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Author Topic: EP468: Law of Gravity  (Read 6420 times)

eytanz

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on: November 14, 2014, 04:09:05 PM
EP468: Law of Gravity

By Sam Ferree

Read by Dave Slusher

This story was first printed in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #56, June 2012.

---

That sunrise was the best they had made yet.  The air was cool, not cold, and the Termination was just the right shade of pomegranate red around the sun.  The light breeze smelled like oranges.  It reminded me of candy, not real fruit, just that imitation flavor that somehow tastes better than the real thing.

“I think Lauren’s dead,” Lukas repeated, his avatar’s young face contorted in disgust.  Lukas had chosen a runner’s physique, because, out there, he’d been a track star in college; why that mattered to him was beyond me.

“What do you mean you think she’s dead?” I asked.  We were sitting at Reel Café — a not-so clever pun, I thought — at the edge of the patio.  We had met there every Monday morning for years.

My coffee was cold and my cigarette spent.  Lukas had ordered his usual Earl Grey and a grapefruit, but he hadn’t touched either one.

Lukas shook his head.  “Her avatar is in Smith Field.  Just standing there, staring off at nothing.  It’s been doing that for weeks.  I spoke with a friend of mine, an administrator.  They’re shutting down her account because her fees are overdue.  She hasn’t been away from the Flat for more than two days in decades.  She’s dead, Noah.”

“So she’s been away for a few weeks.  That doesn’t mean anything.”

“But it’s a pretty good sign she isn’t coming back.”

The orange scent was fading and Lukas was silent.  I said, “Well, what do we do?”

“What?”  Lukas looked up.  Eventually, he shrugged.  “I suppose we arrange a funeral.”

I nodded, but said, “I don’t actually think she’s dead.”

“She is,” Lukas muttered.  His twenty-something avatar wore an old man’s bitterness.

I picked up my coffee.  The mug looked like it had been made by a five year old.  Everything about the Reel Café had that hokey-imperfection. When you sat in the chairs, you half-expected a distinguished looking gentleman to walk up and ask you to please not sit on the dadist art.

I dropped the mug. It shattered with a disappointing crack.  A nearby waiter started toward me, glowering and brandishing a towel like a gladiatorial weapon.

“Why did you do that?” Lukas asked.

“Just testing,” I said, knowing that Lauren would have been less than amused.


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!



imperfect

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Reply #1 on: November 16, 2014, 04:25:31 PM
What is this story about? It is so vague that it seems pointless. At the end of the story it felt like the author suddenly pulled the ground from under me rather than antagonist.



Thunderscreech

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Reply #2 on: November 16, 2014, 04:56:52 PM
When people stop posting to a forum or community, you may never know if they just got bored with it or if they got hit by a bus, right?  Well, for all intents and purposes to you, they've died.  If you have no way to reach out to their 'real world' equivalent and they never post again, they're basically missing and presumed dead.  Right now, we usually don't treat that as a big deal because forums and online communities are just hobbies, but what happens when those online communities BECOME our world?  For coffin-class residents like the protagonist, the 'Second Life' thing they live in IS their world so that person who stops showing up has basically died and the stages of grief they go through are no less real than the ones we experience out here in meatspace.  Maybe the antagonist wasn't a seven eyed Space Medusa with an antimatter cannon in one tentacle and a copy of Ayn Rand in the other, maybe it's ennui or the loss of awareness of that outside world.  Maybe the 'villain' isn't something external to the narrator, but is instead within themselves.



Varda

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Reply #3 on: November 16, 2014, 04:58:40 PM
I found this story profoundly moving, especially as an exploration of what loss and grief looks like in the age of the internet. What happens when a member of one of your online communities just stops showing up? How would you know if they'd died, or just left without saying goodbye? Is there really a difference, especially in a near-future setting where your online life *is* your real life? If a person does die, are you allowed to mourn it with the same intensity you'd mourn the death of a friend you knew in person? Or are you supposed to take it less seriously, as if it all had less meaning because you never spoke face to face?

For me, this formed the complex ball of  problems the story grapples with. It brought to mind a few online friendships of yesteryear that I've since come to miss. I'm also reminded of things like this story of a guy who passed away in an online community--how people noticed he wasn't commenting anymore, and went looking for his real identity to check on him because there had been hints he was sick and alone IRL. Even though I don't belong to that community, it's heart-wrenching to see these people mourn together. At a time when doxxing is a tool used to terrorize people, it's interesting to see these people weigh the ethics of looking for the person beneath the avatar in the name of friendship and honest concern for someone's well-being.

All this to say, I think that's what this story's getting at. You have the unreality of virtual life, how it's a bit of a playground and escape from "real" life, and just like gravity/physics gradually intrude on the MC's virtual world, so does grief, and the full weight and meaning of a person's existence in--and absence from-- your life.

(ETA: cross-posted with Thunderscreech, so ditto on all that :) )

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slic

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Reply #4 on: November 16, 2014, 11:12:13 PM
To me this was like hearing a semi-personal story at a bar 100 years from now.  It made for ok conversation but wasn't all that interesting.

When people stop posting to a forum or community, you may never know if they just got bored with it or if they got hit by a bus, right?... For coffin-class residents like the protagonist, the 'Second Life' thing they live in IS their world so that person who stops showing up has basically died and the stages of grief they go through are no less real than the ones we experience out here in meatspace.
How would you know if they'd died, or just left without saying goodbye? Is there really a difference, especially in a near-future setting where your online life *is* your real life?
I agree that in cases when that person spends so much of their life online, it can effect people deeply.  I know of some people who have left instructions in their wills for how to access their social accounts and let their friends know.

What made this story so pedestrian and the problem I had with this story was two-fold, for all their interaction at the end, they were friends like regulars at a bar or teammates on a casual sports team.  Sure I know you, and we've had good times, but it's a casual relationship.  The second part was that they never discussed what they did to find Lauren other than the throw away "I spoke with a friend of mine, an administrator.  They’re shutting down her account because her fees are overdue."  Seriously, if they were that close they should have been able to dig up something about Lauren.  And if they weren't that close then it's sad but not devastating 5 stages of grief sad.

As an aside, I'm curious what rationale there was in that universe to make "the Flat" more realistic.  Perhaps it was just as Varda considered - a story device to show an external reflection, but it really made no sense to me at all.  Frankly I would pay extra to be able to fly.  And funky architecture that looked cool, like a Frank Lloyd Wright Mile-high Tower or inverted pyramid would be an enticement not a detraction.



albionmoonlight

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Reply #5 on: November 17, 2014, 09:29:51 PM
As an aside, I'm curious what rationale there was in that universe to make "the Flat" more realistic.  Perhaps it was just as Varda considered - a story device to show an external reflection, but it really made no sense to me at all.  Frankly I would pay extra to be able to fly.  And funky architecture that looked cool, like a Frank Lloyd Wright Mile-high Tower or inverted pyramid would be an enticement not a detraction.

I took it as thematic.  At first, we go into online or other alternative worlds to escape.  We want them to be unrealistic.  But, as we spend more and more time there, we want them to start being more real.  They are not the places we come to escape; they are the places we live.  And we want them to be real, not exotic.



lisavilisa

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Reply #6 on: November 17, 2014, 10:56:26 PM
Lukas had ordered his usual Earl Grey and a grapefruit, but he hadn’t touched either one.

 


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!

When I heard this I thought Lukas had ordered Earl Grey in a grapefruit. Seemed to make sense that the flat would have food served in such a bizarre fashion. Bit disappointing I was wrong; but now I'm inspired to head to the store to buy a grapefruit.



lisavilisa

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Reply #7 on: November 17, 2014, 10:57:12 PM
addendum: to me the mark of a good writer is I get hungry for whatever they have in their story.



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Reply #8 on: November 18, 2014, 02:04:33 PM
I liked it.  Especially with many of my bestest friends being online folk that I wouldn't be able to recognize what they look like if they rang my doorbell.  I've known some people who've died and I'm not quite sure what to think of their social media account still being open, especially if one of their loved ones posts using the account to let people know--from where I'm sitting that looks like the dead person is telling me when and where their own funeral is.  I thought that the still-breathing avatar laying in the coffin was creepily evocative of that feeling.

I took it as thematic.  At first, we go into online or other alternative worlds to escape.  We want them to be unrealistic.  But, as we spend more and more time there, we want them to start being more real.  They are not the places we come to escape; they are the places we live.  And we want them to be real, not exotic.

I think that was part of it.  I think part of it was also job-making to support whatever economy exists here.  When they turned buildings on, many buildings in there collapsed and they suddenly need construction crews to clean up the mess--sounds like government inventing new industries in order to get people working--i.e. dam-building in the Depression, etc.  I thought it was especially weird that they turned off teleporting, myself--how could would it be to not have to do travel time if you didn't want to?  But there are huge industries based in transportation, so again I think it was job-making.



Dwango

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Reply #9 on: November 19, 2014, 08:43:30 PM
The world was becoming more real appeared to be in spite of the members' desires.  It's like the wild west or the internet, outside forces coming in to civilize the place and make it follow rules.  There are interest groups to try and affect the changes, but they ruin what was a fun and crazy place, something we all need.  I also see this as a part of the death of Lauren, which is the real world fully intruding on their fantasy. They can pretend to by younger, be prettier, fly, an build crazy architecture, but death still ends us, and there is no escape from that (until they can upload our minds into this world..., well then, all bets off.)

What unsettles me is this is not a far stretch from what we all will experience in our online lives now.  Already, people I don't know but have heard of through the internet have passed away, and that was very saddening.  I have a whole facebook page of people I know, from high-school acquaintances up through my current friends.  As I get older, people will start to pass away on that list.  Will they stay like ghosts, until someone behind the scenes pulls the plug?  Will I even know they are gone until they are pulled from my list?   I think this story makes me realize how the net really changes some of the fundamentals.



ElectricPaladin

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Reply #10 on: November 21, 2014, 06:57:49 AM
I'm beginning to fall asleep just lying here, so I'm going to try to sum up my opinions before I become completely incoherent.

Pros:
 • It was a nice depiction of a world in flux - the Flat transforming from a playground to a "serious" simulated reality. Some of the conversations reminded me of the reminiscences about the net-world in Snow Crash, which tickled me.
 • The intersection that Norm pointed out, of technology and grief, was handled very well.

Cons
 • The main character kind of annoyed me. He was literally living in a fantasy world full-time because he'd failed at his main aspiration in the real world... and it never occurred to him to, I don't know, try something new?
 • Two dudes hanging out and having feels about a chick they were both at some point into is kind of a tired trope. It gives the story a really male voice, with the female as silent-object-of-conversation, which is annoying. This is one of those things that wouldn't be bad, per say - it does reflect a legit part of some people's experience - except that it's plastered all over the fictosphere.

So, overall, I liked it. It wasn't perfect, but it communicated its story, and that story was a compelling one. There's no way that I would ever give up real life, unless being a coffin user came with something awesome, like immortality. I kind of wish the story had dwelled more on the main character's obvious (to me) regret over deciding to become a coffin user and throw himself permanently into this world that was, increasingly, not the amazing fantasy that he had thought it was going to be... but that might be a "the story EP would write is not the story the author wanted to write" situation.

But how did you feel when your grandpa got onto the spaceship? I like tomatoes for dinners.. Sneeeooze...

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Warren

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Reply #11 on: November 21, 2014, 02:10:01 PM
I guess my sense of the story was that it wasn't really a science fiction story. That's not a condemnation, except in that I look to science fiction for a sense of wonder and exploration - or, at least, something beyond our everyday experience.

We had here a story of an old man who as a youth was briefly convinced he could defy the world's rules and forge a life doing what he loved, only to have all of that stripped from him over time piece by piece, clinging to some of the remnants until the very end, when he finally had taken from him his last contact with the woman he'd loved at the height of his hubris and been briefly together with when they shared that hubris, and who he had lost but continued to adore. This blow collapsed his last illusions of independence from society's rules and sealed the downfall he'd been moving towards all his adult life.

That his defiances of society's rules were made concrete within a virtual reality is really a minor point; if they had been more completely aesthetic or metaphorical, the story would have been entirely the same. It's a fine story of its type, but its filigree of science fiction could effortlessly be removed and, if desired, it could be put into any other genre, almost completely unchanged.



Zieborn

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Reply #12 on: November 21, 2014, 06:27:29 PM

 • Two dudes hanging out and having feels about a chick they were both at some point into is kind of a tired trope. It gives the story a really male voice, with the female as silent-object-of-conversation, which is annoying. This is one of those things that wouldn't be bad, per say - it does reflect a legit part of some people's experience - except that it's plastered all over the fictosphere.

I don't think I agree with this.  It is possible for a story to be about something other people have done without it being a sin against it.  The story still gets to stand on it own.  In any case, I feel I should point out that it certainly isn't a sin given that two stories in short order around it here, on this site, were about two women who were in relationships with each other (and one in podcastle last week was about two girls and their two mothers, with no male character in sight).  The "Trash" one had the main character as a woman in charge of her department on the moon.  "The Sky is Blue, and Bright, and Full of Stars" had a female protagonist, who was the only decent person in the whole story.  Another recently was about a society dominated by an army of women.  I imagine Artemis Rising will also likely bring out some female voices in the stories that come out of it. 

The fictosphere wherever you are reading may be frequently about two dudes talking, but your current location certainly hasn't been.  
« Last Edit: November 21, 2014, 06:29:38 PM by Zieborn »



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Reply #13 on: November 21, 2014, 07:36:22 PM
That his defiances of society's rules were made concrete within a virtual reality is really a minor point; if they had been more completely aesthetic or metaphorical, the story would have been entirely the same. It's a fine story of its type, but its filigree of science fiction could effortlessly be removed and, if desired, it could be put into any other genre, almost completely unchanged.

I couldn't disagree more.  The degree to which this person was affected was affected greatly by the science ficitonal elements, and the  science fiction elements played an important role in the story.  It took that kind of weird feeling you might get when you see the reminder of a birthday on a dead person's profile on Facebook, but amped it way way up because this almost-real experience is the only life this guy knows anymore.  The burying of the still-breathing avatar in a casket is probably inspired by a metaphor of a dead person's profile but this explores what it might be like in the future where people might literally live ONLY online. 



Chairman Goodchild

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Reply #14 on: November 25, 2014, 12:32:22 PM
That Flat's one hell of a crazy VR world.  Take everything that would be cool about a super-immersive VR world and then remove it entirely.  Like to fly?  Too bad, you can't anymore.  Want to design impossible architecture?  Let's see how well that stands up under simulated gravity.  Oh, and avatars will age and gain weight as the years go by.  And need to eat and drink, or they'll waste away.  And for a bonus, let's add pain into the mix, too.  I wonder if the avatars in this simulation have to brush their virtual teeth twice a day so they don't get virtual cavities.  "Wow!  It's only a VR dentist, but I swear it's like getting an actual root canal!"

It's amazing that anyone is still left on this server at all.  If I was going to give up my physical body to live in a virtual world, let me tell you, this wouldn't be my first choice.  
« Last Edit: November 25, 2014, 12:40:07 PM by Chairman Goodchild »



Zieborn

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Reply #15 on: November 25, 2014, 03:46:09 PM
That Flat's one hell of a crazy VR world.  Take everything that would be cool about a super-immersive VR world and then remove it entirely.  Like to fly?  Too bad, you can't anymore.  Want to design impossible architecture?  Let's see how well that stands up under simulated gravity.  Oh, and avatars will age and gain weight as the years go by.  And need to eat and drink, or they'll waste away.  And for a bonus, let's add pain into the mix, too.  I wonder if the avatars in this simulation have to brush their virtual teeth twice a day so they don't get virtual cavities.  "Wow!  It's only a VR dentist, but I swear it's like getting an actual root canal!"

It's amazing that anyone is still left on this server at all.  If I was going to give up my physical body to live in a virtual world, let me tell you, this wouldn't be my first choice.  
It seems to be looking at virtual worlds going the way of videogames more generally.  As someone who plays a lot of videogames, and has for a very long time, it always bugs me to see people so obsessed with recreating real life.  "Oh good.  Now when you shoot the guy his arm explodes and he rolls around the floor of his hut screaming in pain.  How realistic!  So much more fun than Contra!" 

If I was in a virtual world like that, I'd be the one asking for a dragon or a star ship.  Or that sentient space-whale thing from Doctor Who. 

Of course, we never know who is at the switch.  Maybe machines (or someone else) are running the show and slowly tricking everyone into joining the matrix of their own free will.  Heck, they already have people asking to bury themselves in coffins just to stay online.  Maybe they used to let you fly to hook you in, and now they're just blurring the lines between reality and the game, until people forget there was a difference. 



Requiem42

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Reply #16 on: November 28, 2014, 07:13:55 AM
Not much to say about this one, other than that it was very well written, and I actually enjoyed the side story better than the main story.  The steady progression of the simulated world to be more and more like reality brings a needed highlight to the present state of the internet.  I can remember the days when most people used pseudonyms and could be anyone they chose, and miss it.  What is it about our collective psyche that makes us begin with imaginings, a virtual childhood, and then gradually always move toward a concrete and immutable standard in line with what we see around us?  Why can't we ever seem to form an ideal from the imaginary, and find that it sticks?



Devoted135

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Reply #17 on: December 01, 2014, 03:12:21 AM
I thought this story did a really good job of exploring the way that technology is slowly becoming more and more integrated with our natural grief processes. I think it's part of human nature that so often we aren't content to hide behind the anonymity of the internet for the long term. We want to know and be known by each other, sharing important bits of our experience, even if we do hold back from sharing our name. And by doing so, we make our corners of the internet that much more "real."



hardware

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Reply #18 on: December 02, 2014, 12:29:31 PM
Interesting story, felt like Snow Crash's sad cousin. I wasn't that engaged in the protagonists grief, but liked the virtual world slowly progressing towards something less and less interesting while the users are in there because of the relations they have in there more than anything. A fitting parallel to many social web sites. Hopefully Leuren just found a cooler virtual universe ....



FireTurtle

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Reply #19 on: December 22, 2014, 05:18:48 PM
Chiming in late, motivated only by the disparity in how I experienced aspects of the story compared to others who are posting. Admittedly, I listened while running (well, trying to force my body back into running  ::)) so I phased in an out of the story more than I would while, say, driving my car. I enjoyed it. I think the evolution of the world from impractical fantasy to concrete was perplexing (where is my flying dragon you bastards?!?) but also mirrored the sort of evolution of the human perception of the world, from magical thinking "the sun is smiling and alive!" to more scientific and fact-based "the sun is a ball of incandescent gas". As that virtual world becomes more realized, the MC is anchored to it in the same way we ourselves become anchored to this world in adulthood. I viewed his persistent belief that Lauren is "out there" as equal to some peoples' belief in an afterlife. Every time he talked about her continued existence, it sounded absolutely identical to the conversations I have had over loss of a pet/friend/loved one with someone who believes they have "moved on". I take no stand on this either way, it just fascinated me that the "real world" became a simulacrum of the afterlife once virtual reality became more real. Very uncanny and clearly the most interesting aspect of the story to me. How does this apply in our current existence? Is our online presence equivalent to our soul? We are, after all disembodied aspects of ourselves in the virtual world..hmmm

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CryptoMe

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Reply #20 on: June 22, 2015, 02:24:27 AM
That Flat's one hell of a crazy VR world.  Take everything that would be cool about a super-immersive VR world and then remove it entirely.  ....
It's amazing that anyone is still left on this server at all.  If I was going to give up my physical body to live in a virtual world, let me tell you, this wouldn't be my first choice.  

This is exactly how I felt about this story.
That and how unengaged I was by the main character. I couldn't get into his head space for why he chose to be there in his VR world exclusively.

However, the parallels that several posters pointed out between this VR world and on-line social media do make sense. I just didn't see those right away because the MC was so incomprehensible to me.