Idlewild is a science fiction novel by Nick Sagan.
It starts out with our protagonist waking up in a pumpkin patch, unable to remember anything at all, including his own identity. We however soon learn that he is called Halloween, and that the pumpkin patch is not real, but rather part of a sophisticated VR simulation intended to act as a school for him. We also get introduced to his nine classmates, one of which, Lazarus, is decidedly missing - and quite possibly dead, if Halloween's dim recollections are correct. This story is interleaved with short pieces about a dark future world where all of humanity is dying from some incurable disease. And somehow, those ten students hold the key to stopping this plague.
To summarise the rest of the book: Halloween tries to find out who killed Lazarus and caused his own amnesia. He is rather hindered by the fact that he barely remembers how this virtual world works, and who his friends and enemies are. Lazarus was in fact his rival - the most brilliant "teacher's pet", and leader of the "pets", whereas Halloween is a rather rebellious character. His friends then include cynical Mercutio and Tyler, the edgy-sporty one. He's also quite taken with Simone, who happens to be Lazarus' girlfriend.
Simone approaches him to help investigate the disappearance of Lazarus. While doing so, Halloween discovers a program called "Pace", a kind of systems monitor, but is unable to extract any useful information from it at the time.
Suspecting that one of the other students might be the culprit, he throws a party, trying to make the culprit slip up. This does not happen, and so he decides to temporarily upset the computer system - shielding them all from eavesdropping by Maestro, the "Headmaster" program. This is however detected, and Mercutio is forced to crash the system. This pushes the already rather sadistic Maestro AI over the edge, and once the system is re-booted, it proceeds to bury Halloween alive.
Desperate for an escape, Halloween accesses the Pace program once more, and succeeds in transferring himself out of the grave. This is where things start really going out of whack.
Flipping through the list of available simulated areas, he realises that what he thought was the real, outside world, is in fact a simulation as well. Trying to find out what is behind all this, he accesses node number 0 -
And wakes up.
It turns out that he has been spending his whole life in a life-support tank jacked up to this simulation. He and his friends are genetically engineered to survive this plague that has cropped up in the interludes. Everybody else is dead - the human species is extinct save for them.
He wakes up Fantasia, a student located in the same facility as he, and they set out to find out what happened to Lazarus. They find him dead, just outside his tank, all his life support systems fried by an electrical surge. They manage to wake up Simone however. Halloween goes back into VR to find out more, and is told by another program that it was Mercutio who killed Lazarus.
They decide to stop Mercutio by seeking him out at the main control centre in Idlewild. On the way, Simone dies by overdosing on the painkillers she had been taking to deal with her immune responses.
They track down Mercutio and manage to kill him, then awaken the surviving other students. These plot to re-populate the earth by cloning (as is their purpose), but Halloween refuses to join them and spends the rest of his days in solitude.
The book's tone changes a great deal - the beginning is intriguing, and with a certain sense of danger, but still quite lighthearted. There follows a quite enjoyable period of Halloween and the other interacting in their fanciful VR world. By the middle of the book, this world starts breaking apart, and a very depressing reality creeps in. By the end of the book, Halloween has lost his friends and his love, and most of humanity is dead. Not exactly a happy ending. There is hope of a sort in the efforts to repopulate Earth, but there is no hope for Halloween.
Halloween himself evokes genuine sympathy as a person. He is quite human, not some stylised hero or anti-hero, but simply a rather smart eighteen year old trying to figure out things. The other characters are unfortunately not very well-developed, some of them are even rather simplistic, like the shallow-but-popular Champagne.
Still, the virtual reality portrayed is quite intriguing in its possibilities - who wouldn't want a virtual world where you are able to create whatever strikes your fancy, and experience it as if real.
Do I recommend the book? All in all yes - it's well-written and interesting. I do find the ending very depressing, but that may just be a result of me identifying with the protagonist way too much.