22

I've written myself into a sci-fi cliche which I have never seen done well: two characters meet in virtual reality.

The gist of my scene is one character has been in a pseudocoma, more aware of her surroundings than anyone knew. Another character needs to make a decision about her welfare, and uses technology to connect to her mind. She discovers the patient is not a vegetable. She is mentally impaired but with her personality and desires intact. Although she has been talked about by others, this is her only scene where she has her own voice.

I can think of probably a dozen examples in popular media where two people meet in some kind of virtual reality/ethereal plane and have a long philosophical infodump that kills all story momentum – the film Contact does everything wrong: arbitrary CGI location, the other character is a 1-dimensional mysterious stranger, the dialog is all tell no show, and the momentum which has been building suspense about the MC's physical safety abruptly changes to bland generalizations about the meaning of life. Rather than a narrative climax, the scene is almost a Bingo card of what not to do when writing.

Similar but different, in the TV series Dark Matter, a character dies and her consciousness is transferred to a VR gazebo where other characters occasionally visit, but even with multiple scenes she never feels like a substantial character who can influence the narrative. She only exists to explain some history or as a prop for another character's emotional development. She is never more than just a woman in a box.

I've attempted to state my question better, but it honestly boils down to: how can I make a meeting in VR less dumb? I'll try to avoid obvious cliches, but I feel there is probably a narrative problem with any scene that takes the MC to an "other space" just to talk to a character we know we'll never see again. I also need to make this character have enough charisma and impact in her one scene to change the other character's opinion as a firm plot turning point. I need to show she is still enough of herself that her desires can't be dismissed, despite all prior indications to the contrary.

  • Have you read Zelazny's Donnerjack? Only about three characters in the entire book meet "in the flesh", Tom Maddox's Halo might also be a good stepping off point for you for good VR descriptions. Be warned neither book is what I'd call light reading and they're also both undeniably weird. – Ash Feb 19 '18 at 13:29
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    San Junipero does this very well so perhaps you could take some inspiration from that. – user27710 Feb 19 '18 at 15:41
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    One possibility: Feeling. If I am a character in a pseudocoma and I have only one scene where I have a chance to communicate with the rest of the world, you can trust that I will not be calm and philosophical about it, nor engage in some meandering Socratic dialogue. I will definitely present a lot of urgency and immediacy in everything I say. – RBarryYoung Feb 19 '18 at 22:18
  • Not an answer, but one show I thought that did a good job of something similar was the magicians. In one episode of the first season, one of the characters was able to mentally connect to someone who was in a "vegetable state" via magic and I thought they did it fairly well. – Dragonrage Feb 20 '18 at 3:11
  • There was an episode of Black Mirror with Jon Hamm where he was talking with another character, and you only find out in the end that it was virtual reality. Perhaps the answer is to make it as real as our current reality. – IchabodE Feb 22 '18 at 0:11
17

Make your virtual reality less virtual and more reality.

In Contact the 'mysterious stranger' is Jodie Foster's father, and the setting is a beach she knows from her childhood, and the VR is transparently VR, she touches the 'screen' and disturbs the image at some point.

in Dark Matter the setting changes with the will and emotions of the virtual character.

What they have in common is too much reliance on BEING virtual [i.e. artificial] reality, just as almost nobody does a good job of portraying "artificial intelligence".

If your characters can distinguish the difference between the artificial and real, then the artificial isn't doing a good enough job. If Data in Star Trek was a good AI, we would not have known it from his behavior or speech until it was revealed explicitly by another character (or mishap that exposed his innards).

They make another common mistake too, with both AI and supposed 'geniuses'. Namely, if they are so smart and able to absorb lessons, it seems odd they can't figure out at least analytically the most basic human speech, manners, and interactions so they don't stand out like socially incompetent clowns constantly ridiculed for their social awkwardness as if they were incapable of learning anything.

Anyway, you can mention your VR meeting place is virtual but inviolate; you cannot change it with a thought, you can stub your toe or cut your finger and it will hurt like hell: The VR is invasive and smart and has access to your sensory neurons, that is the only way it works, and VR feels like the real thing, including for sex or fighting or anything else.

The action of your motor neurons are suppressed (so you remain motionless), but the feedback sensory neurons work; when you run in VR it feels like running, if you get shot in VR it feels like being shot. The only difference is you were not really shot, or running, or cut by the paring knife. You may lose consciousness in VR due to such virtual injuries, but that is the safety valve: Before you enter shock the smart VR does an orderly shutdown of the experience and wakes you up, so you don't have a heart attack or something.

The advantage of this approach is that, other than the safety valve prohibiting shock or death, this is no different than a meeting in reality. If no serious injury or pain occurs, it is indistinguishable, and for the purpose of this meeting the setting can be forced to be a real place, the patient's home or someplace they know well.

So if you are capable of writing your scene in a real place, skip all the dumb tropes of what VR is, and make it a perfect deception.

This creates one problem, easily solved.

You should make this particular level of VR a new and experimental thing. If it were common, it would already be used to contact locked in patients. Or, make the ability to adapt it to a damaged brain something new and experimental; perhaps even devised by the MC for this purpose: In other words, it already exists and works for healthy brains, but has failed for those with severe brain trauma, so the MC figures out how to adapt it to make it work (or finds some shady character that can).

In the latter case, the patient may realize they are in this kind of VR the moment it turns on, and be grateful for it. Because even a VR like this could let them live a life again; have contact with the outside world, etc. It is up to you (the author) if the VR is allowed to be permanent or not, it would add some drama if the patient knew it was only a temporary reprieve from her prison.

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    I could add, like in The Matrix, where the characters do not even know they are in a VR, they just think it is real life. (Unfortunately the glaring premise problems of The Matrix tend to make me forget anything they did right...) – Amadeus Feb 19 '18 at 14:18
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    Does the final mini-fanfic (consistent with canon; promise!) in HPMOR Omake Files 4 help you to ignore some of those premise problems? – wizzwizz4 Feb 19 '18 at 21:41
  • @wizzwizz4 I don't know; the motivations for the robots keeping humans alive is ludicrous in the extreme. When there is a perfectly good motivation for it, that I (as a writer) found completely obvious. Nothing fixes the movies, they are what they are. Entertaining if you ignore the supposed motivations of the villain. – Amadeus Feb 19 '18 at 22:24
  • Perhaps they're good batteries, and Machine middle management want R&D to focus on those tentacle things instead of making better energy sources. – wizzwizz4 Feb 19 '18 at 22:30
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    @wizzwizz4 Then it should have been in the movie, and it is not, making the premise of the movie ridiculous. – Amadeus Feb 19 '18 at 22:44
15

It's nothing worth talking about

In your reality, people will be quite used to such VR meetings.

It's really just the same as for us today. Our parents (and even a decent amount of our contemporaries) cannot imagine regularly working together with other people through video chat (Webex/Lync/Skype), with a mixture of voice, chat and video/screen presentations.

So, in a book written 15 years ago, such a "vidco" might have been a visionary masterpiece. Today it's just standard, literally like picking up a phone, and there are real humans wo do this many times a day, every day.

So, just fast forward a few dozens of years, and VR is just like this. Things that are trivial need not be explained by you, and will certainly not be explained in a "tell, don't show" fashion by your characters.

Just do it. Your protagonists simply meet, matter-of-factly. The one in a coma will surely notice the signs that she is in a VR (like a "Skype menu" hanging at the top of the screen in our current-day world), and you can concentrate on your "doctor" explaining that she is indeed in a coma, that her physical condition is so-and-so, and so on.

As rightly commented by @Amadeus:

A potential problem with this approach is if it were so common, it would have been done for locked in pseudo-coma patients before, and presumably the VR would be pretty much like a prosthetic allowing them contact and agency in the outside world. With family, pursuing their business interests, working at jobs, perhaps controlling robotic avatars in the real world. This would ruin the premise of the OP, that the girl "is more aware of her surroundings than anyone knew." If the approach is as common as you prescribe it would have been tried on her, and she would not be in the needed situation."

This means that there should be a compelling reason why such VR connections are not frequently done in this situation. Maybe they are very expensive, or there is some law against making a connection without having written consent beforehand (to avoid "violating" a mind), or there is some extra medical risk involved when connecting to a coma patient etc. etc. - but these are surely reasons the OP can explore relatively easy in his world, compared to a awkward "tell, don't show, of the wonders of VR" scene.

  • A potential problem with this approach is if it were so common, it would have been done for locked in pseudo-coma patients before, and presumably the VR would be pretty much like a prosthetic allowing them contact and agency in the outside world. With family, pursuing their business interests, working at jobs, perhaps controlling robotic avatars in the real world. This would ruin the premise of the OP, that the girl "is more aware of her surroundings than anyone knew." If the approach is as common as you prescribe it would have been tried on her, and she would not be in the needed situation. – Amadeus Feb 19 '18 at 14:29
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    Thanks for that thought, @Amadeus, I have added it to the answer. – AnoE Feb 19 '18 at 14:44
7

I'm adding thoughts to complement the existing answers.

Any scene ideally serves multiple purposes. Copied from here: You want to make certain the VR scene is accomplishing multiple goals. Here are some possibilities.

  1. reveal character
  2. move action/plot forward
  3. establish mood
  4. introduce themes
  5. create change over time
  6. provide resolution

  1. create an emotional connection between character/s and reader
  2. dramatize events
  3. introduce or intensify conflict
  4. build suspense

There are other possible roles of scenes. I've put the ones I think are most important at the top, although it depends on the part of the story we're in. (The lower ones are important but I think they derive from the upper ones.)

You can compile your own list of items a scene should strive to accomplish - there are lots of ideas out there. I pulled this list from a blog online. Some items that I'd put on my own list, that are missing on this list, are things like introducing world building details. (IMO that should rarely if ever be the sole reason for a scene but SFF readers do want to know the world.)

To reiterate - scenes should aim to do more than one of the things on your list. I'd say three or more, but definitely two. It gives the scene more depth, more complexity, and makes the experience of reading it more enjoyable. It helps fire more neurons in the reading brain, which is fun. You don't want to overdo it but you'd do want readers to understand that this is a three dimensional world they are in.

Ask yourself which of these your VR does. If your VR is an info dump, it's only serving one purpose.

  1. You can add in: Reveal character. Maybe the VR 'experient' is freaking out, or maybe has some other reaction.

  2. You can add in: Reinforce theme. Whatever the theme is of your book, find a way to complement the theme within VR.

  3. You can add in: Provide resolution. Allow the 'experient' to go into VR with an unrelated unresolved small issue, and within the VR that issue resolve.

You want readers to have a sense of progress - you talk about momentum. Add in additional details from across the spectrum of storytelling, and you can use those to increase the forward motion of the VR.

(One final small thought: Someone said elsewhere 'make the bug a feature' and I like the idea so much it's been rattling around in my brain. Consider adding in more VR and developing them into a stronger leg for your story.)

(And finally, without giving spoilers, I think Black Panther does a nice job with this device. YMMV.)

6

Don't write a "VR scene." The same thing often happens with spirits/ghosts/angels and other such device message scenes.

VR can be anywhere, so make it a where that matters to your two characters. Make them have a real conversation as if one of them isn't a machine. Just write a really good scene and let the readers knowledge that it's just VR trip them up as it becomes real for the rest people in the scene.

Do this the way you write any scene. Books are just VR anyways. I think you are thinking about this too hard.

6

Since the visitor is connecting to another's mind, the virtual space they meet in can reflect the state of the character's mind. Perhaps they take a walk together through a city/forest/spaceship that the coma character has been living in during the coma. The visitor can be amazed/disgusted/impressed by things they see in the virtual world, and these things they see can be vehicles for exposition.

e.g. instead of coma character talking about how much they miss the visitor, they can walk by a cafe they used to hang out at, or a field of the visitor's favorite flowers. For a more dark spin, maybe the coma character is trapped in a small apartment, with a particularly traumatic memory playing out in a loop on a tv screen.

5

Similar but different, in the TV series Dark Matter, a character dies and her consciousness is transferred to a VR gazebo where other characters occasionally visit, but even with multiple scenes she never feels like a substantial character who can influence the narrative. She only exists to explain some history or as a prop for another character's emotional development. She is never more than just a woman in a box.

It sounds like you are worried the interaction might be this in your story; the POV character meets the person who was in the coma in VR, they get all the information they need an react to it, that's that, and the character in the coma remains essentially a prop in the protagonists' story.

Maybe one way of avoiding this is considering, how does the person in VR react to this? How does it feel to them being in the coma, and what does being in VR change? Are they having sensations they were missing, or is it basically like their imagination? Does it feel invasive to be pushed into a different reality in a way they cannot control? Can they control anything, and if so what? How does it feel being finally able to talk to another person after hearing what was going on around them but not being able to react? What do they want to say, or do? How do they feel about the protagonist in particular doing this at this time for this reason?

For that matter, why are the characters using the VR only now? Is there a reason it isn't used the minute someone is in a coma, if only as a diagnostic tool to figure out people's consciousness levels? Is this a common thing the characters can expect, is it a rare or novel thing that the coma patient would be surprised by? Are there ethical or social issues around this that can inform how they interact and react to this technology?

2

How do you make any conversation between characters not boring? Whether people talk in VR, over the telephone, or over a meal is completely irrelevant to the answer.

The answer:

  1. Make the content of what is being said relevant, interesting, and progressing the plot.

    If what the characters say is boring to listen to, then summarize the whole conversation in one sentence. For example, the protagonist could relate what was said to someone ("When I talked to her, she told me {something}, and now I {do stuff}.").

  2. Make the experience of the conversation relevant, interesting, and progressing the plot.

    How does the protagonist feel talking to his love interest over the meal? How does the conversation progress for him? Does he charm her or disappoint her? Show what goes on in him during the conversation, what he sees in her face, how they move, how the waiter interrupts them.

    A conversation is action. People aren't computers that send text. Talking is behavior. When people talk to each other they have goals they want to achieve. Don't think of it as transferring information from one storage (the brain of person A) to another (the brain of person B), but as people trying to achieve some personal goal (e.g. appearing attractive, struggling for power, showing love, creating an image of themselves, etc.).

  3. Make the experience of the mode of conversation relevant, interesting, and progressing the plot.

    People pay high entrance fees for game fairs to try on some VR headset, so meeting someone in VR should be something worthwhile to describe.

  4. Embed the conversation in the story.

    Switch to the view of the hospital staff or some other relevant character who observes the whole thing from the outside.

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