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This story is one possible form of the science fiction trope of virtual reality as an addiction, a no-drugs drug with the potential to spread so widely through the populace that society or even the survival of humanity will be threatened. The idea is that once virtual reality gets really realistic, it will offer people more than ‘real life’ does. People will withdraw from interacting with actual people and become shut-ins, ordering all of the groceries and other things they need delivered to their homes (perhaps by Amazon drones — no human interaction there). Toss in enough AI to hold a good conversation, and the VR addict won’t even need to interact with others through social media and discussions forums, as poor as that interaction can be for some. They can simply talk to simulated people.
As more and more people withdraw to their customized virtual worlds, the trope goes, society goes screaming down the path to hell in a printed-circuit handbasket. Nobody wants to leave the house. Nobody wants to fix the roads or the cars, nobody wants to participate in the work of governing, nobody wants to party, nobody has sex to make new children. The whole human race dwindles, becomes the last withered human locked in a basement ‘eating’ via IV, and finally even he dies leaving a mess of broken-down infrastructure and skeletons with funny goggles strapped to their faces for future alien archaeologists to figure out.
And sure, a fantasy life can be addicting. That’s what virtual reality is, just a high-tech way to enjoy a fantasy life. People do get into trouble with them — there’s a bit of that in my own past; I avoided a lot of real-life responsibilities, at one time when I was younger, by immersing myself in role-playing games. I was pretty useless to other people, but on the other hand my imagination got one hell of a workout. And of course we have plenty of other tales to choose from about the misuse, overindulgence, and addiction of/to fantasy. Perhaps you’ve seen stories in the news about the parents who neglected their child to uphold their raiding responsibilities in World of Warcraft, the young man who played his favorite game for a couple of days straight and keeled over dead, the people who have spent fortunes amassing Star Trek memorabilia or virtual property in Second Life to the detriment of their own finances. They exist, and like nearly anything else, fantasy can be overindulged with.
Virtual reality will be no different. Some people WILL fuck themselves up with it.
But the dissolution of society and extinction of humanity will have to wait a bit longer, perhaps for a really big nuclear war or engineered plague. Because like the other things we can overindulge in, virtual reality will be consumed in moderation by most, avoided altogether by many, and abused by only a minority.
Could the future be so cruel?
I love food, and it shows in my fiction. There aren’t many stories I write that go by without the characters having a meal. I’m working on a story now, and my characters just finished a Kazakh-inspired meal of mutton and rice with dried fruit and garlic. In Kitty Itty And The Seawall Broke, mother and son enjoy a lunch of bread with ham-seasoned foraged beans on a North Carolina coast impovershed by the effects of sea level rise. Sudden homelessness does not deter the hero of Isolation from munching down on some hot crispy cuy in an underground kitchen. Even in super-short Labor Of Love, the alcohol-addicted protagonist takes time out from his quest for drink to scarf down a couple of “Kraut and Cheezies” from a fast-food joint.
It’s not that I always write when I’m hungry — though I can just about always find room for a snack. It’s that food is often forgotten in fiction. Food, after all, is not the main part of the story. It’s not the point. It shouldn’t be center stage, except in the rarest of circumstances, as in Pig where the central situation is that the main character’s food begins talking to her, begging her piteously not to consume it — much to her dismay.
But most of the time, the food is an aside, and it’s a challenge to integrate it into a story and not have it stick out like it doesn’t belong. But, for me, writing is about life, just as eating is about life. In the real world, people socialize around food. They think about food. They worry about whether they have enough money to buy groceries that will last until next paycheck, they worry if the meat department will have the right sized rib roast for Easter dinner, they’re afraid they’ve burnt the toast, they invite colleagues to talk business over tapas, they stop for food on the way to the hospital to visit a sick relative, they ask the kids how the school week went over Saturday morning eggs and bacon.
They’ll do all of these things in the future, too. Oh, some details may change. Maybe the kids will go to school via internet instead of taking the bus. Maybe the meat will be grown in a nutrient solution rather than on the hoof. Maybe the pasta will be made in a printer instead of rolled out in a factory. Interstellar colonists may eat alien fruit, or aliens might come to nosh on us, as so many stories have suggested.
But unless something very radical indeed happens, like the whole world up and loading itself into a virtual reality, we’ll always have the social nexus and sensory joy of eating food. And maybe, if we’re all virtual beings, we’ll still choose to do it anyway, even if it’s unnecessary.
Because food is comforting. Eating is primal and elemental to us. Mealtimes, for time immemorial, have cemented families and friendships. So given how vital it has been and is to human society, I like to carry that vitality into the future as I imagine it.
Jillian Gomez-Chen clicked her goggles tight. The earpieces made the smothered crackle of compressing acoustic foam in her ears and the buzz of the riding mower in the back yard beyond her bedroom window faded, faded, disappeared.
Gameworld flicked to life in her eyes and ears. Lovely sensories, brighter and livelier than life; no mowers, no fading fall leaves or scuffed wooden floors. Supergreen grass, deep sun you could gaze into painlessly; the river she materialized beside tinkling on the edge of music. All beautiful, but for one multiplicitous thing.
She brought up SETTINGS, clicked DIALOGUE and moved the slider to PG – CENSORED.
Jillian hated to censor anything, but…
“You look like a stupid n_____ b____ in that avatar,” another player shouted from a hilltop on the other side of the river. The PG filter did its job; Jillian sighed. Of course, she understood what went in the audio blanks.
Jillian’s avatar was tall as she was not, a Night Elf, indigo like a moonless night sky. She brushed a hand through her white virtual hair, raking back the tapering tips of her elf-ears the way she liked, fierce.
Bringing her hand throwing forward, she turned to face the faraway player troll. Blinked MENU to MAGIC and ARMOR EATING LAVA BURST.
“Shut up, noob,” she muttered, and incinerated him.
Too many people brought their own archaic, human virtual reality along, their bigot eyes older than computers or even electricity, filtering their reality into dark and angry and hateful visions, along into Gameworld with them.
She took flight, cloak streaming behind her, a comet tail of deep and simmering reds. Beyond rivers and woods and foothills she found familiar mountains, the dungeon crawl she’d had her eye on all week.
On the way she passed over a party trekking on foot. She landed at the dungeon entrance ahead of them.
“You can’t do that one alone, dumb c___,” one of them called from the valley below.
“You that hot in real life?” Another shouted. “Send me a nude. You can suck my d___, baby.”
Jillian sighed again and entered the dungeon. The great iron door slammed shut, cutting off the party of trolls. The monsters inside would try to kill her, of course, but virtual monsters were monsters and that’s what they were supposed to do. They wouldn’t call out obscenities for the censor to block. They were all game, no hate. Not like the real monsters.
Jillian smiled, shut in alone with the virtual, reality locked out behind her.