NOVEL CONCEPTS: #6 – The Last Game

Caesars Palace - Vegas

What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

Morpheus, The Matrix

What would you do if you could truly do anything?  Imagine a scenario where your potential was only limited by your imagination.  With the power to manipulate the world and your place within it, what kind of world would you create?

It’s a startling question, but one that will be familiar to writers throughout history.  As storytellers, we constantly create and reshape the worlds that we describe, the only distinction being that we cannot enter those worlds ourselves.  We have to be content to be the Gods of our own stories, crafting fate, character, irony and chance to suit our whims and goals.

Imagination is one of those ethereal concepts that is impossible to accurately explain.  It seems to defy definition and it is simultaneously the engine with which we defy expectations.  Being a fan of both human nature and the nexus of reality and opportunity, I felt like exploring the nature of both.

Let me preface this by saying that it’s gonna look and feel a lot like The Matrix but this concept is a little different.  Bear with me.  It’s also worth noting that the outer details of this story could be told in a lot of ways.  Some stories are driven by character, some by plot.  This is an attempt to drive one purely from the philosophical questions it evokes.  It’s one of my more unusual premises and plots, to be sure.

We begin in Hollywood.  Maggie Jamison, a young Hollywood star, will be our guide for the first act.  Amongst a pile of fan-mail, she receives a rather unusual document.  It’s a newspaper clipping announcing a marriage between her and a man she’s never met before.  The clipping seems to have been copied onto an otherwise unremarkable sheet, the original not being delivered to her.  At first, it seems like an overzealous bit of fan mail: a daft attempt at a marriage proposal delivered to a movie star that gets two crazy proposals per week.  Over time though, the details of the article (a long story about the supposed relationship and background of the star and this man) spark a certain curiosity to learn about the source.

The clipping describes her suitor as a military hero who had returned home from a tour of duty in a dangerous part of the world and had become an athlete, playing football for the Detroit Lions.  A quick search reveals this to be false, but the effort put into it is certainly passionate and genuine.  Our star files it away but otherwise takes no action.

Shortly after this, Maggie gets a phone call from an FBI agent.  The agent asks her if she’s received a strange article recently and she tells him about the clipping and reads it out to him.  The conversation ends shortly thereafter and our star is left wondering if something is amiss.

Two weeks later, a meeting is called to discuss an upcoming project.  At the conclusion of the meeting, Maggie is asked to stay for a moment longer.  She is escorted into a room with Franklin James, who is famous amongst computer experts, but not widely known to Maggie or the world at large.

Mr. James explains that he runs a computer company that has a highly secret governmental contract.  They have created an interface that allows the user to experience an immersive reality.  In effect, the system software creates an experience so real that it is essentially indistinguishable from reality.

The technology was developed for the Army to allow soldiers to train in an environment where the details would appear real while the consequences would be non-existent. (i.e. if you die in the sim, you don’t die in real life).  As the software became more advanced and capable of running more elaborate and detailed simulations, other applications presented themselves.

Over the past five years seventeen special operations soldiers have been incapacitated during enemy action.  Elite soldiers with no immediate or extended families, these men and women served with distinction during secret operations that the public was unaware of.  These soldiers sustained wounds that would have rendered them into a comatose or vegetative state.  Medically, the soldiers were incapable of surviving without life support.  Without a constant medical intervention, they would perish.  Seeking to reward our nation’s heroes and having access to a powerful simulation processor, Mr. James offered a long-term service to the Army.

Using the simulation software, modified with an interface that could access other areas of the brain responsible for emotions, the wounded warriors were placed, without their knowledge, into a simulated environment.  The virtual world that the soldier inhabited would be continuously updated to allow them to achieve a maximum of happiness.  Seventeen different simulations were begun, with no interactions between them, each with a single mind at the core whose desires become reality.

Obviously always getting your way is a recipe for extreme boredom and the software accounts for this paradox by creating challenges and presenting problems that the subject is usually, but not always, capable of overcoming.  The setup is grand, but the details are still as lifelike as possible.  The goal of the system is to provide a pleasant and painless transition from life to death for as long as the soldier’s life functions can be sustained.

One of the soldiers to undergo this process was the mystery man from the newspaper clipping.  His real name is Jackson Turner.  Jackson was a combat veteran who had received a traumatic injury that would have prevented him from having a normal life.  Upon entering the simulation, he became unaware that the world he perceived was in any way artificial.  Instead he quickly was able to achieve many things that he had always consciously or unconsciously desired.  He came home to a hero’s welcome from adoring citizens.  He tried out for and became a starting player for the Detroit Lions.  The simulation software could glean from his synapses the dreams that he had and then present him a world where they were readily achieved.

Maggie is shocked by this news and clearly is confused as to her position within all this.  It is explained that the newspaper clipping is just a printout of a virtual image created within the simulation.  A screenshot from a very advanced game, one in which Jackson had desired to have a meaningful relationship with a real Hollywood star, just as he’d always dreamed of.

At this point, the confusion Maggie feels becomes even more pronounced.  If all this is true, and it appears to be, what are they asking of her.  Mr. James explains that the technology is too dangerous to be let out, but, with her being exposed to it and presented with evidence of it, this meeting was called to evaluate the potential risk of her knowing about it.

I’m afraid the holodeck will be society’s last invention.

– Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert)

A technology like the one I describe (which, again, has been very successfully described elsewhere) is more than a game-changer, it’s a game-ender.  Articles analyzing the potential for such an invention invariably agree that, if properly executed, there would be no reason to ever cease using the machine.  If you are within a world where you can have whatever you want, the act of being removed from it would be horrifying to contemplate.  Akin to being awoken from a very pleasant dream or interrupted on a perfect weekend afternoon, but taken to the nth degree.  To remove a person from a condition of maximum happiness is an act of maximum cruelty.

This is the reason for absolute secrecy.  If the technology existed and was known, it would be nigh-impossible to stop the general public from breaking down the door and demanding to be let in.  Any person who fully realized the potential would likely want to, at the very least, sample the technology, and the experience would be more addictive than any drug in the history of mankind.

At this point I have different branching pathways that I can take the story.  I freely confess that I am not sure what the best course would be for a tale such as this.  The questions that I wish to explore in many cases do not provide readily-available answers and so the central conflict would be between a side which sees this technology as the ultimate evil (the embodiment of sloth and decadence) and a side which sees it as the greatest good (providing a supreme amount of happiness to those who need it).

I feel like a romance provides a certain transcendent background to this.  Taking an obvious cue from Inception, can the reality you inhabit (artificial or not) provide you with the maximum of happiness if it’s not the the same one inhabited by your beloved?  To put another way, imagine a married couple that each wishes to undergo their own simulations.  Placed in separate realities, each might generate a simulation of the other, but if the simulation of their beloved is anything less than 100% accurate (another nigh-impossibility) is the happiness that is created of any real value?  For that matter, are emotions generated from a false reality any more or less valid than those created in the real world?

Fiction provides a great proving ground for the testing of hypotheses and answers to theoretical questions.  When absolute truth is not attainable (there being no truly correct answers to any of the questions I’ve posed here) the garden of one’s mind becomes the best place to look for answers and more questions.  The key is to plant a seed and watch it grow.

NOVEL CONCEPTS: #5 – SHATTERED UNION: An Oral History of the 2nd American Civil War

Shattered Union for Xbox and PS2

A tank from the Republic of Texas in Shattered Union

With great interest and fond wishes, I have watched the slow descent of my beloved home country, from mild psychosis to full on paranoia.  Since 9/11 we have, like the poor folks on Maple Street, looked for the greatest enemy we could find, and it was ourselves.

In truth, it’s really not that bad.  We used to get along a lot better, but. in many ways, the things that divide us are vastly outweighed by the ones that unite us.  It’s easy to forget that in the midst of a political season.  The trouble is, it’s always a political season.

For the past few months, I’ve been stirring over a simple idea.  I think it can be widely agreed upon that half of the country thinks that the other half of the country doesn’t deserve this country.  It’s a sentiment that is echoed widely in social media, if not spoken that directly.  The left and right wings are spreading farther from each other and, as with any material under that type of pull, the middle is becoming strained at the tension created from both sides.

A few months ago I floated the idea of a national divorce.  Not like a secession where the departing states broke away without consent, this would be done more subtly, with assent of most involved.  The idea of two American republics, one for the left-wing and one for the right, standing side by side, without a civil war, had a certain dramatic interest to me.  I think we’ve reached past the stage where an all-out war would be the initial reaction, but I freely admit I could be wrong on that point.

As is so often the case, I have much more by the way of premise than plot, but, since this blog is meant to be a repository for ideas, I’ll do my best to get it all onto the page.

We begin in the year 2024 on election night.  A Republican president is ending his 2nd 4 year term and the Vice President, the current Republican nominee, has lost the election, giving the Democrats back control of the White House (essentially a similar situation to election night 2008).  Rather than blithely accept the loss of power, the Republicans, under the leadership of their outgoing president, begin a complex legal process.

The governor of Texas (a key player in this plan) declares home rule and announces Texas’s secession from the Union.  (Texas has really always been one excuse away from this anyways.)  Now, obviously this would never hold up, but over the course of his terms, the current President will have put several Supreme Court justices into place.  The ruling that they hand down will have the force of law (as do all Supreme Court rulings).  So, even with the blatant unconstitutionality of the act, with a sham court, stuffed with nominees who agreed to this plan should the need arise, Texas is allowed to withdraw, with a few other connected states in the south, west and midwest quickly following suit.  I could see the spread going so far as to cover from Alabama to Texas laterally and perhaps as far north as Nebraska.  Call it 7 states in total.  For the sake of story, I’d want the two nations to have a contiguous landmass and we’ll ignore Hawaii and Alaska for the moment.

The President-elect, technically powerless in this situation, would be forced into a corner and there would likely be a compromise put into place, one in which the seceding states would give up certain military and/or industrial considerations in exchange for the right to leave.  American military forces, (with a few notable exceptions) would withdraw to the remaining 43 states of the Union.

Within a few months the newly formed republic (which, borrowing from a right-wing pundit, I’ll take to calling Reagan) establishes a cohesive government amongst it 7 states.  Texas would likely have a dominant role, with having advantages in size, population and resources.  A capitol is established in Dallas and all the usual trimmings of a new nation begin to take shape (flags, an anthem, a legislative system).

During the transition period, over the course of 2025, there would be massive migrations both into and out of the new nation.  Many citizens would flee from a government that would be less concerned with equality and more concerned with an unrestricted free market and the promotion of the Christian religion.  A mirror of that would be those in blue states who would actively desire to live in a place that promotes Christianity as well as a flood of economic right-wingers who would want to try their luck in an unfettered market.

The first year or so would be one of upheaval.  Markets and international concerns would greatly affect both nations.  There would be dramatic shifts in so many indicators of the status-quo.  Unemployment, gas prices, international relations, all would be thrown into a spin at this dynamic shift.

I can foresee the original American republic (the Union for purposes of clarity) adopting many more liberal stances than are currently in place, with the lack of a strong right-wing opposition.  Off-hand, I’d say one could expect guns to be highly restricted or outlawed; a tax system that creates much more balance between the extremely wealthy and the working poor; a promotion of science and art programs that would not have passed in the previous political climate.  You could expect to see an increase in social programs and a strain on finances, which, accompanied by the national debt, would cause a severe strain on the economy.  Large corporations would use the upheaval as an excuse to realign assets and there would be a struggle to bring the system back into balance.

Simultaneously, the republic of Reagan would suspend economic controls and have many successful super-businesses within its borders, many of which would hold a great deal of political sway.  All non-Christian faiths would be put under fire and those who did not profess would find themselves surrounded by hostile neighbors.  In many cases, this would not be a new experience for them.  Like any theocracy, the infighting would be fierce and frequent, but the worst violence would be practiced on any non-Christians who wouldn’t or couldn’t leave.  Minorities would have it pretty rough as well, but in general, those most hampered would be the working poor.  A pure capitalist system, being Darwinian in nature (the irony!) inevitably leads to a domination of the poor by the wealthy.  It would not be a terrible stretch to imagine a quasi-feudal system in place, where anyone in the lower classes was slavishly tied to a corporation, out of fear of a personal economic disaster.

Obviously you can’t write a decent novel on tax evasions or the toll exacted by world financial markets (at least I can’t, but if you want to give it a shot, then have at it).  In truth, I’d be just as satisfied if some video-game developer would do a decent remake of the Shattered Union game from Xbox and Playstation 2, but, as is so often the case, if I want to enjoy the expression of an idea as it stands in my head, I’ll have to create it myself.  Additionally, this ground has been covered often and I fear the field is fallow.  Stories about a distopian America are so common you can throw a rock and hit one.  Stories about a split of America into warring factions have made for excellent televsion, video games and novels.  If this is an idea that I choose to pursue, I’ll need a hook.

Inspired by World War Z, I’d take a more personal tone with the narrative, going with short vignettes from voices of people on the ground or in important positions.  Talking to gun-runners about moving across the border would be a good chapter, a legal analyst for a constitutional discussion on the break, an account from a Muslim inside Texas of the struggle to get their family to old America and the abuses that befall them when they fail to do so; testimony from one of the ‘Angels’ that keeps morality in line in Reagan;

Eventually this would culminate in a full-scale conflict, though, for the sake of variety, I’d likely have it be the story of two conflicts.  The first would be infighting amongst the various interests within Reagan and an internal shooting war amongst the citizens of the new nation.  The culmination of that local war would be the retaking of the wayward states by Union forces, sweeping through to clear the remnants and restore the territories to their original position as states within the Union.  I think it’d be interesting to cover a final showdown from both sides and to have an explosive shocker of an ending, perhaps the leveling of Dallas with a MOAB or something of equal or greater force.

In closing, let me make a point to say that this is not a daydream or a liberal fantasy that I’d care to explore in real life.  The dissolution of the Union fills me with more horror than any other political situation I can think to imagine.  In truth, we need a lessening of tension to avoid a snap such as the one this story hypothesizes.  While I think it would be interesting to see the results of an experiment such as this, the wreckage would be to terrible to sift through.  Sadly, the only solution to the American psychosis is the therapy of finding common ground and waiting for the voices of irrationality to succumb to the forces of silence and time.

Photo is from the Shattered Union video game.