What happens in books 2 and 3 of Tad Williams' Otherland series?
February 19, 2005 5:05 PM   Subscribe

Spoilerfilter: What happens in books 2 and 3 of Tad Williams' Otherland series? I read the first book and liked much of it, particularly some of the characterization, but dreaded the long, rambling stretches where characters like Paul Jonas wander aimlessly through a series of detailed-but-not-plot-relevant virtual landscapes. Reviewers almost always mention that the series drags in the 2nd and 3rd books -- "nothing significant happens," "the characters seem to jump from one exotic locale to another without any real explanation about why they're there" -- so I've decided to jump to book four. What useful plot information do I need from among the 1400+ pages of aimless wandering in books two and three?
posted by mediareport to Media & Arts (7 answers total)
The books, do have a 'previously in Otherland' section which goes over the main points of the story. I didn't bother moving onto book three, but I bought it and both Book Two and Three have these prologues.
posted by Navek Rednam at 9:45 PM on February 19, 2005

Don't know but the people at SFFWorld.com, might be able to help, if nobody here can answer the question. sffworld.com

I found a comment about the second book, here:

River of Blue Fire . . . plotlines [goes] as follows (no major spoilers): online, our heroes are split up and are forced to go through simulation after simulation looking for their comrades; Martine and company receive cryptic hints from someone involved with the project; Paul Jonas continues his journey, having finally remembered his identity, and clued in as to where he is; and, as you may remember from the end of the first book, Dread has sabotaged and occupied one of our heroes' sims. Offline, a pair of Australian cops follow the luke-warm trail of a sadistic murderer (Dread), and Sam's and Orlando's parents hire an investigator to look in to their odd case and whether it has any connection with a certain large megacorporation.
posted by Jim Jones at 10:58 PM on February 19, 2005

Have you tried George R. R. Martin's series, A Song of Fire and Ice? It's long, complicated, and engaging. More enjoyable too, IMHO. Personally I gave up on Tad Williams after the disappointment that was War of the Flowers.
posted by Jim Jones at 11:07 PM on February 19, 2005

Both the American (published by Daw) and British (Orbit) editions of the books have a synopsis at the beginning that summarizes what happens in the previous books, so I think you can just pick up book four, read the synopsis and be all set for the last part.

Or, if you understand German, you can listen to the radio play instead. The last part of the second book airs today for the first time; you can buy book one and two on cd. Book three and four are to follow later this year. The whole thing is going to be 24 hours long, by the way.
posted by amf at 3:05 AM on February 20, 2005

This doesn't directly answer your question, but allow me to suggest that you might be making a mistake by skipping volumes 2 and 3 of Otherland. I found that the book was about the journey, rather than the destination, and there are so many clever ideas in volumes 2 and 3 that it'll be a shame if you fly by them. I also remember the cliffhanger than ends volume 3 as being particularly intense. (Also, Renie becomes much less shrill and annoying in book 2.)

The parent poster says that the virtual landscapes are "detailed-but-not-plot-relevant." I'd argue that Williams's purpose in these landscapes is to provide a kind of history of the modern fantasy novel, to illustrate its origins (the imagined worlds of Coleridge, Baum, and Borges all make appearances) and satirize its dominant themes. The nature of that ambitious project doesn't really make itself evident until the second book, but for me that ambition takes precedence over a plot that doesn't obey the usual conventions of multiple-volume fantasy epics. (The narrative structure of Otherland is a direct descendant of the American voyage narrative as well as the traditional quest narrative of modern fantasy, which is why both Huckleberry Finn and The Lord of the Rings are repeatedly alluded to in volume 1, and why the means of travel between one world and the next often takes the form of a river.)

Otherland has more in common with more "high-culture" encyclopedic narratives like Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow than it does with works like The Lord of the Rings, I'd say (even though Williams expresses a hostility toward the storytelling conventions of the literary postmodern novel--if I remember correctly, it's Paul Jonas that delivers a short speech criticizing the postmodernist aesthetic at the beginning of volume 3). In my opinion, the middle books in the series have gotten a bum rap from critics who work exclusively within the genre, who judged it by the standards of a plot-driven but conventional multi-volume fantasy epic (which is what it initially appears to be), rather than the more ambitious and experimental project that it is.

I could go on and on about this, but I'll stop here.
posted by Prospero at 6:30 AM on February 20, 2005

Also, don't be so sure that the Jonas segments aren't plot-relevant. And if you like the character development, why skip huge swathes of it?
posted by squidlarkin at 9:01 AM on February 20, 2005

Thanks, all. I'll check the "previously in" sections. Prospero, thanks for the interesting thoughts; it's the "many clever ideas" scattered through book one that make me want to read the resolution, if not slog through the rest of the stuff.

I saw Williams' larger project surveying the history of fantasy, but watching characters get blown around through worlds without any control over what happens to them gets old quickly. Part of it is Williams' very detail-oriented writing style, but the extended descriptions of Jonas traveling through various landscapes - a Burroughs-esque Mars adventure here, a Wonderland-like chess board there -- quickly got tedious for me. I get it, it's cute, but the sections are way too long with almost nothing happening in terms of character development *or* story. I also didn't see any interesting satire or get much added to my understanding of the genre's history.

squidlarkin, the point I've gathered is that there *aren't* huge swathes of character development in the 2nd and 3rd books.

Again, if anyone of you who've read the series feel like offering a fairly detailed synopsis of the plot of the middle two books, it would be appreciated. (At the very least, tell me if Singh and Wicked Tribe show up again :)
posted by mediareport at 10:48 AM on February 20, 2005

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