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Idlewild
Nick Sagan
Bantam paperback £6.99

review by Tony Lee

When an incurable viral plague called 'Black Ep' threatens to exterminate all humankind, international biotech corporation Gedaechtnis initiate an ambitious project to raise and educate a handful of genetically modified children in a virtual world, ready to lead adult lives as the only 'survivors' capable of resurrecting humanity, via wholly artificial means, 18 years later. But when one of these super-smart kids turns psychotic, using nanny and teacher programs to attack or assassinate former school-friends, a predictable ghost-in-the-machine appears just in time to save the day, and circumstances permit an early graduation from apparent safety of the VR envelope, albeit without sufficient prep time for difficult real-world tasks ahead...

If the seemingly endless praise heaped upon Idlewild accurately represents the general critical reaction to Nick (son of Carl) Sagan's debut, then I must be in a minority because I really didn't enjoy this book much at all. Basically a Matrix knockoff, there's very little originality to be found in this unimpressive cyber-thriller, which launches as a standard VR murder mystery, only to crash, disappointingly, with its post-apocalyptic shoot 'em-up showdown between the reluctant hero and his supposedly loathsome nemesis.

Inherently derivative of Philip K. Dick, but without adding fresh twists or psychological insights to its paranoid delusions or sinister machinations, the first part of this very iffy skiffy grinds along from one uninspired sequence to the next, defusing tension where it should be heightened, and never quite managing to avoid pretentious waffle, whenever it gets weirdly metaphorical or especially serious. You might like the fun idea of lessons on evolutionary theory delivered to students aboard the HMS Beagle by Charles Darwin himself, but a later (supposedly 'fabulous') costume party for old pals and class rivals, designed to assemble all possible teenage culprits in the (suspected) murder of a missing student, makes for extremely dreary reading at best. 'Self-indulgent' characters are rarely likeable. A knowingly self-indulgent author is even less endearing.

Perhaps the main flaw I found in Idlewild, apart from the numerous clichés and lapses into irrelevant pedantry, is that Sagan insists on using disagreeably childish nicknames for some of the characters: Halloween, Fantasia, Lazarus, Pandora, etc. This tendency leaves a curious 'impression' of login IDs, and regrettably weakens the impact of many dramatic events by creating a safety distance between the real world characters and anything that affects their largely charmless online personas. While it's clear these names are intended to be part of a futuristic mythology, the references have no more depth than Internet avatars. Among the various additional irritations is the disingenuous way in which Sagan insists upon labelling his digital realm, IVR (immersive virtual reality), which is redundant because it's not as if there's any other kind of V.R. (except 'immersive') - according to the most widely accepted definition of that term.

After Halloween's hacking escapades lead us to obvious and easily foreseeable revelations about the conspiracy of his 'worlds-within-worlds' environment, the rather hurriedly narrated climactic chapters and inevitably downbeat epilogue (for the ever-brooding hero, anyway), only compounds the miserably inadequate feel of this transparently market-friendly exercise in 'bestseller SF'. (A sequel, Edenborn, is published in the UK on 7th September 2004.) Sadly, this premeditated trilogy is not a particularly auspicious start for Sagan junior's career as a genre novelist.
Idlewild by Nick Sagan

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