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Idlewild    by Nick Sagan order for
by Nick Sagan
Order:  USA  Can
Putnam, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Wow! Science fiction is getting exciting again! I loved the classics when first introduced to them, enthusiastically read anything by Ursula le Guin, Orson Scott Card and Sheri S. Tepper over the years, and have enjoyed the better space operas - such as Bujold's Vorkorsigan series. But it seemed like there was little new under the suns and stars, aside from a sprinkling of innovative offerings from Steven Gould, Sharon Shinn and their ilk. Then Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon came along, and now Nick Sagan's brilliant debut novel.

I wasn't sure about Idlewild at first, as it begins rather like one of Roger Zelazny's Amber novels. Our hero awakens to amnesia with a black and orange funhouse as backdrop - Halloween through the Looking Glass. It eventually clicks that Gabriel, aka Halloween, is within an 'Immersive Virtual Reality'. He has been schooled via IVR at Idlewild for his entire academic career, along with nine others. Over the years they've divided into 'pets' and 'clods', the latter being the rebels - 'Pets accepted; clods questioned.' Guess which Hal is? The author does an impressive job of putting the reader inside the virtual reality experience ... 'Stub your toe in IVR, and it hurts ... At this level of immersion, the brain wants to believe its environment is real.'

Hal discovers that a rival fellow student has disappeared. He distrusts the IVR instructor Maestro, who claims that Lazarus has graduated. Hal believes that Lazarus is dead and that the electrical overload that caused his amnesia was an attempt against his own life. When Hal investigates, with help from a few hacker tools, onion-layered surprises begin to peel off the plot. Regular flashbacks to the original IVR research team only increase the mystery. Though there's a dash of The Matrix and a tinge of Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream to it, the story is fresh, original and engrossing. And the minor characters are great fun - I especially enjoyed Hal's IVR creation, Doom, who says 'I'm a fat vampire because I'm bloody good at it!'

If I had to describe Idlewild in a few words, I'd sum it up as a virtual reality, apocalyptic murder mystery that also takes a look at what's it all about? If you're an SF fan, then rush to read this book.

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