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Spirits in the Wires, Charles de Lint, Tor, 2002, 446 pp.
Spirits in the Wires is a novel of Newford, de Lintís fictional city that hums with magic, potential, and no small amount of peril. This time around, the peril comes from a new source: the World Wide Web. By the nature of de Lintís urban fantasy, eclectic, up to date, and character-driven, this seems like a natural progression; we follow the people of Newford as they live their ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances, and technology has always been a part, if only small, of that day to day nature of the Newford storytelling style. Two of de Lintís earlier short stories had already posited that the magical beings all around us would find a natural home on the Internet itself as an alternate to the borderlands and magical realms. De Lintís most recent Newford short story collection, Tapping the Dream Tree, contains the story that is referenced most often in this new novel: ďPixel PixiesĒ tells the story of Holly the bookstore owner, who encounters a noxious group of pixies as they spill out from her computer. Only quick thinking and action by a hob, a creature that Holly didnít even know lived in and cared for her bookstore, saved the day and sent the pixies back onto the Internet.
Holly is a character in Spirits in the Wires, but this book is definitively an ensemble piece. The characters all get involved due to a crisis in the Wordwood, a crisis that starts with a small act of vengeance and snowballs out of control. The Wordwood is a website that started as a central repository for stories and myths, run by a couple of people collaborating on a fun idea. Soon, however, the website took on a life of its own, literally, as a spirit of some kind began inhabiting it. Texts appear, and no one added them; emails to the website get responses that donít seem human. The characters of de Lintís Newford love the site of course and when something happens to it, they mobilize in force to figure out what happened and do their best to fix it.
The novel proper begins with two characters: Saskia and Christiana. They meet in a café and begin talking. Saskia is an avatar of sorts, a segment of the Internetís spirit incarnated in a womanís body. Saskia tells how she learned to adjust to corporeal existence, some of her failed attempts to form human attachments (one of which is later crucial to the plot), and how she met and started dating Christy Riddell, a Newford regular. Christiana is also an avatar of sorts, and also has a connection to Christy. When Christy was seven, his psychological shadow separated from himself, so that a separate being was created with opposite traits to everything in his own personality. Over the years, Christiana has grown away from being a strict reverse side of Christy yet she still feels like she is somehow not quite her own person. The two women have a great deal in common and become close.
The plot of Spirits in the Wires begins after we have been introduced to a few more characters. Saskia had a date with a man named Aaran Goldstein, a date that went wrong, spectacularly. Now Aaran, an already unpleasant man, decides to get revenge on Saskia and her coterie of artsy friends by blackmailing a computer geek into crashing the Wordwood site. The computer expert named Jackson Hart uploads a virus to Wordwood later that night, only to trigger a catastrophic chain of events. He gets engulfed by a flood of black goop and disappears into cyberspace, along with hundreds of other people around the world who happened to be visiting the Wordwood site at precisely the wrong time. Those people like Christy and Holly who have previous experience with this type of magical infringement on our reality figure out the problem fairly quickly. But this is bigger news than just Newford, and in a nice series of explanations, we find out that, while the news is on CNN, the spirits who live in the wires gradually remove all traces of the real explanation. Since almost all modern information moves through electronic format in one way or another, the spirits have a reliable way of keeping their existence and abilities concealed. This deception is compounded by another human trait mentioned often in the Newford stories: humans tend to ignore what doesnít fit in our worldview, so itís easy for spirits to cloak their presence in reality.
However, to be ignored is problematic for those spirits who need human belief to continue existing. The World Wide Web is the new trend in human society and this makes it a welcome habitation for those creatures who are afraid of ceasing to exist. And Wordwood itself is a favourable target, due to its loyal fanbase, and when the siteís defences are down to Jacksonís virus, other beings try to take over. We get this background slowly over the course of the book, but it fits together beautifully. As I mentioned, the types of magic and the sources of myth in Newford are incredibly eclectic so Iím always curious to see how de Lint will tie the structure of a story together. Spirits in the Wires is a good example of his ability to do this.
As an ensemble piece, this novel takes us into the point of view of quite a few different characters. Saskia and Christiana are the main two; not necessarily by number of pages devoted to them, but by theme for certain. Both get caught up in the Wordwood site and have to figure out what to do. Others who are on the outside trying to get in include Christy, Holly, a helpful tinker named Borrible Jones (Bojo for short) who has an instant crush on Holly, Aaran himself who undergoes an interesting transformation over the course of the book, a bluesman named Robert Lonnie, a few of the other founders of Wordwood, and a woman named Suzi who comes into the story late and becomes very important to the course of events. Aaran meets Suzi on the street; she is fleeing a bad marriage and the two become friends, even though at first Aaran has exploitive thoughts in mind. Suzi has a strange effect on Aaran and soon he is going so far as to admit responsibility for the original virus and do what he can to make amends. Aaranís psychic makeover is a bit of a stretch, even when we later find out more about Suziís true nature. But as I see the book, and perhaps Newford in general, the deeper story is about the powerful effects of community; a circle of true friends can overcome any obstacle, otherworldly or mundane, and help you become a better person. A bit earnest, but convincingly portrayed in an involving story. All in all, Spirits in the Wires is definitely another worthy Newford novel.
Last modified: September 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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