I did a little time traveling of my own the past couple weeks, going back to read a couple books that I missed the first time around. These books deal with going to other worlds, though in very different ways.
OtherWorld was first published in 2017, followed by OtherEarth in 2018 and Otherlife in 2019, but I just hadn’t gotten around to them until now. OtherWorld is a new videogame that’s still in beta: it’s a virtual reality world that promises players they can be whoever they want, using custom headsets along with haptic gloves and boots to let them feel the world of the game. The Company, run by the young genius Milo Yolkin, is also testing some special disks that connect brains even more directly, allowing those players to taste, smell, and experience even more. That comes at a price, though: if you get hurt while wearing the disk, your brain convinces your body that the injury is real, too—not great for a virtual world in which there are no laws and players are indulging in every possible vice.
Simon, the narrator of the story, manages to get himself and his best friend Kat into Otherworld, but soon after things go very wrong. They stumble across the Company’s secrets, and realize that there’s so much more that they’re hiding.
There are some explicit references to The Matrix here and there, and there certainly are parallels between the virtual worlds that Simon and Neo inhabit, though since I’m reading these books now that the movies are back in the news, it felt a bit on the nose. It’s like when a book calls out how similar it is to a piece of fiction, but then the character says something like “but this isn’t a movie—it’s real life.” Yeah, that just pulls me out of the book a little.
On the other hand, I’m also reading this book about a metaverse (and the Company’s subsequent product, an augmented reality game) at a time when Facebook has just renamed itself Meta, and it’s hard to argue that Segel and Miller have done a pretty good job of predicting the future. While the Company isn’t exactly like Facebook, it’s not hard to see a lot of similarities there, too: a tech company that has vast power, huge amounts of data about us, and enough money and influence to do pretty much whatever it feels like. Trusting such a company to have our best interests at heart is foolish, even if things aren’t quite as extreme as they are in this story.
For the most part, I really enjoyed this young adult trilogy: there are lots of twists and turns that kept me guessing. A recurring theme of the book is that things aren’t what they seem—with this technology, you can’t even always trust your own senses. While I’m not quite as pessimistic as Segel and Miller seem to be about technology, the book does make a pretty good case for being a little skeptical about things that are too good to be true.
This book was published back in 2016, at which point fellow GeekDad Robin Brooks wrote a Stack Overflow column about four books with the same title (including this one). He didn’t give a lot of details about the plot, but I figure it’s been five years so the statute of limitations on spoilers may have lifted. That said, I still won’t spoil too much, but I want to say a little more about what happens so I can talk about some of the implications.
Jason Dessen is a physicist—he was once working on a really promising project about quantum superposition, but that project was abandoned fifteen years ago when his wife got pregnant and he decided to focus on being a father. Now he teaches at Lakemont College, and his wife Daniela—once an up-and-comer in the Chicago art scene—teaches middle school students. What would their lives have been like if they hadn’t become parents? He’s happily married and loves his son, but still envious of his college roommate, who has just won a prestigious science award.
Then his life gets turned upside down: he’s kidnapped, drugged, and when he wakes up he is in a different version of Chicago: one in which he and Daniela broke up instead and he pursued his project, and managed to build his quantum superposition box, achieving huge success in his career. But Jason isn’t interested in this life—he wants to be back with his wife and kid, and he manages to jump back into the box to go find his own reality again.
One of the fascinating things about the story to me is the way that Jason learns that it’s not just some big key moments that direct our lives onto different paths. At the beginning, he feels like his and Daniela’s choice to keep the baby is that key moment, the one that determined whether he wound up with a happy family or scientific accolades. But as he searches for his version of Chicago, he comes across other possibilities and learns that neither success in family life nor career are guaranteed. He could give up his research, and then get divorced. He could break up with Daniela and never complete the box. It’s not just big key moments that shape the course of our lives, but even seemingly insignificant ones. (It reminds me a little of that movie Sliding Doors, in which being a few minutes late to work could have significant cascading effects on the main character’s life.) However, the one thing that Blake Crouch doesn’t seem to allow is the possibility that Jason could have had a great relationship with his wife and son and the scientific success—he paints family and career as polar opposites, two ends of the spectrum, with all the other possibilities in between.
Overall, I really enjoyed the story, and things got really interesting in the last act (after the twist Robin mentioned)—definitely something I did not see coming, and I really wondered where Crouch was going to take the story at the end. I have a copy of Recursion by Crouch (published in 2019) that I hadn’t read, but now I’m planning to read that next, because I enjoyed the way he thinks about theoretical technology.
There is one thing I didn’t like as much about Crouch’s writing, though, and I offer this as a caveat: despite the fact that our main version of Jason is intended to be this great guy, the one who put family over career, there are still times where he’s just so … male, you know? Jason is the narrator of the story, and there’s a marked difference in the way that he describes other men and women in the story—that is, he describes women in colorful detail and hardly describes the men at all. One that stuck out was an encounter at a hospital: the (male) doctor was only described as portly, but the female nurse with him had more description; the next morning a female doctor checked in on him and we get to read about her freckles. While it wasn’t quite as bad as some of the jokes about how men stereotypically write about women, it was enough to make me think of them.
My Current Stack
I’ve finished a couple of comic books as well, though I’ll tell you about those after the New Year. We’ll be working on a few of our year-end group posts the next few weeks, checking in on our reading resolutions and making new ones, as well as sharing some of our favorite reads of the year, so stay tuned!
Disclosure: I received review copies of these titles. Affiliate links to Bookshop.org help support independent booksellers and my writing.