Then: I guess I’m the internet generation, with all the eras of my youth marked by the transition of dial-up, to broadband, to facebook-smartphone-eternal-interconnection. During primary school there were a series of children’s books that, whilst thrillers on the surface, were (looking back) transparently designed to educate its readers about the internet. (One of them features a bomb attack on a theme park foiled by someone downloading a map and emailing it as an attachment!)
A few years later, The Web series was created, bringing together established names in science fiction to write YA stories in a shared universe in which the internet has become the Web, an online virtual reality matrix accessed through bodysuits that generate the stimuli.
There were two series, 2027, and 2028, with six stories in each. 2027 was preoccupied with the Sorceress, a woman who had made herself immortal by uploading herself to the Web, and who preyed upon the unsuspecting. 2028 concerned an imminent alien invasion. I read them out of order, and incompletely, grabbing any title of the series that I could from the library whenever I spotted. As a result, I have a slightly confused sense of the chronology of the collections, but I remember them being addictively brilliant, believably high-concept and creepily threatening.
Now: I picked the first of the 2027 series, Gulliverzone by Stephen Baxter to read, partly as it was the first, and partly because I remember that one the strongest. In it, Metaphor and her younger brother Byte visit a VR-theme-park Gulliverzone, based on Gulliver’s Travels, only for everything to go very wrong when they’re shrunk to Lilliputian size and forced to fight Golbasta, the evil spider queen.
- The sci-fi stands up. It would be very easy for these books to have dated badly, but the Web world is a believable extension of where we are now, and somehow all of the invented slang still makes sense. Which is either luck or immense skill.
- The sci-fi stands up, but this isn’t really a sci-fi book, it’s a fantasy book with a sci-fi skin. By placing this book in a Gulliver-themed world, it effectively turns it into a quest fantasy with monsters and evil queens. I can’t decide if this is a very smart or very odd move for a book that’s meant to be establishing the series, but perhaps publishers thought a soft open was a good move. If I recall, later entries are far more cyberpunk.
- Would teenagers really be desperate to visit a theme park based on Gulliver’s Travels? In fact, would the real-life teenage readers of this series at the time been particularly hooked by the reference either?
- The trope of older sibling learning to get along with nagging younger sibling through traumatic adventures is done, done, done, and although everything else going on is great, the handling of this particular dynamic is rubbish. As is the dynamic of learning to accept the nerd girl with whom Metaphor has been saddled; the nerd girl barely appears in the book (such that I can’t remember her name) and is utterly redundant and a little insulting.
- One of the 2028 books features ‘The Net’, which is the dark side of the Web in which there are no restrictions. The teenage protagonist discovers a carnival sideshow in which he can torture avatars with whatever face he chooses; he is offered his father’s face. This is as dark as it gets; none of the Web series really seems to explore much about the idea of either transgression or safety within this virtual reality world. I mean, I know this is a fairly sanitised YA series, but seriously: has no-one considered how the porn industry would react to this kind of tech? (I mean, even a parent wagging their finger about ‘none of THOSE sites’ and setting parental control would at least acknowledge that element.
- When I was a teenager I knew none of these authors. Now I do, which means I’m quite intrigued to read Graham Joyce’s story, which I had never read before. Also Eric Brown’s story, Untouchable, which features an Indian protagonist amongst a caste system, promises to add an interesting diversity to what (when I think about it) was a fairly exclusively white middle-class set of main characters.