The story below appeared in a science fiction magazine in 1964. It is set in a future in which technology enables people to ‘live’ in their own virtual worlds. This prescient story was written more than twenty years before the first online virtual world appeared.
Faster internet connections and better graphics cards have produced rapid developments in virtual worlds and there are now many Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) available online. They have millions of users and their own economies. At the moment the interface to these worlds is primitive, often just a screen, speakers and a mouse/keyboard combination to control a avatar. Even so, they can be very compelling and many people find life in their virtual worlds more interesting and exciting than life in the real world.
What will happen when these games become more immersive and it is hard to distinguish between real life and virtual life, except that virtual life is better?
“There was a brisk little wind up here, flipping the white silk of his trousers like flags against his body, ruffling his hair. Two thousand feet down past the dangling tips of his shoes, he could see the mountains spread out, wave after brilliant green wave. The palace was only a hollow square of ivory, tiny enough to squash between thumb and forefinger. He closed his eyes, drank the air with his body, feeling alive all the way to the tips of his fingers and toes.
He yawned, stretched with pleasure. It was good to get up here sometimes, away from all that marble and red velvet, the fountains, the girls in their gauzy pants . . . There was something about this floating, this complete solitude and peace.
An insect voice said apologetically, "Pardon me, sir."
He opened his eyes, looked around. There it was, the one he called the "bug footman," three inches of slender body, a face half human, half insect, wings a blur—flying as hard as it could to stay in one place.
"You're early," he said.
"No, sir. It's time for your vacation."
"That's all I hear from you—time for my vacation."
"It's good for you, sir."
"Well, no doubt you're right."
"I'm sure I'm right, sir."
"O.K. Get lost."
The creature made a face at him, then veered away on the wind and diminished to a drifting speck of light. Gary Mitchell watched it until it was lost against the sun¬lit green background. Then he tilted lazily in the air, closed his eyes and waited for the change. He knew to the second when it would happen. "Bing," he said lazily, and felt the world contract suddenly around him. The wind was gone; mountains and sky were gone. He was breathing a more lifeless air. Even the darkness behind his eyelids was a different colour.
He moved cautiously, feeling the padded couch under him. He opened his eyes. There was the same old room, looking so tiny and quaint that he snorted with amusement. It was always the same, no matter how often he came back to it. That struck him so funny that he rolled over, closing his eyes again, shaken with silent laughter.
After a minute he lay back, emptying his lungs with a grunt, then breathing deeply through his nostrils. He felt good, even though his body ached a little. He sat up and stared at the hacks of his hands with amused affection. Same old hands!
He yawned hard enough to crack the cartilage in his jaw, then grinned and heaved himself up out of the hollow half-egg-shape of the couch. Wires and tubing trailed from him in all directions. He pulled the cap off his head, breaking it free of the tiny plastic sockets in his skull. He dropped it; let it swing at the end of its cable. He un¬fastened the monitoring instruments from his chest, pulled off the rest of his gear, and strode naked across the room.
There was a click from the master clock on the control board, and Mitchell heard the water begin to hiss in the bathroom. "Suppose I don't want a shower?" he asked the clock. But he did; all according to routine.”
Later Mitchell attends a dinner party. One of the other guests is an attractive young woman, but Mitchell is not interested. His friend remonstrate with him.
Price swung his legs off the relaxer, put his elbows on his knees. "All right, what about this? You've got it made, haven't you—you can spend half your time in a world where everything is just the way you like it. You don't need that sweet kid that walked out of here half an hour ago—you've got twenty better-looking than her. So why get married, why raise a family? Just tell me this—what's going to happen to the world if the brightest guys in it drop out of the baby-making business? What happens to the next generation?"
"I can answer that one, too."
Mitchell lifted his beer can in salute, staring at Price over the shiny top. "The hell with them," he said.