My first reaction to receiving a review copy of Otherworld was “Great, another novel written by a celebrity”. Although I enjoy most of Segel’s films, I was sceptical about reading this book, even if it is co-written with Kirsten Miller, a leading YA writer in her own right. Otherworld is the fifth book they have collaborated on (the other four are in the Nightmares! series published by Delacorte, which are aimed at middle grade readers). This book, in contrast, is written for an older audience.
I finished reading the book before watching the fourth series of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and found that the two crossed over quite a bit. The central premise of Otherworld sounds very familiar: Simon, an awkward, geeky teenager becomes addicted to a video game. Following an unusual accident in his real life that kills several people, the girl he likes becomes trapped within the game by some one or some thing and he must go in to rescue her. The company in the book (which is ominously even called the Company) is testing a patch that sticks to the back of players’ heads, which allows the game to interact directly with their brains so they experience it using all five senses. After the success of Westworld and the recent advancements in virtual and augmented reality, this is certainly a fruitful area for fiction. The book is a cautionary tale about the dangers that come with technological advancements. Simon is suspicious about the Company’s real motivations for creating and testing this new technology from the start of the book and he must figure out what they are trying to do, how they are getting their test subjects, and how far they will go to test their new technology.
The world within the game itself is nothing new-it seems like a derivative of World of Warcraft, where young kids can choose to be represented by an avatar of a giant ogre. Except, in this world, they actually become these mythical characters and can use invisibility cloaks and similar tactics. Simon and a group of other players who are testing out the new patch must similarly travel through various different worlds that are governed by different bosses and different rules. Along the way, Simon discovers that the game is spawning its own AI in the form of “children” who are hell bent on getting rid of all players.
Although the plot doesn’t really bring anything completely new, the main character’s voice feels very authentic. Simon is a typical moody teenager, the kind that can become grating to read or watch. But this is what makes him so real. The book is written entirely from his perspective in first person narration and his cynicism about the world in general and his sarcastic bratty dialogue reflects Segel’s onscreen comedic persona in films including Knocked Up (2007), Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), and I Love You, Man (2009). Simon’s obsession with Kat also makes him seem like a whiny, lovesick teenager, also a trait synonymous with Segel’s characters.
From interviews I’ve read with the authors, it seems like Miller concentrates on the narrative, whilst Segel works on the dialogue (https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/75192-four-questions-for-jason-segel-and-kirsten-miller.html). The result is a book that is very easy to read and that is broken up into short, easily digestible chapters. Simon jumps in and out of the game world and the real world, performing tasks in each that affects the other, all the while searching for a way to get to Kat. And, although Simon is pursuing Kat, it is his relationships with the other characters he meets both in Otherworld and in the real world, that are explored in more detail in the book. Simon’s relationship with Kat is revealed to us mostly in flashbacks and we get a sense at the beginning that his love for her is not fully reciprocated.
The book has garnered some criticism online due to its many similarities to Tad Williams’ Otherland trilogy published between 1996 and 2001, as well as Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, published in 2011, which has just been adapted by Steven Spielberg. Although I haven’t read these books and cannot comment fully on the similarities, I found Segel and Miller’s book entertaining, if a little on the lighter side. And, although it may be a lighter read, it certainly brings up a lot of ethical dilemmas that must be considered by corporations in their use of, and testing of, virtual and augmented reality.
This review first appeared in Storgy Magazine. Thank you to Storgy Magazine for providing a review copy.
About the authors
Jason Segel and his co-writer Kirsten Miller are best known in the book world right now for their best-selling middle grade series Nightmares! — but now the duo is branching into YA with Otherworld the start of a new trilogy inspired by a game Segel played in his youth.