Virtually gripping

6th December 1996 at 00:00
CYBERMAMA By Alexandre Jardin Dorling Kindersley Pounds 9.99

VIRTUAL WORLD By Chris Westwood Viking Pounds 10.99

LOVE IN CYBERIA By Chlo Rayban Bodley Head Pounds 9.99

INTERNET DETECTIVES 1-5 By Michael Coleman Macmillan Pounds 2.99

FATAL ERROR By Helen Dunmore Corgi Pounds 3.50

Accepting that characters can enter and interact with the inventions of cyberspace - take the virtual out of virtual reality - ought to be no different from believing that schoolchildren can walk through a wardrobe into Narnia, but somehow it is.

Cybermama, one of Dorling Kindersley's first ventures into fiction books,requires such a suspension of disbelief. It features three children who step inside their VDU to track down the lost datafiles which purport to contain the whole working virtual version of their dead mother.

The super-glossy volume - rather like a souvenir programme - is a visual binge with classy cinematographic stills and multi-formatted text. The panel of 11-year-olds I passed it to were agape with "wows" and "cor-really-digitals". But they were finally as underwhelmed by the plot as I was. "Don't get it," was the response. After all, "the mother was still dead."

Chris Westwood's Virtual World ex-plores (on a serious level which sets it aside from the other books here) the degree to which those who become absorbed in computer games can indeed have their own reality warped. This is a thought-provoking novel, written by someone who knows his subject, and is not simply using VR as a device. It is an accomplished exercise in the Huxley school of fiction, warning of the repugnant possibilities inherent in the brave new Wide-Web-World.

Of the other books, the fizziest, and most entertaining, is Chlo Rayban's Love in Cyberia. The heroine, Justine, appeared in Rayban's previous novel,Virtual Sexual Reality, which had its moments but was constrained by the demands of its underlying conceit. The situations engineered when Justine was changed into a boy by a faulty virtual reality machine were full of potential, but every time the virtual (male) Justine met the real (female) Justine the narrative became a tangle of parenthetically corrected pronouns and the pace suffered.

In her new book, Rayban delays the effect of VR shift (a time warp back to 1967) until the plot is moving at breakneck pace, and the humour of the characterisation has taken hold. The comic potential of Justine taking a job as her grandparents' au pair is fully developed and the book capitalises on its specific references to the London scene.

Packaging, the sub-contracting of the publishing world, is a growing phenomenon, feeding on the appetite of young readers for series fiction. The Internet Detectives series bears all the hallmarks of packaged goods. But a tight brief and a consistent format can often produce slick storytelling.

The early titles probably try too hard to teach basics about how e-mail works and the Net, although the lessons are fairly seamlessly linked to the plot. 4: Cyber Feud, in which one of the protagonists sets out to prove his father innocent of a schoolboy crime, has a richer storyline and is less of an IT training manual.

Helen Dunmore is unquestionably the superior stylist, and Fatal Error is very good, but the frequency with which the theme of parental death is being used by children's novelists undermines its impact. I have heard more than one 11-year-old complain, "Not another dead parent!" This book would have been better with more concentration on the central adventure and less on the morbid subtext. (One of the characters is having chemotherapy.) Essentially, Fatal Error is a good old-fashioned tale about skulduggery with a dog called Zorro coming to the rescue. It is also the only one of these books which is remotely believable.

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