The Fourth World is the first book by Dennis Danvers I've read. Though I found much to admire, it was ultimately a letdown. Danvers is an excellent writer. His prose has the accessibility and immediacy of Stephen King's. His eye for characterization and ear for dialogue both ring true, and he creates absorbing scenarios that draw you in and hold you. Unfortunately in The Fourth World, he has also contrived a plot that, in the end, suffers from a political worldview that is far too black-and-white and offers too many story elements that knee your suspension of disbelief right in the groin.
The story is set in the near future, near enough so that people remember the '90's pretty vividly, and yet the story can still introduce honest-to-goodness virtual reality. The internet has done MMORPG's one better, becoming a virtual landscape so indistinguishable from real life that pretty much the entire civilized world (ie: white Americans — Danvers doesn't mention Europe much) choose to stay strapped in their VR couches 24/7. But of course, access to information in this brave new digital landscape is still controlled by Evil Corporations, damn them, damn them all to hell. Santee St. John (notice the "saint") is a reporter for the biggest news outfit on the web who becomes disgusted and disillusioned when his coverage of a massacre of peasants in a remote Mexican village is officially deemed not a ratings-grabber. Joined by a similarly disaffected American woman named Margaret (cue love interest), he spends the next couple of years touring Mexico, getting in touch with the real world and keeping an eye on developing conflicts between the corrupt Mexican government and a gang of rebels called the Zapatistas (who exist in real life). St. John also sets up his own virtual website called Rincón.
Inside Rincón, St. John and Margaret are contacted by a Zapatista rep (disguising himself as Marcos, a real-life Zapatista commander) who wants to give the entire web-addicted world a taste of what reality is like for poor downtrodden Mexicans. Funny, in that, except for the fact they occasionally get shot to pieces by nasty soldiers, Danvers consistently depicts these lowly third world inhabitants as content with their lot and more in touch with Mother Earth. Scenes of bustling streets in Mexican border towns, filled with laughing locals piling on buses, are starkly contrasted with Danvers' depiction of a typical American city — in this case Dallas — a techno ghost town whose monied inhabitants never go outside (why when you have the web?) of their tiny apartments (you don't need a big real house when, in virtuality, everyone can have a mansion).
While Margaret returns to Dallas, St. John heads deep into Mexico to distribute a stolen nanotech medication to the locals, which, when taken, will mean that the next time Whitey jacks into his favorite website, he'll find himself sitting in a ramshackle hovel eating stale tortillas. Supposedly this will pick up where Sally Struthers left off and create global outrage at the plight of the world's poor. Precisely how this works Danvers glosses over, explaining it only enough to propel his story, which is already shaky in the believability department no matter how compellingly he's written it so far. In no time, St. John disappears, and Margaret heads back to Mexico to find him, towing along a bewildered kid named Webster Webfoot (he hates the web, so his name is a little joke) whom she promptly abandons the minute she gets a lead on St. John. It appears that this whole plan of Marcos's could be a front for something else, something more sinister. But what?
I prefer not to give spoilers, but it's the "what" that comes off more absurd than shocking as Danvers surely intended. But Danvers has set the stage for disappointment long ago by giving the book a sociopolitical stance of the sort so simplistic you don't often find it outside of college campus rallies. Corporate America = Bad basically sums it up. And though there is certainly something to be said for the fact that most inhabitants of the west are awfully spoiled and uneducated about the bleak living conditions in lesser developed parts of the world, it's pretty extreme to suggest that the surprising event towards the book's end would be given the thumbs-up by anybody except the most cold-blooded ideologues. Sure, there are plenty of those around, but they aren't most people.
Danvers' depiction of the retreat by all American citizens — except, of course, those far more noble poor immigrants who can't afford to do so — into a totally virtual web existence is a stretch. Yes, there are people today who spend way too much damn time on their computers (blush), but doomsayers have been prognosticating the fall of civilization with every bold technological advance and as far as I can tell, civilization is still hiccuping along. No matter how good VR gets, it's simply part of human nature to enjoy real, tactile, sensual experiences. Real interactions with other people will always take precedence no matter how much fun you're having in the chat room. Say, weren't we supposed to have eliminated food itself by now? Aren't we supposed to get all our daily nourishment from a pill? They were pretty darn sure of it 75 years ago. Hmm. Maybe real people just like real pleasures. Sure, a novel about an individual or a group of people who retreat into a virtual fantasy existence would be believable. The entire population of the world's most powerful nation is a much tougher sell.
Despite my disappointment in this book, I do intend to read more of Danvers' novels. His writing, in its best moments, is fine indeed, and in the service of a better plot is capable of brilliance, I'm sure of it. And, despite this book's patronizing politics (Danvers' depiction of the Mexican common folk, meant to be sympathetic, could actually be seen as profoundly insulting), one detects a real love for humanity searching for expression. That people have a duty to care for one another is the final message of The Fourth World, and it shines through in the end. I look forward to seeing how Danvers conveys it in his other works.