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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The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter

The tagline on the cover says, “The authorized sequel to The Time Machine,” and in many ways it is the perfect sequel. Baxter takes elements from H.G. Wells’s classic novel and builds upon them with a skill that had me in awe in places. You could almost be forgiven for thinking that H.G. himself had written the first book with this next one in mind. The romance that the Time Traveller of the original novel had with a woman from the future called Weena is built upon beautifully. At the close of The Time Machine she was left to a cruel fate at the hands of the Morlock race; now the Time Traveller’s first aim is to use his machine to rescue her. One of the things that made the original novel so brilliant was Wells’s sharp logic; unlike Back to the Future, it is not enough for a simple kiss to get a misdirected timeline back on its original course. Baxter is every bit as sharp as Wells. And what this means in terms of the story is that the Time Traveller can’t get back to Weena, because his return to the past has already wiped out the entire future that he visited. Space doesn’t permit me to go into enough detail here, and I’m probably failing to communicate any of the amazement I felt at Baxter’s theorizing, so all I can say is read it for yourself. If you’re a fan of the original novel, you’ll love it.

I won’t say much more about the plot, save that time is a vast thing, and this is a big book. Baxter will take you lots of places. I am sad to report, however, that things took a disappointing turn for me towards the close of the book. There was a section where the protagonist had a kind of out-of-body experience, and it seemed to go on and on, and the things that Baxter explained through it were either very fanciful or way over my head.

Stylistically, the the novel is written to complement the original; i.e. words like “futurity” are used in place of “the future”. It’s a fitting approach and it reads well.

Overall I feel very ambivalent about this book. Part of me wants to recommend it very highly because of how well thought-out and enjoyable it is. But the ending was a real let down.