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My Dystopian Story

December 12, 2012

A long time ago, I started to write a story about a world in which people lived their entire lives in an Internet virtual reality.

I wanted to write a dystopian story because I felt that all the most famous dystopian stories are exaggerated beyond the point of being realistic.  The TV Tropes article on dystopias captures my feelings at the time:

A dystopia is a social commentary literally in the background, as is a utopian setting. The two settings share a problem in sometimes being a little too one-note. The author is thinking “capitalism sucks!”, for instance, and everything wrong with the world turns out be clearly the fault of nasty Corrupt Corporate Executives and their nasty, greedy megacorporations. Conversely, it could be “governments suck!” and the corporations are the last line of defense against the evil, totalitarian bureaucrats.

I do think novels like Brave New World provide important lessons, but the lessons are so spelled out that they start to come off as lectures that are forced down your throat.  After John hanged himself at the end of Brave New World, I half expected him to suddenly wake up, noose still tight around his neck, and tell me, Arrested Development style, “And THAT’S why you don’t precondition people to become docile and incapable of independent thought!”

The kind of dystopian story I wanted to create wasn’t much of a dystopian story at all.  I wanted to create a world in which it isn’t really clear whether it’s a utopia or a dystopia, even by the end of the story.  (I’m sure stories like these exist, but I don’t currently know of any.)  My Internet world would not be like the dystopian world of Forster’s The Machine Stops, which, like Brave New World and every other dystopian story, takes too many cheap shots.  People are not going to stop valuing love, or sex, or original ideas or face-to-face contact or traveling outside of their tiny hexagonal cells.

The world I envisioned was a virtual reality that simulates the stimuli for all five of your senses so completely that it is indistinguishable from real life.  Images appear as if they’re actually right in front of you; food tastes as if you’re actually eating it; sex feels as if you’re actually having it.  It’s like The Matrix, except that machines aren’t the ones subjecting us to it.  We create our own Matrix and voluntarily immerse ourselves in it.  I always thought this would be a more likely situation.

It would be a world that perfectly reproduces all of the experiences we know and value from our beloved physical plane of existence, without having to sacrifice anything.  Yes, it wouldn’t be technically face-to-face contact to meet someone online this way, but it would be difficult to construct an argument that explains what makes it any different in practice.  Love still exists.  Individuality still exists.  Art still exists.  But there wouldn’t be any of the problems associated with living in the physical world, for the simple reason that virtual resources are infinite.  Things like hunger, disease, brutality, etc. would all be not only wiped out, but IMPOSSIBLE within the virtual world–the programming simply would not include these things.  You wouldn’t even have to experience any physical pain (unless, you know, you’re into that, in which case you can ask to have it included in your body’s programming).

In effect, the world I envisioned was more like the world of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, but without the catch–no one has to suffer for the good of society.  For all intents and purposes, it would be a perfect utopia.

But then the question becomes: How do you find meaning in a world in which nobody suffers?  It’s a pertinent question because if this kind of society is not desirable, what good does it do us to try to eradicate the world’s problems?

The idea of games is a big theme in many of my favorite books, like Card’s Ender’s Game, Strauss’ The Game, McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken, etc., and I wanted it to be a big theme of my story as well.  When there is no suffering, everything becomes a game.  There are winners and losers, but ultimately, the outcome of the game has no significant consequences.  It’s just a distraction.

But my main character, Jack (a temporary name that I wanted to change later), wants life to be more than just a game, and as a result he feels detached from a society that places such heavy emphasis on gaming.  He wants to be a real hero in a world where the only heroes are generals in pretend wars.

The main plot was going to be about Jack meeting a girl, because that’s what all of my stories are about, naturally.  It’s a typical manic pixie dream girl romance (also what all of my stories are about) in which the girl’s infectious exuberance allows the brooding male hero to feel excitement again.  Jack falls in love with her, loses his feelings of detachment and starts to find meaning in his life.

And then, she disappears.  One day, she simply isn’t there, and she leaves no trace of her existence.  For the rest of the story, Jack tries to figure out what the hell happened, to no avail.  There’s a part in which he sees another girl who talks using one of the unique mannerisms of the girl he loved.  The two girls look nothing alike,  but through the power of Internet anonymity, it could easily be the same girl that he met before, using a different avatar.  He accosts her, and she insists she has no idea who he is.  He starts looking like a crazy person in front of everyone until the moderator decides to boot him from the server.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to end this story, which is one of the reasons I never continued with it.  That’s the problem with writing a story that isn’t just one-note.  There’s no obvious ending.  I definitely wasn’t going to take the cop-out route and have Jack kill himself, even if he had experienced anything drastic enough to merit that, which he hadn’t.  I think I wanted Jack to just stay in the virtual world, and do his best to cope with the way the world is.  It’s sort of an anticlimax, but that’s how life is.  Life is full of anticlimaxes.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that you can never really know people.  My virtual reality world is a good medium for demonstrating this principle.  First, the anonymity of the Internet makes it extraordinarily easy to put up walls and avoid investment.  Second, nobody experiences any suffering with which others can empathize.  Both of these phenomena thus heighten the impersonal nature of people’s interactions.

But it doesn’t take a different world to show that you can never really know people.  Lots of books explore this principle (John Green’s Looking for Alaska comes to mind.)  And in fact, I had an experience similar to Jack’s just recently.

A girl messaged me on OkCupid.  The first two sentences of her message read, “You are my dream dude.  That being said, I’ve only been on this site for two days so I’m going to assume you are too good to be true.”  I looked at her profile, and she didn’t really seem like my type, but I always like it when a girl is straightforward.  I was busy at the time, but a couple weeks later, we met up in San Francisco.

It was one of the best dates I’ve been on in a while.  We had dinner, then went to a bar and talked about anything and everything until we had no awareness of time.  At one point, she told me I was exactly the way she’d imagined.  There was a photo booth at the bar, so we took some pictures.  I suggested we kiss for the last one, and we did, just in time for the camera.  We went to another bar, talked some more, went into the back where there was a completely deserted dance floor, and danced and made out.  We went back to her place, where we watched a movie and fell asleep.  She drove me to the BART station in the morning.  I rode home, thinking that, against my expectations, she just might be exactly what I need right now.

Three weeks and a few texts from me later, that morning is still the last I’ve heard from her.  Like Jack, I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to work out what happened.

Maybe she just wanted to have fun for one night, and does not feel any explanation is necessary.

Maybe she has drama going on with an ex or something that’s preventing her from contacting me.

Maybe she was arrested.

Maybe I am socially clueless and she actually didn’t enjoy the date at all.

Maybe, through some weird technological error, her phone hasn’t received any of my messages, and she’s been waiting for me to contact her the whole time.

Maybe she got into a serious accident and wound up in the hospital.

Maybe she was actually a pre-op transsexual and is afraid to contact me again until after her operation because she thinks I’ll be really weirded out if I find out she has a penis.

I can go crazy thinking about these things too much.  I mean, literally crazy.  As in, I find myself starting to wonder whether the date actually happened at all.  Perhaps I hallucinated the whole thing.

If she were to contact me again, I’d be completely okay with anything she told me.  I mean, we only went on one date.  If she wanted to go on another date, great.  If she wanted to just be friends, that’s cool, I can handle that.  If she wanted to be very casual acquaintances who rarely contact each other, I can handle that.  And if she just never wanted to see or hear from me again, I can handle that too.

The only thing I can’t handle is not knowing what the hell happened.

And yet, here I am, in an impersonal world that is only destined to become more impersonal, trying desperately to attribute meaning to an experience that I will probably never fully understand.

I wanted to create a dystopian story that wasn’t just one-note, that didn’t have clear answers.  So here’s the question: is the virtual reality world a dystopia, in which the circumstances ruin people’s ability to make deep connections with each other and live meaningful lives?  Or is it a utopia, and is Jack the one who needs to grow up and accept a world that’s as perfect as a world can reasonably be expected to be?

Can I really blame a girl for not returning my texts, when no one should reasonably have any obligation to contact someone after a single date?

I know that a more mature person would be able to just accept something like this and move on.  But I derive the entire meaning of my existence from the connections I make with other people.  Yet, so often when I interact with people, it feels like there’s some kind of disconnect.  People rarely just tell you candidly what’s really going on.  Maybe to avoid confrontation, maybe because they’re afraid of being exposed, maybe just because they don’t know how.  Whatever the reason, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

I just wish the world didn’t have to be so impersonal sometimes.

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