Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Thoughts on the LookingGlass world.

(The publisher wanted the title of the book to beLooking Glass, two words, because it would be easier to look up on book store computers, but because LookingGlass is … well, I can’t tell you that. Anyway, inside the book, the word LookingGlass is spelled as one word, and the world the book is set in is named by that word as well.)

Genesis, Urban vs Rural.

The LookingGlass world is old. I first thought up a lot of the original ideas for it back in 1991-1992 for the very first novel I ever tried to write (and failed.) That’s where the trains came from. That’s where the post-petroleum, post United States world came from. Even then, I had this idea that you could set cyberpunk in the Great Plains states, like the one I grew up in. That somehow the juxtaposition of wide open spaces with the digital dystopia would work. I also saw that the United States, while it has one overarching culture, has several strong subcultures that, given the vacuum created by the demise of the United States, would become functional separate cultures. Mostly, though, I wanted to put cyberpunk on horseback. I was strongly enamored of the idea that, given virtual reality, you can get the brains together for that unique synergy called civilization, without having to pile people in the high-stress, high-density, pollution-heavy environment of a big city.

Cities, though, are humans’ natural environment, as much as termite mounds are the natural environment for termites. Cities are more than communication. Culture breeds there. Drive happens there. The extreme specialization that the advance of technology requires can exist in few other places than a large urban environment. Think about it. If you’re not farming or ranching, you’re like the queen bee in a bee hive. You have your specialized job, but you’re dependent on that job’s value to others for your food. Without cities, chances are, you’d starve. So would I. In a world where the ready, cheap energy of petroleum is not around anymore, cities become all the more vital, because some things take more than a bunch of brains. They take hands. That’s sort of whatLooking Glassis about.

The Energy Crisis

So. Big cities. Direct neural interface virtual realities. Why add an energy crisis? Here’s the thing. Science fiction has, historically, been based on the idea that as science advances, individuals control more and more energy, and in less and less space. Nuclear hand-grenades and flying cars seemed right around the corner, as did power “too cheap to meter.” Unfortunately, nuclear fusion proved more difficult to harness than anyone imagined, and fission, thanks to some incredibly bad engineering, has maintained a poor, dangerous, and complicated reputation. So here we are, at the top of the twenty-first century, still using the same energy sources we used at the bottom of the nineteenth. That’s why we don’t live in a science fiction world. Well, that, and nobody wants the kind of people we drive with on the road flying over our houses.
We do, however, control more data than classic science fiction could have imagined. When they thought advanced computers, they thought AI, and the computers became characters. The real world has proven different. The amount of information you and I command, literally at our fingertips, is mindboggling. Verne imagined it first, and Heinlein did a pretty good job imagining it in Friday. (which, IMHO, is pretty much Heinlein doing his take on cyberpunk) But by and large, the net eluded everyone before Gibson and company gave us cyberpunk.

Computerized offices were supposed to reduce our working days, and maybe make it possible for us to work four day weeks instead of five. It hasn’t worked that way. What’s happened instead, is that companies have cut the number of people and increased the amount of data they deal with each day. In the LookingGlass world, the level of data each individual has access to - and in theory, controls - has risen proportionally to today. The net has gotten easier to use and better at abstracting data, and so now there is more to do, more to manage, more to secure. And somehow, big companies still manage to see their IT departments as overhead.

Looking Glass focuses on high tech corporate culture and net culture. And they’re very different animals. Corporate culture revolves around money and power, and a great deal around pecking order. This tends to produce an orderly company that can get things done, but there are downsides to this. Biggest among these is that management and engineering, particularly, are widely disparate skill sets. Promoting engineers to management is a dicey prospect. They’re frequently not good at dealing with people. Not good at playing politics sensibly. Engineers frequently know they’re “right” and simply won’t entertain any other ideas of “right.” Professional managers, by contrast, have good people and organizational skills, but are frequently incapable of understanding the needs of engineering, the need, for example, to fix underlying problems rather than just continue to fight fires, and so on. And that disconnect frustrates the technical people.

This division hasn’t healed in the LookingGlass world. If anything, it’s gotten worse, and you have what amounts to a class system between techies and management at most companies, and neither side is very good at listening to the other.

Net culture in Looking Glass is an expression of how I see the culture of today’s Internet evolving. There are many, many references to today’s Net, some thinly veiled behind my made-up corporate names, some blatant. The LookingGlass world net culture is older, deeper, and stranger, but many of the elements from my future world are already in place. The gothic influence, the furry influence, the enormous science fiction influence, the breadth and depth of alternative sexual practices available on the net, that’s all there today. As the net becomes its own reality, I don’t see these things going away. The net, in the LookingGlass world as now, has an underlying sense of humor, the delight in obscure trivia and humor, the vague sense that all this is, on some level, absurd. No website ever knows what context the viewer has come to it in. If you’ve been linked to some serious web page from a joke site, or someone’s weblog, or whatever, the most elegant, serious website becomes somewhat absurd. This is the underlying joke of the net, I think. Maybe it’s just being around all that porn.

Reality and Virtual Reality
I have to confess that I wrote Looking Glass based only on the experience of text based virtual realities. I have since seen one or two, and it’s been gratifying to discover that they are evolving the way I predicted. The big push for today’s virtual realities business, exactly the way I expected they would when I wrote Looking Glass. Why send people to a conference when you can throw the conference in a virtual environment cheaper, more safely, and (at least in the LookingGlass world) provide a better experience than you can in the real world? And virtual realities are a dream come true for advertising. The world is the media there, for better or worse.

As the LookingGlass world evolves, and as the next novels in the series explore more of it, the origins of the “modern” virtual reality network will be revealed to come from the virtual reality games of today. Why? Because the late-adolescent VR gamers of today will be the executives in the timeframe of the LookingGlass world. They grew up with this stuff. They are utterly comfortable with it. Bear in mind that Cath Farro, the heroine of Looking Glass, would be 22 years old today. She’s probably still in grad school.

As for people, they spend more and more time in virtual reality. Given the political and economic realities of the day, virtual reality is cleaner, neater, less painful. The escape has become the destination, and the resolution has gotten good enough that it’s sometimes hard to tell which reality you’re in.

And that, of course, is why this story exists, and why it is a novel, and why it is a book. And of course, one should remember that a book, itself, is an escape. A virtual reality, if you like. So we blur the line again. Telescope reality one more level.


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