Sunday, 3 November 2013

Some more novel ideas

Here's my November column for AVENUE magazine.

November is with us again, the month in which hundreds of thousands of people each year turn their backs to orange-coloured October and sink all their free mental capacity into the writing of a fifty thousand word story. I’m talking about National Novel Writing Month, of course: a cocoon-like period of time out of which one emerges bleary-eyed and startled to find that Christmas has somehow arrived.  I started in 2006 and I’ve only missed the finish line once since then. Actually, last year I was ten thousand words short by 30 November, but I did at least go on to finish that title and ‘AFK, Again’ – my fifth novel set in Second Life® – hit my virtual bookstore in March of this year. That’s a plug, by the way. You can buy it.

Last year in this column I had a lot of fun dreaming up potential SL storylines for novels.  Unashamedly, I intend to do the same again here. I’ve long believed, after all, that the potential for metaverse fiction is vast (my meagre offerings are but a scratch across the surface). Here are just a few humble suggestions.

Occulus Thrift. As the global financial crisis deepens, more and more people turn to the metaverse – now reborn through virtual reality headsets distributed through a government depression reduction initiative – to escape the poverty-stricken decay of their real lives. Bit by bit, society transfers itself into this second world: physical schools are deemed too costly to maintain and teachers face obligatory transfer to virtual equivalents; public transport is closed down in line with new policy that actually seeing in real life your friends and relatives is now a luxury activity. Finally, even, parliament itself is shut down as an unnecessary expenditure, elected officials moving into a dedicated sim custom-built to include a 1000 square metre debating chamber and a 5000 square metre lobbyist parlour. Into all of this enter Aramatter Fisk, a young student of domestic history (specialist subject: Tupperware) who accidentally discovers a whole extra hidden world being developed by the wealthy elite. Thinking at first that he’s stumbled across a 1950s cold war experiment (a hypothesis that fits absolutely none of the available facts, but which appeals to him as a fan of the pre-1958 Tupperware sale to Rexall), Fisk attempts to open peace negotiations with the first residents he encounters. The Overlords – as they call themselves – take him immediately into custody and charge him with treason, but Fisk escapes by taking a plane to a rival faction within the same metaverse. Granted asylum, he then sets about the task of revealing to the world the true nature of its digital government; meanwhile, the Overlords impeach their President on the grounds that he didn’t do a good enough job of making the rival faction scared of him. Following a thrilling chase scene, the novel ends on an anti-climax when The People respond to Fisk’s news with a nonplussed shrug and comment that they’d pretty much figured something like this was going on anyway.

Far from the Madding Prim. A novel set entirely in a single region called Wessex. Although a walk along the country lane that connects up East Wessex with West Wessex would take in real time about a minute, the narrative is padded out into a seven hundred page volume through the protagonist’s description of every prim he observes along the way. Every. Single. Prim.

You’ve Got IMs. This metaverse RomCom (alternative titles: Sleepless in Second Life or Love Virtually) telling of the clichéd boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy runs into girl by accident a few months later at a hair fair and she can’t slip away because of the lag, girl turns out to be boy, boy turns out to be girl, boy(girl) and girl(boy) get married tale lulls the reader into a false sense of security four fifths of the way into the novel, then plunges him/her back into uncertainty at the shock revelation that both boy(girl) and girl(boy) are in their nineties. Somehow or another, through avoiding too many age-appropriate cultural references and by throwing in the odd mention of iPhones and Miley Cyrus, they have successfully given the impression that both are professionals in their twenties involved in IT startups. They arrange to meet in RL, choosing Brighton Pier as their rendezvous. When Adam(Felicity) realises that the chosen date clashes with his(her) scheduled hip operation, he(she) cancels the medical appointment, only for Mary(Bill) to then get offered a date for her(his) own hip operation because someone else cancelled at the last minute. In RL, Felicity hobbles painfully along the pier and eases herself down onto the empty bench they were supposed to meet at. With just two paragraphs to go, the reader assumes all is lost, but then the agreed pass phrase is whispered from behind her and Felicity closes her eyes and smiles. The book closes on this happy, tear-jerker moment, although the astute reader will note that Felicity is still expecting at this point to open her eyes and see a man seventy years her junior. Possibly, this intellectual cliff-hanger will be debated in internet discussion forums. Possibly, it won’t.

Downton Primley. Another attempt at a period SL novel. This time, the story revolves around Baldwin, a servant in the estate of Mr Robert Primley, Earl of Lindham. In addition to managing the estate staff, Baldwin is also the Head Builder for this metaverse role-play affair. Not only must he see that afternoon tea is served on time, he also has to hunt down period appropriate textures every time Lady Primley decides that the china needs replacing. Whilst our hero struggles with his employers’ ever-increasing appetite for authentic mesh furnishings, he is witness to an illicit affair between the Earl’s visiting brother, Sir Marcus Primley, and nineteen-year-old chambermaid, Agnes. Four months later, Agnes comes down from the servants’ quarters wearing a second trimester pregnancy bump which she’s resolved to display at luncheon. Sir Marcus is visiting again, en route to his Cornish residence in Penzance, but this time he has with him his wife (who’s taking the advice of her physician and leaving London for a short, restorative break of three months). Agnes plans blackmail. Baldwin tries to talk her out of it, knowing what the Earl’s brother is capable of, but the naïve young girl goes ahead with her plan anyway and is found hanging from her bedroom rafter the following morning (her account hacked by the evil Sir Marcus, who is in reality the CEO of a large Android software company). The novel ends on this tragic note, Baldwin musing philosophically, whilst he supervises the morning laundry, that Edwardian period role-play represents the top of a new slippery slope in society’s moral decline.

Murder in Prims. Franklin Berkowitz, a deeply eccentric yet wildly successful designer of state-of-the-art mesh avatars, decides to give away his entire catalogue – including his next generation, full facial animation range, ‘AVXL’ – in protest against Linden’s new terms and conditions. He announces this plan to his real life and metaversian business partner, Mark Warburton, over a Martini in a piano bar in downtown LA. Warburton is aghast, for the AVXL range is set to take the virtual world by storm and earn them a ton of cash. When he realises Berkowitz is serious, he arranges to meet the following night to discuss the giveaway strategy (telling Berkowitz not to speak a word of his intention until they’ve had the chance to plan it properly). The next night, Warburton murders Berkowitz, making it look like a suicide. Enter Lt. Columbus, an Italian-American police detective who smokes cigars and wears a crumpled raincoat (and is legally distinguishable from any similar fictional detectives by a nervous twitch that presents whenever fish are nearby). Feigning incompetence at anything remotely digital, Columbus lulls Warburton into a false sense of security, then irritates the crap out of him by constantly turning up in SL to ask him questions about the metaverse. A typical exchange goes something like this:

Columbus: This is your house, sir?
Warburton: Yes Lieutenant.
Columbus: And you built it?
Warburton: Every last prim.
Columbus: This is really something. This is really something.
Warburton: There was something you wanted to ask me, Lieutenant?
Columbus: Oh, yes, sir. Just a small issue. I have to fill out these reports, you know…
Warburton: Of course.
Columbus: I was just wondering… something I just can’t figure out about the gunshot… And this couch? You made this couch too?
Warburton: Yes, Lieutenant, I made the couch.
Columbus: Did I tell you my cousin makes real couches?
Warburton: You didn’t. Something about the gunshot, you say?

In the end, it turns out Columbus had Warburton identified as the murderer within three minutes of entering the crime scene from the position of the walnuts on the coffee table. The novel ends with our hero reaching a decision about what sort of gift to buy his wife as an anniversary present, a comedy theme threaded through the plot including one scene where he convinces Warburton to build him in prims a faithful replica of his own mantelpiece so that he can see what various ornaments will look like on it.

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