Aug 30 2010 3:29pm

How many cyberwizards can dance on the head of a pin? (Being a review of Omnitopia Dawn, by Diane Duane)

For those who are familiar with the ouvre of Diane Duane, Omnitopia Dawn will seem a departure. Duane is best known for her fantasy: the Young Wizards series of children’s books and their spinoff novels about wizard cats, and the seemingly eternally incomplete Tales of the Five series, which seem to be linked to these others by way of universe.

Omnitopia Dawn is something very different—a near-future science fiction novel structured like a thriller, rather than an epic fantasy revolving around the moral judgments of human or feline wizards. I think it’s more fair to consider it as a thriller than as science fiction, actually, because while it does ask some questions about how future technologies may affect human interactions, those are not its central concerns.

The titular Omnitopia is a massively-multiplayer virtual reality gaming universe created by billionaire programmer Dev Logan and his team of geniuses. It’s a somewhat anarchic, semi-open-source continuum run in accordance with Dev’s egalitarian principles, and we join the narrative on the eve of Omnitopia’s biggest and baddest expansion rollout. Meanwhile, Dev’s former partner and current business rival Paul Sorenson intends to use this opportunity to bring Dev’s company (and not-so-incidentally, Dev) to its knees.

It’s a very straightforward plot, and in the true Duane tradition it couples a slightly too-good-to-be-true hero (and his cast of loyal friends and family) against a villain who, in the final analysis, is more pitiable than evil. This is not necessarily a weakness: Duane plays to her strengths while relocating her setting, and one thing the book does very well is showcase the Vancian breadth of her invention. Omnitopia provides just what the name promises: a utopia for everyone, many of which we get to see, some in-depth and some in-passing.

The book does suffer somewhat from its roving point of view, which gets us into the heads of everyone from Dev and Paul to their meanest dupes and allies. While the struggle for control of the future of online gaming plays out, we see a great deal from the point of view of both kings and pawns, and there were a few places where I felt that too much information (which was available to a point of view character) was withheld from the reader.

The thematic arc too is a little thin: Dev is already too perfect to need much character growth, and the book tends to settle into being a transparent allegory in which the (good, utopian) open-source autonomous collective are set against the (evil, rapacious) capitalist exploiters. The characters who are suspicious that everything about Devi is a little too perfect are never proven right, and the moment when we finally see Dev act with ruthlessness is so underplayed it doesn’t feel like he’s showing us another facet of his character. However, I admit readily that this is a false binary for which I nevertheless feel enormous sympathy, so on that level it’s comfort food, even if it’s a little uncomfortably didactic.

Omnitopia Dawn starts slowly; there’s a great deal of space devoted to bringing the reader up to speed on some fairly basic SF concepts. This is another way in which it reads more like a techno-thriller than like a science fiction novel. However, it makes up for this, and for fairly thin and formulaic characterizations—especially from Duane, who I expect to be able to sketch a rich individual in a couple of pages—through the sheer majesty of its inventiveness.

It’s a lot of fun. And it’s the first novel in a series, so it’s possible that character development that I was craving is still to come.

Elizabeth Bear is the Hugo and Sturgeon Award winning author of many books and short stories.

John Fiala
1. John Fiala
Amusingly, I just finished this novel a few minutes before finding this review. I quite like the novel, although I picked out the final surprise ahead of time.

I've got to wonder if upcoming novels will focus less on Dev than on his (literal and figurative) children and how they change the world? What do you do with your life when your father was a man like that?
John Fiala
4. Garrett Fitzgerald
I haven't finished Omnitopia Dawn yet (running through it at Borders pending the next payday or so), but I disagree with Elizabeth that it's a departure from Diane's typical work. Her modular worldbuilding reminded me a lot of the spellbuilding from her Young Wizards and Middle Kingdoms books, as did the (literal in some ways) battle against the DDOS attack (Irish wizard packing an eggbeater, anyone?). There may have been a trope or two tossed in from the Solar Patrol books, as well, but I'd have to take a bit more time to figure that out. :-)

I don't mean to imply that the book is derivative from her earlier works -- just that it's a cozy place to hang out with some old friends and see what they've been up to lately. :-) I wish I could hang out in Omnitopia -- it sounds a lot more fun than Facebook or WoW. :-)
James Caplan
5. caplanjr
I really enjoyed this book although it took me a time to get into it. The early setup was a bit draggy but the story more than made up for it with the build up and delivery of the grand battle scene. Like Garrett, above, I too had flashbacks to the young wizards books, especially in the virtual spaces. I am really looking forward to the next volume, but Diane, if you're reading this, please finish The Big Meow first!
To see a similar theme from a different writer with a totally different feel, I recommend Charlie Stross's Halting State.
John Fiala
6. Charlotte Ashlock
I think that Phil Sorenson's character actually was very deeply developed! I agree with you that she didn't go as deep with the other characters though. I feel like she could though in the sequels.
Dru O'Higgins
7. bellman
The story I was interested in was the young couple that get a chance to build their own universe. The rest was undeveloped and mildly dull. It feels like the first third of one novel, so I'll wait for the sequel.

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