Secret Realms

Posted by : atcampbell | On : September 7, 1999

Secret Realms by Tom Cool

Nine people showed up to discuss Secret Realms, the second science fiction novel by US Naval Commander Tom Cool. Several of us had met the author and been impressed by him at his recent appearances in Texas (at LoneStarCon 2 in San Antonio and at the Turkey City Writers’ Workshop in Austin). Additionally, Tor editor David Hartwell had been praising Secret Realms at last year’s ArmadilloCon, so we felt we needed to discuss this book.

Secret Realms is about a military experiment where a group of people is raised since birth in a virtual reality world designed to teach them to be warriors. The story is largely told from the viewpoint of the experimental subjects, who initially think their VR training camp is the “real world” but gradually come to suspect that something more is out there.

We found that this book offered a fascinating examination of a horrifying yet believable premise. The political motivations to for the experiment rang true, and Cool’s depiction of the technology made it seem feasible. The virtual reality world was well developed, with a cleverly thought out set of stylizations of our own world. It had different social patterns that made sense in context. We liked the hybrid fantasy/SF tone the author used to describe the world and what happened in it. The characters raised in the VR world to be great warriors actually seemed extremely smart.

We all thought the story started off strongly. The actions in the VR worlds were interesting, and we cared about the characters. Somewhere in about the last third of the book, the story seemed to change direction and turn into more of a standard technothriller. While the fast-paced ending was effective and well-written, we felt that it didn’t fit well with the beginning and was less special than the earlier parts of the book.

The military/VR aspects of this novel brought up obvious comparisons to two famous books that won the Hugo and Nebula awards: Ender’s Game and Forever Peace. We thought that much of Secret Realms held up well against these books. Some folks even said that they enjoyed Secret Realms more than Forever Peace, which we read earlier this year. We feel that Tom Cool is a skillful writer with interesting ideas, and we’re looking forward to his future books.

— A. T. Campbell, III