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.

Review: Gwenda Bond's 'Lois Lane: Fallout'

I'll come out with it. Lois Lane and I? I don't know. We never really saw eye to eye when I was growing up. I'm not sure what it was, though part of it may have been that I was obsessed with the darker side of life, and the whole Superman scene was not my bag. But when I saw this book by Gwenda Bond, I knew I had to try it out. First of all, it's a YA novel, which I find I really enjoy reading these days. And part of the premise is that Lois is a bit of a troublemaker instigator, and, well...if you know me, you'll know that's right up my alley!

From the get-go, teenage Lois Lane proves to be a sympathetic character. She's starting in a new school, and is determined to make a fresh start with no more trouble. It seems her permanent record is large enough to have formed it's own gravity well, but not for reasons one might think. It turns out that Lois is a fighter for justice who stands up for victims of bullying and abuse. Because of this...well, she has a tendency to get into trouble. 

Lois's voice pulled me right into the story from page one. All the major characters, in fact are three dimensional and have definite personalities of their own. Bond has mastered the art of having secondary character arcs in a first person point of view novel. Readers get to see aspects of all Lois's new allies, things that make them individuals and make the reader care about them. Even Lois's parents are portrayed in a way that makes them fully-fleshed characters. One criticism I have of some YA books is that they make adults out to be cardboard characters who just don't understand anything. Lois's parents may get in the way of Lois's goals sometimes, but we can see it's because they come from a place of caring. Even from within Lois's head, by their actions and gestures, we can sympathize with them even when Lois doesn't. Perry White, Principal Butler, and Ronda from the principal's office all have their own quirks and personalities.

The plot line of Lois Lane: Fallout is timely and relevant, and right up this geek girl's alley. Fallout deals with bullying, both in person and online, against the backdrop of online gaming and virtual reality. I felt that Bond really "got" the teen gaming culture, as well as the way people talk via internet chat. She captured the insecurities of trying to form a relationship via chat really well (something I remember well from back in my MUD days), the difficulties in judging if someone was being sarcastic or not or if their feelings were hurt. Unlike some YA and other books with a somewhat romantic subplot, Bond didn't go overboard with the insecurities, though. There was just enough to make it seem real, but not enough to make it agonizing or eyeroll worthy. Never once did I think, "Oh for Pete's sake, just shut up," which is what I often say in the midst of teen melodrama gone too far. A lot of authors don't get that teen romance is just like other romance, only perhaps a bit less mature. And when they make it seem ridiculous, even the teens think it's over the top. There is none of that here. SmallvilleGuy really cares about Lois--but most importantly, while he helps her, he never "rescues" her. He lets Lois be strong.

All in all, Lois Lane is a kick ass teen character who has a compelling voice and the personality of someone you'd want to spend way more than just one book with. The book itself was a fun, fast read--I read it in about 4 hours on a plane, and was possibly the most fun thing I've read in months. Adults and teens will enjoy this fresh take on a character I thought had gone stale--until now!

Don't miss Gwenda Bond chatting with our podcast host, Anton Strout, on episode 125 of the Once and Future Podcast!

About Lois Lane: Fallout:

Lois Lane is starting a new life in Metropolis. Lois has lived all over and seen all kinds of things. (Some of them defy explanation, like the near-disaster she witnessed in Kansas one night.) But now her family is putting down roots in the big city, and Lois is determined to fit in. Stay quiet. Keep out of trouble. As soon as she steps into her new high school, though, she can see it won't be that easy. A group known as the Warheads is making life miserable for another girl at school. They're messing with her mind somehow, via the high-tech immersive videogame they all play. Not cool. Armed with her wit and her new snazzy job as a reporter, Lois has her sights set on solving this mystery. But sometimes it's all a bit much. Thank goodness for her maybe-more-than-a friend, someone she knows only by his screenname, SmallvilleGuy.

About Gwenda Bond:

Gwenda Bond is the author of the young adult novels Girl on a Wire, Blackwood, and The Woken Gods. She has also written for Publishers Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications, and just might have been inspired to get a journalism degree by her childhood love of Lois Lane. She has an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and lives in a hundred-year-old house in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband, author Christopher Rowe, and their menagerie. Visit her online at gwendabond.com or @gwenda on Twitter.

Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy and science fiction stories where heroes don’t always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her work has been published in several magazines, and she was a finalist in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction Contest. Melanie is also a freelance author publicist and publicity/marketing coordinator for both Ragnarok Publications and Mechanical Muse, an independent gaming company. She blogs regularly for GeekMom and The Once and Future Podcast. Her short story “A Whole-Hearted Halfling” is in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis, available now on Amazon. She is the co-editor of Hath No Fury, an anthology celebrating women in speculative fiction, which is currently on Kickstarter and includes stories from Seanan McGuire, Carol Berg, Elaine Cunningham, Bradley P. Beaulieu, Philippa Ballantine, Anton Strout, and more. Follow Melanie on Facebook and on Twitter as @MelanieRMeadors.

 

 

 

What? I Can't Hear You Over My Nerd-Rage!

Nerd-rage. Let’s face it, it happens. One minute, you’re talking with someone about something you’re both passionate about, and suddenly, BOOM, war breaks out. How could this guy think Jedi was better than Empire? And he likes Star Trek V? SERIOUSLY? Who DOES that? I’ve seen strangers go on to Facebook pages of folks they don’t even know and completely trash them because they’ve never seen a Doctor Who episode prior to 2005, and I’ve seen the best of friends not speak for a month because of an argument over Firefly. On the latest episode of the Once and Future Podcast, Anton Strout and Ryan Britt discussed this phenomenon a bit, and it seems to be fairly prevalent. 

Where does it come from? A unique form of geek entitlement? A need to compete for nerdy survival? Because let’s face it, we’ve all experienced it. I mean, I consider myself a fairly accepting and positive person. Yet every now and then, I’ll see something like a person, who I know hated Star Wars two months before, start posting about it and I’ll start feeling kind of judgey. Are they being fakes? Are they just trying to fit in? Why doesn’t it put them to sleep anymore? Who are they trying to impress? But then my brain kicks in, and I say, “Who cares?” The more popular something I love gets, the better chances there are that even more awesome things will happen with it. Of course, there’s also a greater chance someone will screw it up, but that’s another post. Another thing that hits me now and then are people who only watch the shows of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones (you know, the series more accurately known as "A Song of Ice and Fire"?). Those guys are FAKES, right? I mean, how many hours, days of my life have I spent reading comics and novels, and these people just watch a few episodes and think they are real fans?

Well…yeah. Who the hell am I, or any of us, really, to judge who gets to be a fan of what? If something makes someone happy, why piss in their Cheerios? Are we really that miserable in the nerd community?

It seems that some of us are. Every day I see people on social media trashing others for their beliefs and their passions. Someone always has to one-up someone else, or prove they are better, or prove that their fandom is better. It’s really easy to get caught up in the cloud of negativity if you aren’t careful. I’m not talking about those of us who might slip into a wave of maybe too much passion for a subject we love. I’m talking outright bullying, people who get off on power trips, and who, in the end, are simply insecure idiots trying to make themselves feel important. Does this qualify as nerd-rage? In part, I think we all have to accept some responsibility for these people because it’s happening in our community. It’s something that we have to own, and in the end, hopefully take care of.

Matt Forbeck, author of the Marvel Encyclopedia, the Magic: The Gathering comic books, and award-winning game designer and novel writer, had this to say on the subject: “While it’s easy to get swept up in the latest wave of nerd-rage in which we often seem as a collective to be feeding on our most rotten parts, I never forget that the one thing that binds us together is the passion we have for the things that move us. For every outraged Gamergater, there are thousands if not millions of happy geeks who just want to share the love for their favorite things with their fellow geeks. Those awful bits are just a few grains of grit in a mighty hero sandwich. No one wants them there — and it’s best to remove them straight away — but they’re too damn small to ruin everything. Not if you don’t let them.”

Chuck Wendig, author of the recent technothriller, Zeroes, is no stranger to rage within the geek world. His Star Wars novel, Aftermath, was the target of contempt from many so-called fans of the franchise because, they claimed, he dared to make Star Wars characters…well, go where no Star Wars characters have gone before (Ha! Take that, haters! I’ve crossed the streams!). Even so, he maintains a positive outlook on the issue. After all, most fans loved his book, and it spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. He says, “For me, fandom is about being positive. At its core, you enter fandom because you Love A Thing very much, but that love can become protective, even obsessive. Then you go to the Dark Side. Be a fountain, not a drain! Share the love instead of spreading hate. Remember why you got into it in the first place!”

This is something I agree with completely. Remember when you had a hard time finding like-minded people to hang out with? Remember that time you and your best friend got your asses kicked for acting out scenes from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on the playground? Were times really better back then? Do you really think everyone should be berated for liking things, or are you just jealous people can have a good time now in relative peace?

Of course, just because we love something doesn’t mean it’s without faults, nor does it mean we shouldn’t give some constructive criticism to perhaps make it better. But the key here is constructive criticism. I’ve seen people get the very thing they ask for, say, a television show featuring a female protagonist superhero, and completely shred it. Rather than seeing it as the first step in a process of society making progress, they will treat it as an all or nothing situation. The show must be PERFECT in order for them to approve. What happens then? Well, since the show was groundbreaking to begin with, many people didn’t approve of it to begin with. When even the people who begged for a show shred it, the station cancels it and leaves us with nothing. This could be avoided by people controlling their rage and instead, communicating with the creators, working together to perfect their vision, and maybe coming to an understanding of WHY perhaps the creators made certain decisions. We can critique things with a level head without the rage.

“For me, being a geek/nerd is about passion and enthusiasm, it's being so excited by a story that you can't help but share that passion,” says Michael R. Underwood, author of geeky speculative fiction including the recent Genrenauts series. “And while it's important to critique works (especially parts that are sexist, racist, homophobic, and so on), I think that the most useful artistic critique comes from a desire for works to improve, so they can better encourage, entertain, and inspire. And that puts that critique into a greater effort of shared enthusiasm, of building up more than tearing down.”

If you feel the need to comment on someone’s project, love, or nerdery, ask yourself where it’s coming from. Are you wanting to berate someone, or are you trying to help? Pay attention to the words you use, too. I mean, sure, your five year old nephew has Darth Vader wielding a six-shooter. You want to tell him (and perhaps his parents) off, but what can you do to help the poor soul rather than tearing him down? I mean, maybe he has a good reason for this…heresy. Talk to the kid, find out where he’s coming from. Maybe he’s exploring a new side of something, and a really cool thing will come from it. Do the same with adults. If someone makes a mistake, don’t jump on their case. Remember that time you asked your niece if she was into Mind Craft? No, me neither. Let’s say no more. We all screw up. We don’t have to be dicks about it.

Delilah S. Dawson is the author of speculative fiction for both teens and adults (including the very recent Star Wars novella, The Perfect Weapon. Her thoughts sum up the topic perfectly. “When you get down to it, nerd-rage springs from the same place as nerd-love. We get so passionate about the things we geek out over that characters become real people, and when we feel they aren't being respected, we get mad. It's important to remember that no one can take your fandoms from you and that new episodes or storylines can't change your existing relationship with a world or character. If you didn't care so much, you wouldn't get so mad. So if you're online and about to unleash hell in the comments, try turning off the computer and picking up your old comic books or turning on your favorite movie. Focus on what you love, not what you hate. No one can take away what you love. Except Joss Whedon, who thrives on taking away what you love.”

DAMN YOU, WHEDON!!!!

About Melanie R. Meadors:

A writer of speculative fiction and lover of geeky things, Melanie R. Meadors lives in a one hundred-year-old house in central Massachusetts full of quirks and surprises. She's been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion.

Her short fiction has been published in Circle Magazine, The Wheel, and Prick of the Spindle, and was a finalist in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction Contest. She is a freelance publicist, publicity coordinator for Ragnarok Publications, and the Marketing and Publicity Specialist at Mechanical Muse.