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Children`s Books
by Allison Sutherland

Virtual reality is nothing new. Ever since the first storyteller of prehistory held the first listener enthralled, the power of imagination has given everydayness the extra dimension that makes it worth paying attention to. Computers are one more tool for enriching existence. Like the written word or the printing press they are changing the societies and the minds that use them. Stewart describes a computer-semi-literate teenager, Spider, as she explores the possibilities of the Internet, re-invents her identity as she surfs the Web, and projects her new persona into the hostile environment of high school.

The threads common to many Y.A. "issue" novels weave their way through the plot. Spider is antagonistic to her mother, actively poisonous to her stepfather, doesn't appreciate the brilliant nerd who wants to be her friend, and has fantasies about the biological father she cannot remember. Each situation is resolved in the usual rather monotonously positive idiom of this genre. Different and delightful, however, is the exploration of what fun it is to be naughty. Imagine having the nerve to call a sexually harassing bully "Toadface", and have his friends laugh at him and with you. Imagine twisting your hair into a side-slung ponytail with chopsticks thrust through, donning a tight T-shirt, and plastering on piles of make-up. Imagine being hostile and disruptive in class when the most you've been able to do previously was be sullen and sulky and neglect your homework. No drugs, mind you, or promiscuous sex, or drowning an unpopular classmate, or anything serious or permanent.

The transformation and experimentation, as far as they go, are also satisfying to the reader. Cinderella's magical preparation for the ball has always had archetypal power. The change here is accomplished by information technology, not by a fairy godmother's wand, and it has more to do with Adlerian compensation for weaknesses than with Freudian eroticism. But it is convincing, even if some of the insults are a little immature for the age that Spider seems to be. Change is so easy for teenagers. They are such fluid entities that they can become quite different people remarkably quickly. More important, Stewart really seems to know what it is like, for example, to stay up later and later, hunched over the screen, headachy and with eyes burning, but mesmerized. She evokes a marvellous cybercafé complete with irritable denizens. Her grasp of Web protocols, good manners, and dangers seems exact. Almost best of all is her brief delineation of Spider's mother's computer successes of a few years previously, successes that enabled her to make a satisfactory career change and an even more satisfactory marriage.

Because Spider's new stepfather is a thinly disguised Bill Gates. When the book looks at what technology might be in the future and in the hands of immense wealth, it becomes as much fantasy SF as it is a realistic novel. It's fun to see the old technology being used reasonably well to communicate some of the fascinations of the new.


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