Idlewild - Nick Sagan

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Nick Sagan
Bantam Press
ISBN: 0593051904 (Amazon link)

Usually I ignore cover blurbs, but this novel sports one by Gaiman, who doesn't (yet) whore himself out regularly the way certain other big name authors seem to. Better yet, Gaiman tends to blurb novels I really enjoy. Stephen Baxter joins in with another blurb, but I don't trust him since Titan. On-line reader reviews seem generally positive too. So am I the only one who though Idlewild was thin, sub-standard fare? Oh, it had moments, but overall Idlewild reminded me of Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom - a short story inflated to novel length, with much less attitude than the author thinks. I blame Bruce Sterling for writing Schismatrix much too early on; if he'd only had the decency to publish after all these other novels, they'd look so much more interesting.

I think there were some danger flags on the cover of Idlewild; might be worth noting that, yes, I am very cynical and what follows is probably unfair. Item one: author is son of Carl Sagan, suggestion of daddy's coat-tails? Item two: author has written for television. Item three: strong mention of hype-culture references, The Matrix and Minority Report.

Idlewild is set in the near future, and we are following Halloween (not his real name obviously, he's a moody teenager with goth tendencies) as he recovers from some sort of shock. We don't know exactly what happened, and neither does Halloween, because he's lost his memory. This is a handy thing as it lets the author both explain his world, as Halloween works it out step by step, and to set the stage for the (attempted) murder mystery element. Halloween can't remember people, so who does he trust?

The world isn't a terrific place in this future, several serious viruses are loose and things seem much safer where Halloween is - his parents have popped him into a VR private school. The school is very expensive, but Halloween, being a teenager, doesn't really appreciate his situation. Despite having the freedom to sculpt his own environment, up to and including the ability to sculpt sex toys in the image of his ideal girl, Halloween still feels put upon. His rebellion seems mainly confined to clove cigarettes and complaining.

Things become more problematic after the shock though - Lazarus, another student, is gone. He' s supposed to have graduated, but he didn't say goodbye, and Halloween has vague memories of killing him... As there are only ten students in this school, his absence is keenly felt. Worse, Maestro, the headmaster, takes badly to the students' attempts to discuss the situation privately; some hacker toys that they have are used once too often, and the authorities decide to become stricter. Maestro however, seems to be crossing the line between firm-but-fair, and vengeful-and-psychotic. Chuck in a strange crystal robot lurking in the corners, some inter-chapter snippets of pseudo-system logs, and a few flashbacks of programmers inventing VR and the scene is set for a twisty plot, that's hard to discuss without spoilers. Except that the plot is as trite and obvious as you might fear given the setup. I suspected something on page eight or so, and guess what? It came true. Bah, humbug.

Okay, so the plot isn't worth discussing. What about the characterisation? Sadly, that's not up to much either. Halloween is the first person narrator, and sports a rather natty inner dialogue. He's entertaining, but ultimately not very sympathetic, and in the long run, not that interesting either. The problem is that he exists on his own in this world, and that's not a subtle commentary on the human condition. His fellow students never really come off the page - which rather strips some later plot events of their impact - and the villains of the piece? I've had more threatening, and interesting, breakfast cereal.

Given that, why read Idlewild at all? Well, the prose style isn't bad; it's self-consciously hip and tries too hard to reference as many pop-culture icons as possible, but overall, it's decent enough. As I said above, it's not unlike the work of someone like Doctorow. For me though, there was far too much affectation, it does read a bit like a blog by some teenage bedroom would-be cyberpunk.

Not really a great recommendation is it? Terrible plot, few decent ideas, thin characterisation, but worth trying if you like highly affected media-friendly-post-cyberpunk (for want of a better term) prose but someone who does show promise as an author. Has he published any short fiction? I suspect that might read better. I might be persuaded to pick up his second novel if he augments his decent page-by-page writing skills with some structural and plotting skills that I think he currently lacks for novel length works.

I've been fairly harsh, judge the first chapter for yourself here.

Posted: Wed - September 17, 2003 at 11:48 PM