John Argo (John T. Cullen) San Diego Author Science Fiction



A 1990 Virtual Reality Novel

= Woman in the Sea =

by John T. Cullen (John Argo)

"But… How Did They All Get Out of The Spaceship?"

Long ago, when I was still posting the original HTML novels online at Neon Blue Fiction (suspense) and The Haunted Village (SFFH), a very kind and sweet lady (Ph.D. in English, teaching at a college back East) e-mailed me, asking for the TXT file of what was then titled* This Shoal of Space (today retitled Woman in the Sea). She read the novel, and e-mailed to say she loved the beginning and middle, but then it "all fell apart for me." She no longer had any idea what was going on toward the end, with the under-sea scenes in the alien spaceship off the coast near San Tomas. Somehow, the main character (Zoë Calla and others) escaped and returned to their lives... "How did they all get out?" She was totally baffled, and I can understand. I had written a novel in which I extrapolated far ahead of the times into Virtual Reality. I didn't use the term at that time, and the movie that popularized it (The Matrix) was still years away over the event horizon.

What was worse, perhaps, I didn't quite understand her confusion. I should have simply said: It was a virtual spaceship created by the ship's computer core coming back to life. And there we have it. You may think 'spoiler?' but actually, sometimes semi-spoilers serve to whet the reader's appetite and also to kind of explain things a little bit ahead to make the reading easier.

…and *that*, to answer the lady scholar, is 'how they all got out.' They were never 'in' in any real sense. The ship, the trails of white powder in the earth, the ghosts in the basilica and more, they were all phantasms not of magic but of virtual reality.

We do also run into another problem, which is that even smart, educated readers may not at times understand certain scientific principles (and nobody can understand them all), so they mistake certain offbeat science tropes for fantasy or high fantasy. That happened with this novel. And it happened with at least one other one, Robinson Crusoe 1,000,000 A.D. which is 100% science fiction, not one molecule high fantasy as one reader thought. I'll discuss all that at my Robinsonades website. Now back to the novel at hand, and Virtual Reality…

VR is not fantasy but is anchored in data science concepts (unless explicitly defined by the author as extending into magic and other fantasy tropes). Bear in mind also: the famous dictum that "today's magic is often tomorrow's technology." If you went back to Puritan New England in the 1700s or Rome in the 1600s, and demonstrated a light bulb, they'd probably deliver you to a swift, gruesome death as a witch or some similar brainmuffle. Today, we flick switches on and off without any thoughts of the electrical genie shown in early 20th Century magazine ads for modern living.

I actually, deviously, did write this novel to sound like a horror novel with the ulterior (or interior) purpose of demonstrating the principles of what I would later call DarkSF (see my DarkSF website). DarkSF (Dark Science Fiction) is what I call 'the Dark Chocolate of Science Fiction' or yes, more broadly, 'Speculative Fiction.'

Woman in the Sea is 100% science fiction from beginning to end. I had fun with the underlying concepts including VR and the appearance of horror or fantasy when in fact science is often more marvelous than human imagination, and as the tired old saying goes, truth is stranger (more amazing) than fiction. My strategy was to start it out as a novel that seemed to be horror, and then reveal it gradually to be entirely science (not fantasy or dark fantasy). What came over me? Don't ask.

Virtual Reality. Ray Bradbury, whose correspondence with me included his personal rave fan mail for my dark holiday fantasy The Christmas Clock, may well have invented V-R in fiction with his short story The Veldt (1950), definitively republished in 1951 in The Illustrated Man. Virtual Reality didn't become part of popular mainstream fiction until the late 1990s, most notably with the fiction of William Gibson and movies like Tron (Disney 1982) and The Matrix (1999). When I wrote this novel starting 1990, I had read all of Bradbury and enjoyed the movie Tron along with a wealth of other SF (not Fantasy, mind you: Science-derived Fiction). The notion of Virtual Reality is also mentioned in a 1982 novel (The Judas Mandala) of which I'd never heard. No matter…

For me, the concept bubbled out of a conversation I had around 1982/3 with two friendly young programmers while we worked together in data systems at a major San Diego aerospace firm. I was immersed in the now vanished world of mainframe computers housed in huge buildings. These great machines, with their tiny memory capacities, processed now-ancient languages like COBOL, FORTRAN, and BASIC. They described to me how the increasingly fast machines of that day used a technique called Virtual Paging to overcome operating memory limitations. I remember the conversation well, and know that my creative mind was already grinding through possible fiction (SF) applications. This eventually led to the foundation of Woman in the Sea.

It's often been said that a hand-held modern cell phone has better processing capacity than a mainframe computer housed in a huge building and maintained by dozens of scurrying tape runners (typically young men and women as I recall, wearing sneakers and sporty clothing), who mounted magnetic tape reels they retrieved from a large library bank on a continuing basis. Think about it: memory capacity was so tiny that both data and code had to be stored offline and loaded just (virtually) when needed to execute routines. The entire technology was obsolete and vanished by the Year 2000. Because a mainframe had such limited real-time processing capability, one was hampered by not only having to throughput the data, but simultaneously load the code and run the program into a very limited real-time memory.

To overcome this, the system used Virtual Paging, meaning it loaded only that *page* of code that it was going to process at any moment in *virtual* time. If you had to crunch a certain set of aircraft specs using a certain module of code, you loaded that snippet or routine of code into memory. For a fleeting (*virtual*) instant, the mainframe thought the entire program (tens of thousands of lines of code) was running all at once. The specific data problem would be processed. Then a new snippet or program module would be loaded in to process the next leg in executing that batch of data. Without going into a history of data processing, that is where the germ of my idea began to percolate up into the light of day and fiction.

*titled: I originally published it online in 1996 as Heartbreaker, before the Wayback Machine arrived. In 1998, I changed the title to This Shoal of Space, a title I still like and it serves in a sort of secondary mode. As of 2018 or so, I finally renamed it Woman in the Sea.