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Nick Sagan
Bantam Press, 275 pages

Nick Sagan
Nick Sagan graduated from UCLA Film School and has written for Hollywood for ten years, creating screenplays and TV scripts. The son of astronomer Carl Sagan and artist/writer Linda Salzman, his greeting, "Hello from the children of planet Earth," was recorded and placed aboard NASA's Voyager I spacecraft, which is now the most distant human-made object in the universe. He is married and lives in Ithaca, New York.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Charlene Brusso

The problem with neat ideas in SF and fantasy is that eventually the mainstream gets around to noticing them, and then promptly acts as if said ideas are totally new; meanwhile the average genre reader is left to scratch her head and say, "Where have you been all these years?"

The back cover flap of Idlewild says Nick Sagan (yes, he's the son of that Sagan, charismatic astronomer and popularizer of science) is "a graduate of the UCLA Film school and has written for Hollywood," though it doesn't mention any specific projects. Which probably explains the essentially episodic structure of this techno-thriller novel, as well as its unsuccessful struggle to reconcile Big SF Ideas with a setting and plot twists cloned off The Matrix, Hollywood's favorite answer to the human/technological spectacle of cyberpunk.

Warning bells ring in the opening chapter, where our narrator awakens with amnesia in a mysterious realm he doesn't recognize or understand. Meanwhile, genre readers will easily identify the juvenile Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy world as a computer-generated virtual reality, fraught with all manner of meaningful metaphors and symbols. Sagan pushes the plot forward slowly. Our narrator learns that his name is Halloween, and then that he may have murdered someone named Lazarus. Eventually he realizes he is one of a handful of gifted high school students attending "Immersive Virtual Reality" classes at the Idlewild IVR Academy, a highly selective school sponsored by multinational biotech company, the Gedaechtnis Corporation.

But something caused a mysterious power surge that nearly destroyed the IVR system, and damaged his memory. Halloween believes that same something made fellow student Lazarus disappear from the system, and now he doesn't know who to trust. His fellow students run the gamut, from sniping drama queen to nice girl, to shy introvert to amoral juvenile delinquent. Despite them and the treacherous teacher Maestro, who provides classic pulp villain schtick, Halloween is determined to recover his memory, and learn what really happened to Lazarus.

All well and good. Sagan creates a set-up with ample opportunity to make full use of all the marvelous recursion possible with synthetic worlds. But then he adds short vignettes between the "Halloween" chapters which fill in the back story and remove much of the expected suspense.

First we learn that the entire lives of Halloween and his cohorts have been completely computer-generated. The students were genetically engineered and raised in secret as part of a desperate attempt to save humanity from an unspecified plague called Black Eps. Their studies are intended to prepare them for the task of raising human clones resistant to the disease, and restoring humanity to an empty Earth. Someone, however, is determined to kill them, one by one -- someone inside the project itself, someone who may not even be human.

Learning all this from the vignettes -- "off-camera", so to speak -- and then hearing the details all over again as Halloween learns them, makes for slow going and little suspense. Much of Idlewild is taken up with Halloween pondering things, telling us he's frustrated and angry, running over the same ideas again and again. Whether this truly represents the obsessive behavior of a teenager learning that everything he knows is wrong, it doesn't make for very interesting reading. In the end, Sagan has taken some truly compelling ideas and clever twists, and knitted them into a plot which seems so impressed with itself that it can't take the time to actually extrapolate the next logical step. From that perspective, this is very much a mainstream-oriented novel, where just presenting the ideas can be enough; for those familiar with genre conventions, however, Idlewild spends far too much time idling, and far too little finding the wildness in it all.

Copyright © 2003 Charlene Brusso

Charlene's sixth grade teacher told her she would burn her eyes out before she was 30 if she kept reading and writing so much. Fortunately he was wrong. Her work has also appeared in Aboriginal SF, Amazing Stories, Dark Regions, MZB's Fantasy Magazine, and other genre magazines.

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