Author Rhett Evans: What Would a Virtual Reality Future Really Look Like?

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What would a virtual reality future look like? Our guest, author Rhett Evans, gives us his take below! Don’t forget to check out his new book, The Echo Chamber, where a Silicon Valley heist sets off a dystopian chain reaction!

Good science fiction has to take readers to dazzling places, but there’s a trick. The setting also has to feel authentic. It’s not enough to describe your lightspeed engine with extraordinary details taken straight from a science journal. Readers innately want to connect with the humanity of your characters through a sense of familiar themes and struggles.

That’s something that Ready Player One got right. Readers of Ernest Cline’s book were dropped into a future where the economy is in shambles and humanity seeks escapism in the virtual world of the Oasis. That future wasn’t particularly well built out or explained in rich detail, but it certainly felt plausible enough

I’ve worked in Silicon Valley for several years at a big tech company, and I always wanted to push this idea of virtual escapism a bit further. The Oasis in Cline’s novel is certainly a wonderland. It’s full of beautiful landscapes and varied creatures and games. But today--right now---humanity has technology to escape into and disappear for hours. Social media. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapcat. Wouldn’t the future virtual world presumably look more like them?

Every minute you spend on a platform like Facebook is tracked, aggregated and evaluated by machine learning. Elaborate software is designed to examine your click and use it to look for opportunities to enhance your experience. You liked a video featuring cute cats today? Great. Now we’ll serve you three more of them tomorrow.

The aim of these platforms is addiction. These companies’ entire business models are built around getting you to visit more often and for longer periods of time. 

So with my book, The Echo Chamber, I wanted to craft a dystopian world that felt more familiar. The virtual world that everyone escapes to in this book isn’t necessarily full of 80s spacecraft and sweeping fantasy worlds. Instead, it’s a places where users can choose to live surrounded by all the news and immersive videos that reinforce their existing worldviews. They can lose themselves in whatever interests that suit them: video game streams, political punditry, even just three-dimensional cat videos, all reinforced by an AI designed to keep them content and clicking.

Because that’s the kind of tech and social media Silicon Valley is best at building. They build tools that supposedly connect their users but actually end up de-socializing them. They sit in separate rooms and stare at feeds on their phones that are tuned perfectly to their personal preferences, hopes and biases. 

These apps don’t challenge us. They don’t make us think bigger—at least, not much bigger. If these platforms did, they would lose those clicks they covet and we’d all go outside more. 

Facebook and other social media platforms have given us the ability to un-diversify ourselves. They create digital realities where it’s easier to connect with people from across the country who share our worldview than the people sitting next to us. And in my novel, I wanted to explore a future where social media is virtual—where Silicon Valley could create a perfect echo chamber that tickled all our senses.

It would be addicting. It would be wondrous. It would be destructive. 

The best science fiction authors always root their dystopias in familiar contexts. The backdrops often feel they were ripped from today’s headlines. Sure, an author can wipe out half of humanity with some horrible virus to set up the world building in their story. But where’s the fun in that?

I tried to do the same with the virtual news and social media worlds of The Echo Chamber. Along the way, I also got to research the structure of the brain for this book and the location of the world’s most powerful satellites. I even relied on my coding chops to build a 16-bit retro video game that ties into the book at https://theechochambergame.com. It’s all been a lot of fun to write and code, and if you’re looking for a new sci-fi this summer with a bit of real-world inspiration behind it, check it out.

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Rhett Evans is a proud millennial and former U.S. Army infantry officer. He now works in the tech industry but divides his time shoveling dirt and taking care of animals at a half acre homestead in northern California where he lives with his wife and three kids. You can check out this new book, The Echo Chamber, on Amazon or follow him on Twitter.

I Am a Bit of a Shakespeare Nerd: Guest Post by Elizabeth Vaughan

Elizabeth Vaughan is the amazing and talented author of The Chronicles of the Warlands fantasy romance series. The prequel to the series, FATE’S STAR, has just come out, and you don’t have to have read the other books to enjoy it. So get thee to a book vendor and grab a copy!

Here, Beth talks about how she is a total nerd…for Shakespeare.

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I am a bit of a Shakespeare nerd.

Okay, more than just ‘a bit’.  My idea of a lovely afternoon is curling up with cats and iced tea and watching Shakespeare movies with the original play on my lap so I can compare them to what I see on the screen.

I do love the language and the characters and the plots.  But what I have come to really enjoy is the interpretation that I see from various versions of the plays.  Kenneth Branagh’s soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’ is very different from David Tennant’s.  The same words, but such a different approach. 

I love the historical plays.  I recently purchased the Hollow Crown series, which encompasses Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V.  It then goes on to do a WONDERFUL Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3 and Richard the III.  I was glued to the screen, watching, following along paying attention to the scenes that were skipped or combined, or taken out of order.  Benedict Cumberbatch was amazing as Richard the III.

But here is what is even better.  Shakespeare used history for those plays, but he warped time and individuals.  For dramatic purposes, he moved events, and people around.  The lives of kings and queens are fixed in history, but Old Will Shakespeare does as he pleases with the time-line.  Oh, yes, here is a lovely scene with a Queen mourning the capture of her son, but she died three years before that happened.  Also, in the early plays, he might refer to the Duke of Suffolk and use that character again.  But historically, it was the original Duke’s son, not the father, that was present at the events.

I love this stuff.

One of my favorite interpretations is in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.  I have seen this play many times, and enjoyed it, but never really liked the Dogberry scenes. Then Joss comes along and films the thing in his house and backyard.  And Nathan Fillion play the scene like a cop show.

I laughed so hard, and had a new appreciation for the dialogue and the character!

Which is why I am always willing to watch yet another version of the plays.  Shakespeare’s play have the ring of truth about the human condition and it will continue to be modified, and adapted and preformed in so many ways and variations.  I look forward to watching!

About FATE'S STAR:

Five years before the events in Warprize and Destiny’s Star . . . .

Her family dead, her home destroyed, all she has left are her wits and her songs . . . .
When the flames of civil war rage across the Kingdom of Palins, Warna of Farentell has no choice but to flee to the neighboring Barony of Tassinic. The daughter of a wealthy merchant, raised to run a noble house in the hope of a good marriage, she watches her future burn with the rest of her homeland. 

Elven Lord of a human Barony, betrayed and attacked by those he thought to trust . . . .
Verice of Tassinic has suffered the wounds of war, knowing loss and betrayal at the hands of those he trusted most. He buries himself in work and duty, behind emotional walls as high as those of his castle, rather than risk more pain. While dealing with a kingdom in political and economic turmoil, he 'rescues' Warna only to discover that the helpless human woman is anything but. Before he knows it, she is deep within the defenses of his heart, forcing him to confront his grief, his distrust, and the scars of his past . . . and maybe even steal his heart in the process.

About Elizabeth Vaughan:

Elizabeth Vaughan is the USA TODAY Bestselling Author of Warprize, the first volume of The Chronicles of the Warlands. Her father introduced her to sci/fi and fantasy, and she’s never looked back. She loves fantasy and romance novels, and has played Dungeons and Dragons since 1981, both table-top and the online game. The Chronicles of the Warlands stretches over nice books. Her most recent is FATE'S STAR, the prequel to the series. Beth also has a number of short stories published in various anthologies.

Beth is owned by incredibly spoiled cats and lives in the Northwest Territory, on the outskirts of the Black Swamp, along Mad Anthony's Trail, on the banks of the Maumee River. 

A Little Mythology Goes a Long Way, by Dan Rabarts

Please welcome author Dan Rabarts to the blog today! He is going to tell us a little about using mythology in our fiction, and why mythology continues to resonate with us even in this age of science. Be sure to check out the new book Teeth of the Wolf, which he co-authored with Lee Murray! It the second book in the Path of Ra series, which started with Hounds of the Underworld.

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Down here in New Zealand, we live on an unlikely strip of land between an ocean and a sea, on a planet which exists in a tiny fraction of a void between eternal heat and eternal cold, where life has taken hold and refuses to let go. It is little wonder that our ancestors looked up at the stars, the sun, the moon, and wove the mystery of those lights in the sky into folklore. They put names and stories to the celestial faces, just as they named the rage of the ocean, the howl of the wind, and the black embrace of the beyond. 

Ra, the sun. Marama, the moon. 

Tangaroa, god of the sea. Tāwhirimātea, god of the winds. 

Hine-nui-te-pō, goddess of night and death.  

Mythology predates science by thousands of years. It has been with us since we first heard the rumble of thunder and imagined gods roaring at each other among the clouds. Fear of the unknown has been part of our collective subconscious for longer than civilisation has stood, and will be with us long after it has fallen.

 So even when science, that inevitable and inexorable juggernaut, continues to reveal the workings of the universe one quark at a time, we cling to our myths like we cling to life in this fragile strip of the solar system. Our mythologies were our explanations for all the forces at work around us which we did not understand. Now, as we learn how vast the universe truly is and how alone we are in it, those mythologies remain our security blankets, the persisting hope that something greater watches over us. That the fact of our existence is not so unlikely, and that we are not so very, very alone in the dark. 

This idea, the persistence of mythology and how humanity has an innate power to give a sort of life to that in which we are willing to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, is a key element in The Path of Ra, a supernatural crime-noir thriller series co-authored by myself and Lee Murray. In Hounds of the Underworld, scientific consult Penny Yee refuses to buy into her brother Matiu’s insistence that there is a dark force at work behind the murders she is investigating. As long as she can explain the bodies piling up as the doings of a criminal mind, she can accept any atrocity with scientific clarity. But in Teeth of the Wolf, the second book in the series, when the evidence starts to mount that not everything can be rationalised away, and that the shadows Matiu is always jumping at may indeed be something that all Penny’s science and logic cannot explain, Penny tastes doubt for the first time.

In the writing of The Path of Ra series, I’m very lucky to work with Lee Murray, who brings a sense of rationale and reason to the story through Penny Yee. Lee works hard to drive the science in our science fiction/dark fantasy/crime-noir mash-up, while Matiu insists that the things scratching at the inside of the walls are not rats, nothing that can be so easily explained away. This conflict between the logical and the weight of the mythological lends the books a constant tension, between the need to make sense of the madness the world is falling into, and the need to hold back the faceless, inexplicable dark. It’s a powerful dynamic, and a testament to the success of the co-author relationship that this tension sustains both the story and the characters. Matiu brings the monsters; Penny explains why they simply can’t actually be there.

Science will keep on solving the riddles of our existence. It will continue to drive the changes we are making to this world, for better or worse. Science has given us, in equal measures,  space travel and space junk. Global travel and global pollution. A knowledge economy and the age of internet trolling. Nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry. Climate change and the means to combat it, if we have the will. 

Science will, in time, become our new mythology, the making and the breaking of civilisation. 

But as long as we hear voices in the dark when there is no-one there to speak, we will cling to our deeply-ingrained beliefs in the unknown, the unknowable. As long as we can cast a light into the shadows and the shadows swallow that light, we will continue to fear and revere our gods and monsters.

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Dan Rabarts is a New Zealand author, editor and podcast narrator, winner of four Sir Julius Vogel Awards and two Australian Shadows Awards, occasional sailor of sailing things, part-time metalhead and father of two wee miracles in a house on a hill under the southern sun. His science fiction, dark fantasy and horror short stories have been published in venues such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. Together with Lee Murray, he co-edited the award-winning anthologies Baby Teeth - Bite-sized Tales of Terror and At The Edge, and co-writes the Path of Ra series. His first solo novel, Brothers of the Knife, kicks off the grimdark-yet-madcap Children of Bane fantasy series (Omnium Gatherum). Find out more at dan.rabarts.com.

Do We Belong Dead? A Guest Article by Dan Stout

On page and on screen, we love to see monsters wreak havoc. They rampage and destroy, tear and rend. Their simple existence threatens our lives, our worlds, even our sense of self. But for makers of monsters, it can be a trick to strike the right note with our creations. To get there, it may help to ask: do these terrifying figures see themselves as monsters?

Imagine a spectrum with Dracula, Hannibal Lector, and the cenobites from Hellraiser on one side, embracing their nature and delighting in preying on the weak. On the other is the Wolfman and the Hulk, humans fighting to keep their darker side constrained. And in the middle is the place where monsters deny their monstrous nature: the realm of the misunderstood and misunderstanding. 

This middle is where we find Frankenstein’s monster, Edward Scissorhands, Bad Ronald, and Michael Douglas’s character from FALLING DOWN (1993). (Think of his scene on the pier, looking befuddled and asking Robert Duvall’s policeman, “I’m the bad guy?”)

Sometimes, the monster is only monstrous when perceived through human eyes. The Amphibian Man in THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), for example, is gallant and charming, and it's clear that the real villains are his human captors. Guillermo del Toro’s work often embraces the monstrous, as does the work of Tim Burton. Edward Scissorhands and the Amphibian have a great deal in common in the way they address the status and soul of the outsider. This is true of both the physically different characters and the “normal” people who embrace them. 

But while Edward Scissorhands is self-aware, other monsters are self-deluded. BAD RONALD (1974) is an example of a monstrous character who believes himself to be the victim, unable to accept responsibility for his own actions. Ronald conflates an imaginary narrative to justify his series of progressively violent assaults (in the book, Ronald is far less sympathetic, and his actions significantly more malevolent than in the televised film.) 

Some works, such as 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007), feature both soulless monsters and relatable, human characters who harness the strength of the monstrous but turn their back upon the destructive nature that power brings, showing us that all hope is not lost. In other works, the monster’s self-image changes or shifts. In THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) the monster believes that his hopes of finding happiness were delusional, uttering his famous line, “We belong dead.”

Wondering how audiences perceive these figures, I reached out to other lovers of the monstrous and horrific, and the members of the TV Terror Facebook group [https://www.facebook.com/groups/tvterror/] responded with a collection of monsters and their preferences in specific monstrous flavor. One interesting point that came out was that there are also monsters that exist wholly separate from our imaginary spectrum. Godzilla and his kaiju breather are forces of nature, similar to their dark reflections: the other-worldly Lovecraftian entities. All of them exist and go about their business, indifferent to our world and our conception of them as monsters. Natural monsters and mythological creatures tend to fall into this range as well. (For a look at drawing monstrous inspiration from facts, check out Lee Murray’s entry on the Once and Future Blog: Monster Fiction. )

All this comes together in multiple stories that I've been working on. In my contribution to the ONCE UPON THE LONGEST NIGHT anthology, I was able to explore the archetypal roles of Vampire and Hunter and ask what the concepts of right and wrong mean when both sides believe they're doing the right thing? Similarly, my novel TITANSHADE explores what sets people apart physically, culturally, and economically. Each of us exists on many axes, and we all see ourselves as outsiders on at least one of them. Not that this self-examination takes away from the action and romance of the stories—rather, if done well, it adds a depth an nuance that makes the rest of the story that much more enjoyable.

I believe that this is the great calling of Story. Well-told fiction blurs the line between “The Other” and the “Us”, strengthening understanding and pushing back against hate and paranoia. Whether our monsters are sympathetic or villainous, a successful story hinges on an act of empathy between the reader and at least one character. And when characters we empathize with make bad decisions, it causes us to reflect.

If we look at monsters and see our own beliefs and behavior, we’re forced to ask: Are we the monster? Is it us that belongs dead?

ONCE UPON THE LONGEST NIGHT is now on Kickstarter! A collection of novelettes that combine vampire mythos and romance with sacred symbolism and magic of the winter solstice. 

Dan Stout lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes about fever dreams and half-glimpsed shapes in the shadows. Dan's stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Nature, and Mad Scientist Journal. His debut novel Titanshade is available for pre-order from DAW Books. To say hello, visit him at www.danstout.com.