This review appeared in The Third Alternative #36 originally:-
Bantam Press hb, 278pp, £10
reviewed by Peter Tennant
Our hero wakes to find himself alone in an old house, and with no memory of who he is or what he’s doing there. He wanders through a desolate landscape encountering signs of death and madness, eventually coming to the realisation that his name is Halloween and he is the commander of an army of demons at war with a deadly rival. Well actually his name is Gabe and this whole world is just a virtual reality scenario built on his obsession with the work of H. P. Lovecraft. Halloween and nine other gifted teenagers are the students at an exclusive VR college presided over by the computer programme Maestro, taking lessons from computer generated facsimiles of the likes of Darwin and Einstein. His memory loss was nothing more than an accident down to an energy surge in the system, only Halloween doesn’t believe that. He thinks Maestro is trying to kill him. Halloween’s parents in the real world of Idlewild are unsympathetic, so he’s left with no alternative but to join forces with his fellow students and investigate what’s going on. However as they pry into the secrets behind Maestro it becomes apparent that something a lot more serious than a computer malfunction is happening. Mankind is facing extinction at the hands of an incurable disease. Halloween and his compadres could just be the last hope for survival, only one of them may have gone mad.
This story takes a fair old amount of time to get into its stride, starting out as Horror/Fantasy cross blend and then moving into Science Fiction before finally settling on Near Future Techno-Thriller as a viable modus operandi. The shifts leave the reader off balance, but ultimately can’t hide that what we have here is nothing much more than another Matrix rip off, with virtual worlds within virtual worlds, and the author’s sense of verisimilitude the only control on how far down this road we go. Sagan, the son of scientist Carl Sagan, is a competent writer, keeping his story always interesting even if it has little new to offer except in the fine details, which are handled with panache and a real feel for how computing and VR technology may come to change our lives. Through the use of flashbacks and computer downloads he manages to generate quite a bit of mystery about where the story is going, but in the final analysis the basic premise at the heart of the book, that a group of mutant children educated by a VR programme will rise from their solipsist dreams and restore mankind to life, is simply too hard to swallow. Nice journey, but the destination sadly leaves much to be desired.