TCS Daily

Sagan Reloaded

By Kenneth Silber - August 13, 2003 12:00 AM

Nick Sagan is a writer who has spent a decade working on science-fiction scripts and games. He wrote and edited for the TV series Star Trek: Voyager. In 2000, he was a colleague of mine at He is the son of a famous father, the late astronomer Carl Sagan. The Voyager 1 space probe, now heading out of the solar system and already the most distant human-made object, carries a record with various sounds and greetings, including the voice of a six-year-old Nick: "Hello from the children of planet Earth."


Sagan now has written his first novel, Idlewild (G.P. Putnam's Sons). The book is an engrossing work of science fiction, focused on a student in a future elite school that employs advanced virtual-reality technologies. Sagan's novel will get attention partly because of its author's recognizable name. But it will resonate due to its intricate plot, well-realized psychological dynamics, and presentation of futuristic technologies, which are depicted by Sagan with both imagination and a laudable scientific verisimilitude.


Idlewild could help broaden the popular appeal of the science-fiction genre. In the past several decades, science fiction increasingly has been seen as a niche of publishing rather than an element of the mainstream. While sci-fi films and TV shows still in some cases reach a wide public, sci-fi novels have been targeted at a limited, albeit very interested, audience. (Many devotees dislike the term "sci-fi" and prefer "SF." Such terminological controversies only underscore the field's conversion into an insulated niche.)


This narrowing of science fiction's appeal, this relegation of sci-fi to what is essentially a publishing backwater, has disturbing implications. From the late 19th century through much of the 20th, authors such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein reached large numbers of readers -- and encouraged them to think about science and technology. The novels were fun to read, and thus were ends in themselves, but they also fired people's interest in understanding and performing real scientific and technological advances. No less important, sci-fi works got readers to contemplate risks and problems stemming from science and technology.


These sci-fi effects were not lost on Carl Sagan. Besides popularizing science through his many nonfiction books, the astronomer wrote Contact, a novel (later a movie) about an encounter with extraterrestrials. The older Sagan often also invoked sci-fi in his nonfiction, for example describing how his fascination with Mars was stoked by Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels about "Barsoom" (the name by which the red planet was known to Burroughs' fictional inhabitants).


Idlewild takes place sometime in (or near) the 21st century. Ten students, each about 18 years of age, are at the exclusive Idlewild IVR Academy, which educates them using highly realistic "Immersive Virtual Reality." The protagonist, a young man who has given himself the name Halloween, is a brooding, rebellious type. He has a fascination with death, and a bad case of unrequited love. He also has lost large slices of his memory, and has a strong feeling that someone is trying to kill him.


Not everything is what it seems. But what's actually going on unfolds slowly, layer by layer. The IVR technology is powerful; with a flick of a control, a student can be sailing with Charles Darwin, or wandering a virtual Taj Mahal. The students have been together for years, and among them there are quite realistic rivalries, jealousies, friendships, affinities and animosities. Their education puts an emphasis on biomedical training. The school is overseen by Maestro, a stern taskmaster who has little tolerance for students trying to hack the system.


Philosophical questions arise, involving knowledge, identity and living in a simulation. At the same time, there are growing tensions and potential for violence. Each chapter opens with a "transmission," consisting of quasi-technical queries and statements. At first, the nature and content of these transmissions are largely incomprehensible, but as the story proceeds, they become increasingly clear and disturbing. Reality and virtual reality both seem to include plenty for Halloween and his colleagues to worry about.

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