When I was growing up, Carl Sagan was my hero. Thus, I was pretty much duty-bound to read the work of his son Nick (whose recorded greeting "Hello from the children of planet Earth" accompanies the Voyager spacecraft that is already traveling beyond our solar system). Idlewild made quite a splash in the science fiction genre when it was published in 2003, and I certainly consider it an impressive debut novel. It's only natural that some will mention The Matrix when speaking about Idlewild, as it is centered upon a virtual reality existence, but Sagan clearly has a voice of his own which he expresses quite effectively over the course of the novel.
As the book opens, out protagonist wakes up knowing nothing about himself or his location; all he knows is that someone is trying to kill him. His exploration of the world around him makes for a surreal experience: a disembodied voice tries to speak to him, he casts no reflection in mirrors, and Lovecraft-inspired nightgaunts seem to do his bidding. As a reader, it's hard to get your bearings in the beginning, but the protagonist's story soon begins emerging from the chaos. His name is Halloween, and he is one of eight students at an extraordinary school run by an enigmatic fellow named Maestro. His consciousness is in fact embodies in virtual reality, and that is why he and his friends are able to do some rather extraordinary things. He begins to remember things, both positive and negative, about his classmates, but he is unable to trust anyone at all. His misgivings about his own safety are exacerbated by a growing belief that he is responsible for the death of a fellow student named Lazarus.
As Halloween attempts to get information out of his classmates, he and his friends make increasing use of self-designed loopholes in the virtual reality construct, sowing digital confusion that allows them to find a bit of privacy and even step out of the virtual reality world momentarily. Such actions antagonize their instructor Maestro, and something of a battle of wills erupts between Halloween's little gang and the virtual reality instructor. Eventually, this leads to a crisis as Maestro goes outside of his original programming in an attempt to keep the students in line.
As we learn from a parallel side story, the education of these eight youngsters is of the utmost importance. A devastating plague has engulfed the world, and these kids may hold the key's to humanity's very survival.
To Halloween, it soon becomes clear that the virtual reality software has gone awry. He still fears for his life, even before Maestro introduces new forms of severe discipline. Halloween wants out, and his only hope of escape seems to lie in a mysterious avatar designed to keep the virtual reality world intact and secure. He wants to find out who is trying to kill him, what really happened to his friend Lazarus, and basically just what the heck is going on in this school.
Sagan creates a great air of mystery and suspense, and the answers that eventually emerge set the stage for additional novels. Some may term the story of Idlewild somewhat derivative, but I found Sagan to offer a profound new voice in science fiction. He has a quick and action-based writing style, rarely resorting to blown-up descriptions of strange places and events. For the most part, the characters tell the story - and some memorable characters there are. Despite the virtual reality setting, the humanity of these characters is expressed rather powerfully as tragedies strike and reluctant heroes look upon their true destiny for the first time. Sagan may not be ready for Hugo or Nebula consideration just yet, but his imagination, voice, and vision portend great things to come in the years ahead.