Multiple layers of virtual reality unfold like onion skins in this future-shocker.
In a rather blatant example of genre-plot-staple cross-pollination, first-novelist and screenwriter Sagan (Carl Sagan fils) takes the killer-virus-decimating-humanity-plot, wraps it inside an is-this-real? VR environment and tosses in some moody dark fantasy scene-stealers with a hint of David Bowie’s Space Oddity as the icing on top. Gabriel Hall, a teenager with a morbid imagination (thus his nickname: “Halloween”), attends an exclusive college in the future where he and his small band of classmates spend most of their time in a VR world. The environment they embody, with its field trips spent talking to Charles Darwin, and odd conflicts involving gibbering clones with machine guns and faceless Lovecraftian “nightnauts,” is a fun but frightening place, something like Disneyworld seen through a Hieronymous Bosch filter. Gabe has anxieties at the start of the story, since he doesn’t remember anything about why he’s in the world—a short-circuit in the system temporarily wiped much of his memory—and he believes he might have killed his classmate Lazarus (they all have names like that: Fantasia, Mercutio, Champagne). Sagan occasionally dips out of Gabe’s nightmarish quest for truth to check in with the scientists at Gedaechtnis, a research center connected to Gabe’s school that’s frantically trying to find the cure for Black Ep, a hundred-percent fatal disease that lurked for years in humanity’s DNA and is now sweeping the globe like a scythe. The official reason for all the VR loopiness the students endure is that it’s all education, but after a scene in which Gabe is (virtually) buried alive by Maestro, the VR instructor, it’s pretty obvious that something else is going on behind the scenes. While it might seem a rather lumbering affair when laid out, Idlewild nips along quite nicely, deftly sidestepping the overly drawn-out or too-fraught-with-meaning scenarios one might expect from this apocalyptic masquerade.
Sagan may have more imagination than he knows what to do with—a wonderful thing in a new author.