Thursday, November 23, 2006

"George, I Wish You'd Look at the Nursery."

by Kevin Guilfoile

In The Veldt, possibly the best-known story by America's second-greatest short story writer (my official top-five are available on request), Ray Bradbury imagined an automated house with a playroom that could read the minds of the children within and produce a realistic environment--around, above, and below--forged from the kids' imagination. When the story begins, homeowners George and Lydia Hadley are concerned that their kids have been spending too much time in the virtual but frightening African grasslands. (I won't ruin it by telling you what most concerns George and Lydia by the tale's end.)

It's a story about technology, but it's also about the ways that modernity has detached us from nature. That there are consequences to the insulation of our urban/suburban existence.

In recent weeks I've become addicted to a show on the Discovery HD channel. It's called Sunrise Earth and every morning it shows a sunrise. For an hour. In crystal clear high definition.

It's a little more than that, but not much. Each episode is shot in a different, beautiful location. One morning it's the woods of Maine. The next might be the Everglades. The next rural China. Or Yosemite National Park. They shoot with multiple cameras which could capture a moose bathing in a river, or insects converging on an opening flower, or lobstermen preparing their boats. There's no narration, just an occasional clock giving you the local time and a line of text with some trivia about the landscape. I normally turn it on when I come downstairs in the morning and let it run in the background as I get breakfast ready. It's hardly a show you watch with rapt attention; it's more like having a window with the most amazing view you can imagine. My three-year-old loves it, too. He's obsessed with maps of the United States and he likes being able to put these magnificent pictures to the names he's learned--California, Massachusetts, Florida.

So the other day I was bringing a sippy cup of milk from the kitchen to the living room and as I handed it to Max and glimpsed through my television window a seal wriggling up some California beach I thought to myself, "Holy cow. This is The Veldt."

I live in an old suburb with plenty of mature trees and park space and woods. It also has a Starbucks and McDonald's and shoe stores and bars. And the landscape is flatter than the top of a Green Beret's head. I understand that much of the appeal of Sunrise Earth is nostalgia for my upstate New York childhood, a time and place where I really could wake up in the morning and open my bedroom shade and watch the red sun appear over actual mountains and lakes. But who would have thought that one of the stars of high definition television would be some dude who plants his camera in a relatively unspoiled part of the country and films the sunrise for folks who live in the parts that have been bulldozed and paved over?

Ray Bradbury, actually.

Some of the action in my book Cast of Shadows takes place inside an online computer game called Shadow World, in which every detail of our cities and towns--down to each home and store and alley and brick--is duplicated in a virtual environment. When I talk to people who've read the book, at bookstores and libraries and reading groups, Shadow World seems to be the great divider of readers. For many it's their favorite thing in the book. For an equal number it's the thing they most dislike. I can't even count the people who have said to me, "I had no problem accepting the doctor who clones his daughter's killer, but I found Shadow World to be completely implausible. There couldn't possibly be a game like that."

And I have to tell them that there already is. Almost.

I started writing Cast of Shadows in 2001 and at the time I imagined Shadow World as a game like The Sims taken to its extreme. I included it not only for structural reasons, but I also thought the idea of people cloning themselves in a virtual world was a thematic fit with the rest of the book. (I wasn't the first to imagine such a world, BTW--check out Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash for a fun, earlier example). I finished CoS in 2003 and that same year an online game called Second Life opened to the public. Second Life wasn't exactly like Shadow World--it's a fantasy landscape rather than an exact twin of our earth--but much of the social interaction is stunningly similar. With over 1.5 million players, Second Life has its own exploding economy (as I write this over $600,000 US has been spent in the game just in the last 24 hours). Real life businesses have opened branch offices in Second Life, Reuters has a bureau there, there are plans to stage a Second Life version of the reality show Big Brother, and there's an operating exchange rate between US dollars and Second Life's Linden dollars. There's even been some discussion in Congress about taxing the fictional transactions in the game. Imagine having to pay income tax on those little red hotels you put up on Park Place.

I'm excited by the possibilities of an environment like Second Life, although I have to admit I'm a little disappointed it has arrived so quickly. While I was only imagining it, a much smarter someone was actually making it happen, which surely takes some prescience points away from me as a writer. Shadow World is almost, but not quite my Veldt.

Anyway, I'm not sure anyone is reading this over the holiday weekend, but here's something I'm wondering about if anyone's still around. What other Veldts are out there? What are some literary inventions that have recently come to pass, in one form or another, in the real world?


Sara Paretsky said...

This is fascinating, but boy, do I feel like a dinosaur! I've never entered the gaming world, let alone the virtual-reality universe, except indirectly, through William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive --I know it's an important parallel universe, so to speak, but one that I can figure out how to approach.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Heck, Sara, we're having this conversation. You're halfway there.

Anyway, I'll play my own game.

One of the most frightfully prescient writers is the brilliant American spy novelist Charles McCarry. Most of his books went inexplicably out of print, but there's been renewed interest since so many of his terrifying scenarios have come to pass in the last few years.

In the late seventies McCarry wrote The Better Angels about the heir to an Arab oil fortune who attempts to start a terrorist war with America and Israel by blowing up passenger liners over major cities.

Even more incredibly, in 1995 he wrote Shelley's Heart which imagined the 2000 presidential election with the Senate split 50/50, and the outcome hinging on just a few thousand votes in a single state. McCarry's scenario involved an attempted CIA coup and the deciding state isn't Florida, but Illinois. Still, pretty damn close.

For years you had to search vainly for these gems in libraries or used bookstores, but fortunately, Overlook is starting to bring McCarry's oeuvre back in brand new hardcovers.

Michael Dymmoch said...


How about "The Machine Stops" written in 1947 by E. M. Forster?

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Hi Michael,

I'm not sure I've read that. What's it about?

Michael Dymmoch said...

"The Machine Stops" is a cautionary tale about over-reliance on technology (published in COLLECTED TALES by E. M. Forster, Alfred A. Knopf, 1947).

Sara Paretsky said...

Overlook has been reissuing some wonderful books, including one of my favorite detectives, Freddy the Pig!