Virtuality

Created 7/15/1997
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Walter John Williams


Walter John Williams is a very good science fiction writer. Below is his word-picture of what it might be like when virtual reality is firmly embedded into the fabric of everyday life. The passage is taken from his novel Aristoi (New York: Tor, 1992). A few pieces of vocabulary: oneirochronon looks to be Greek for "dream-time", and is what we would call "virtual reality." Your skiagenos is your appearance when you are participating in the oneirochronon. The aristoi are the meritocratic rulers of Williams's civilization. Graduation marks an addition to their number as a few more have passed the exams required for the status. (And Persepolis, of course, is the ancient capital of the Persian Empire that was ruled by the Achaemenid dynasty before its conquest by Alexander the Great.)


At Graduation, every five or seven or ten years, the Aristoi celebrated in Persepolis.

For the most part they celebrated themselves.

Persepolis, in the Realized World, was an interesting artifact. It shaded by degrees into "Persepolis," the real place becoming, through its illusory/electronic deeps and towers, an ever-flexible, ever-unfolding megadimensional dream.

Persepolis, the place, had been reconstructed on its original Persian floor plan, and sat on its reconstructed plain at the meeting of the reconstructed Pulvar and Kor, where it took its place as the (largely symbolic) capital of a reconstructed Earth[2]. The city was inhabited only a few days a year, when Pan Wengong, the most senior of the Aristoi, convened the Terran Sessions. Behind the City of a Hundred Columns loomed Kuh-e-Rahmat, the Mount of Mercy, its grey flanks a contrast to the bright gold, vermilion, ivory, and turquoise that accentuated the city. To the hewn tombs of the Achaemenid kings carved into the side of the mountain were added those of many Aristoi, laid to rest in their capital beside the descendants of Kurush the Great, whose tenuous spirits were presumed to be flattered by the comparison. Atop the mountain itself, surrounded by a grove of cypress, was the gold monument to the lost Captain Yuan, a place of homage and worship.

"Persepolis," the dream, was a far more interesting place. Most of the people who came here did not do so in the flesh but through the oneirochronon, and the two palaces superimposed on one another in ways both intricate and obscure. Earth[2]'s archons and senators strolled along the corridors, holding conversations with people others could not see. Corridors that dead-ended in reality possessed doors and branches in the oneirochronic world. Some led to palaces, dominions, grottos, and fantasies that did not exist on Earth[2], or indeed anywhere, but were instead the special habitats of oneirochronic Aristoi, some of whose bodies were long in the grave. In these palaces the inhabitants danced and discussed and feasted and loved--there had long been competition among them to design the most dazzling sensual experiences for one another, delightful unrealities more striking, more "real," than anything experienced in the flesh.

* * * * * * * * * *

For the opening-night reception in Persepolis Gabriel dressed his skiagenos in a forest-green jacket covered with gold brocade, tight breeches of a lighter green with Hungarian-style laces on the thigh-tops, black reflective Hessian boot with gold tassels. The cravat was pinned with a diamond, gemstones ornamented the fingers, the hair was drawn back with diamond-and-enamel clips. Atop his head Gabriel put a soft bonnet with a diamond pin and dashing feather. He worked some long moments getting his scent precisely the way he wanted it, just the proper combination, a hint of spice and cinnamon.

The finery was not purely ornamental. None of it existed in the Realized World--the outfit was purely oneirochronic--but it all served as advertising for Gabriel's programming skills. The stiff touch of the brocade had to be plausibly different from the soft feel of the hat, the tickle of the featehr, the pliant mass of copper hair, the warm press of Gabriel's flesh. The reflective look of the polished boots was different from the hard, depthless glitter of the stones on his fingers, the cheerful liquid highlights in his eyes, the soft weave of the jacket and the complex patterned loops of the glowing gold brocade. The tassels on the boots were reflected in the boots themselves and cast complex shadows as they danced.

It all had to be not simply real, but finer, more real, than reality itself. True reality was often overlooked in its more careful details, and Gabriel did not want to be overlooked. The careful programming put into Gabriel's appearance, the slight exaggeration built into its visual and tactile dimensions, was meant to give it an impact somewhat greater than the real--the Realized--thing....

Gabriel entered the oneirochronon... materialized his skiagenos in the virtual apartment he'd built in the dream Persepolis, and looked about him. The furniture, the hangings, all were as he remembered. Shadow-servants in the shapes of fairy-tale bipedal animals moved toward him, triggered by his appearance. An oneirochronic quintet were frozen in one corner, awaiting only the command to play.

Gabriel inspected the servants' livery and made certain it suited their somewhat inhuman shapes. They hadn't been animals at the last Graduation--their shapes... were a more recent whimsy. He made certain the animals' fur possessed the proper warmth, softness, and resilience... then passed on to the quintet. He triggered their action, gauged and adjusted the tone. the interpretation had been borrowed from his own Residence chamber musicians.... Everything seemed ready. Gabriel froze the action and then left the suite through caren jad doors.

The doors led to an undergrund corridor in the palace of Darius I that existed both in reality and in the oneirochronic Persepolis. The first person Gabriel saw he recognized: Therapon Protarchon Akwasibo, who had served under Gabriel decades before, when Gabriel was a ery new, very young Aristos. As of tomorrow, Akwasibo would be made an Ariste herself.

Her lanky body was clothed in a dress of diamond-shaped mirrors. Invisible spotlights seemed to bounce off the reflective surfaces, casting gold reflections on the walls. Her Ethiopian eyes were rimmed with kohl; her long neck was as supple as that of Nefertiti (and scarcely exaggerated at all, as Gabriel remembered). There was another diamond-shaped mirror set flat in her forehead, and two more dangled from her ears....

She smiled. Gabriel embraced her and kissed her hello. Her dream-breath smelled of oranges, and her dream-lips seemed to vibrate slightly, a not unpleasant effect.... They strolled up the corridor. The wall frescoes were a translucent sea blue, and dolphins, gold and white and deep azure, frolicked thereon. The warm Persian wind brought the fresh scent of cypress. It was autumn here, and somehow that sense had been translated into the oneirochronon. Good programmers, here.

Pan Wengong employed only the best...


Another passage from Williams' Aristoi, this one more a reflection on the benefits of civilization...


Virtuality

Created 7/15/1997
Go to Brad DeLong's
Home Page


Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax
delong@econ.berkeley.edu
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/

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