writing a piece of trash for kids. Either way, trash is what it is.

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