Jason Segel may be best-known for playing Marshall in the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother, but it turns out acting is only one of his talents. He’s also a songwriter and a screenwriter, having penned movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Muppets; and now he turns his pen toward the world of YA fiction. He and novelist Kirsten Miller have already created a middle-grade series called Nightmares! And now, for the slightly older set, they’ve crafted a series based on an immersive, all-encompassing virtual reality game called Otherworld.
Segel was inspired by a VR demonstration at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival that was so shockingly lifelike that he wondered, “If we can be anything we want here, why would we ever leave?” This first volume in a scheduled trilogy does a decent job of setting up that conundrum. Otherworld’s teenaged protagonist, Simon, is a rich kid who hates his parents, and whose most prominent characteristics appears to be a strong sense of rebellion and a really big nose, shared by his avatar. He’s still pining over his best friend, Kat, after she deserted him, when she gets caught in an explosion that leaves her in the comalike “locked-in” syndrome. She and other comatose patients then receive special disks that enable them to enter the exclusive game of Otherworld. Simon grabs his own disk try to find Kat in Otherworld and bring her back to consciousness.
Maybe we’ve all been spoiled by such well-crafted worlds like J.K. Rowling’s, Suzanne Collins’, Rick Riordan’s, and even Veronica Roth’s in her Divergent series. Otherworld is a bit harder to get a handle on, as it has to create its own universe for the game right out of the gate. The game has realms that appear to be loosely based on the seven deadly sins, like Nostrum, a murder-filled jungle that preys on the players’ unbridled rage, and the greed-fueled world of Mammon, where the inhabitants are involved in an unending accumulation of wealth and riches that will never be enough. Of course, Imra is a hedonist’s paradise, filled with drugs and food and orgies. As Simon navigates these strange lands, helped along by avatars like soccer mom Carole and ogre Gorog, he finds that Otherworld has an effect on him, more than the other way around. For example, as he stands over his first kill in Nostrum, “Hot blood pours out of his body and over my hand. It feels fantastic. Not as good as sex, but damn close.”
What’s more problematic is Otherworld’s bizarre and intersecting hierarchies of avatars and nonplayer characters versus non-NPCs; what’s artificial intelligence and what isn’t; and the “guests” who are the players of the game, and the Elementals (leaders of each realm), Beasts, and their unfortunate mutant offspring, called Children, who roam the unfamiliar terrain of Otherworld, trying to win it back from the guests. Like a first-time player, it takes a while for the reader to get a handle on it all, but that knowledge becomes fairly solid by the end of the book. More successful are Simon’s forays back into the real world, as he travels between Otherworld and reality trying to uncover the conspiracy of The Company behind the game, what its true purpose is, and why it is that for some of the players, like himself, their death in Otherworld will translate into death in the real world as well.
Simon is a likable enough hero, and Carole and Gorog are different enough from him in type so that the trio makes a fine team as they forage on Otherworld’s confusing journeys. But Kat, unfortunately, the real reason for Simon’s mission, is mostly a comatose figure of nostalgia throughout the book. Along the way, there are nice turns of phrase, as when Simon notes that everyone in the background of an Otherworld crowd scene looks like they belong in a vodka ad. But then Simon comments that one of the Elementals has a “nice set of knockers.” It doesn’t sound like anything a boy his age would ever say (except perhaps in 1952); rather it’s a weak (and sexist) attempt to draft some teen boy dialogue.
Otherworld still functions well as an adventure story, and as Segel intended, it brings up many interesting and important points. At one point Simon realizes:
That’s how Otherworld traps you. It introduces you to sensations you’d never be able to feel in real life. You discover what’s been missing—because it’s taboo or illegal or because you lack the guts to do it for real. And when you find out what’s missing it’s almost impossible to let it go again.
A world like Otherworld could offer so much to a child in a cancer ward, say, climbing mountains and having adventures, that they couldn’t have in real life. People without the means to visit Lake Como in Italy could experience it in an instant. This Otherworld goes past the sense of sight and sound into taste, touch, and smell—so when does the “V” drop out of the “VR”? As one of the Children points out to Simon and his friends, this world is real to them and the only one they have. If they die there, it’s over for them.
That interesting philosophical premise makes it possible to skim over Otherworld’s rougher edges in order to race to the end of the book. And now impatiently wait for the follow-up volume, Other Earth, coming in fall 2018. And of course, the inevitable film adaptation. Wonder which part Segel will cast for himself?