As an SF concept, virtual reality carries a lot of baggage. Cyberpunks in cyberspace and testosterone-laden video games. Lots of excitement, minimal substance. Most VR stories have suffered from an inherent lack of verisimilitude and a certain immaturity derived from their cyberpunk heritage. There have been some exceptions, of course. The newest such notable exception is Keith Brooke's The Accord (Solaris Books [UK], ₤7.99).
Brooke first came to my attention with his brilliant 2006 novel, Genetopia, which I reviewed in Science Fiction Weekly in 2006. The two books have little in common except for the high quality of the prose and compellingly unpredictable narratives. Where Genetopia was a coming-of-age story based in a degenerated future world, The Accord (expanded from several previously published shorter works) features fully mature characters in a troubled near-future, with most of its story of love and revenge taking place in a computer-generated virtual reality.
Noah Barack is the leader of a world-spanning team of cyberneticists working to create the Accord, a virtual-reality construct of the real world to be inhabited only by uploaded deceased humans. He is the primary architect of the software protocols that will make the Accord a consensus reality based on all of the intelligences inhabiting it. He falls in love with Priscilla Burnham, wife of Elector Jack Burham, the powerful government official overseeing the project. When Jack, in a jealous rage, murders Priscilla, Noah commits suicide, and Jack is assassinated, they all three end up in the Accord, where complicated cycles of love, estrangement, murder and revenge ensue. The continued decline of the real world also creates crises that must be solved to keep the Accord running.
Brooke keeps his narrative compelling and unpredictable throughout, and he creates characters that you care about even after they are all dead in the real world and exist only in virtual reality, and often have been repeatedly resurrected with loss of memories and personality shifts. He makes fine use of difficult but very effective literary techniques—many sections of the novel, for instance, are in first person by Noah with second person references to Priscilla, as if he is telling the story to her.
The Accord is a literary science fiction tour de force that is sure to be one of the best novels of 2009. Novels this good have seldom appeared as mass-market paperbacks since the halcyon days of the Ace Specials.