Conventional logic is to start with a white room and then build upwards from there. It’s supposed to provide the greatest level of flexibility, a blank slate on which to work one’s creative magic. Me, I have a fear of white rooms. Cheap simulspace never goes beyond it, and even in industry-standard simulspaces you still see artefacts of the white-room design process if you know where to look: there’s a certain boxiness, a certain claustrophobia, a certain harshness to the colours. If you start with a white room, you can add a ton of stuff to it, but you never really get away from the whiteness or the room-ness, and that’s not how I work. Especially not for a project like this.
So I start with memory. I have a particularly good one. Perfect, in fact, and had it even without any kind of gene-tweaks or cybernetic enhancement. Just the way I was born. Up until I died it was my main talent. Now I have… others.
I start with a memory. A memory of waking. What does waking feel like? What does good waking feel like, because I want this to create good memories, and therefore must draw on good memories? It feels like clean, cool sheets; a warm blanket; sunlight; the smell of coffee. That’s as good a place as any to start. I carefully edit out any remaining sense-impressions of a partner, of skin, or the scent of hair: the client isn’t paying for that stuff, and I’m certainly not giving it out for free.
The simulspace is now pregnant with sense-impressions, but without the anchor of context. I decide to go for something fanciful yet understated: something that will engender wonder, but in a quiet way. Around my avatar, floating in a firmament of code, I wrap the memory of an autumn day, walking by stream in the woods.
The fidelity of the software is remarkable. Leaves crinkle beneath my suddenly-bare, suddenly foot-like feet. The sound of running water fills the space with something repetitive and soothing. The client wanted a soundtrack, something from one of the more popular and current mesh-stars, but music has moved on, somewhat, and what we now consider appealing might be jarring, disorienting, or even traumatic to someone being backed-up from storage. Running water will do. The light is soft: sunlight, filtered through the canopy. I tease in a certain sharpness to the air to bring alertness. Trees are now everywhere. I never knew their names in that past life, but now a tastefully-discreet overlay thoughtfully labels each specimen, and provides interesting tidbits of information.
How to reconcile this with my initial intent? That’s where it gets fanciful. In the middle of the little clearing by the creek, I conjure a bed, a giant four-poster, replete with embroidered counterpane. By the bedside I place a wrought-iron brazier and fill it with glowing coals. I am considerate: I include a low table, furnished with a pot of coffee that complicates the clearing’s autumnal scent with the fragrance of a good brew.
My muse pops in. She does that, even though she knows I don’t like it. On some level, I appreciate her programming: she does things she knows I don’t like, because it helps to break suspension of disbelief, which in turns helps keep me from being too absorbed in the art of simulspace design. Thus maintaining my objectivity.
On most levels, I just feel annoyed.
She mimes the act of chewing gum, which she knows annoys me. In the saccharine pastoral setting I have created, she stands out like a curse in a cathedral, all leggy, pouty teenager. Perhaps having picked up on my chosen metaphor of waking to symbolise being re-instantiated, she is wearing only an oversized T-shirt. With her honey-blonde hair and lightly-bronzed skin, she’s what a pre-Fall Terrestrial would refer to as an ‘all-American girl’. A smouldering temptress wrapped around an annoying airhead embedded with sophisticated software.
“That bed doesn’t go there,” she points out. I’m proud of her voice. It is suitably detracting from her appearance. It’s exactly the right tenor of petulant to reinforce how juvenile she is, which in turn should detract from her otherwise hypersexual appearance. It’s an exaggerated, drawling, nasal whinge. “This is, like, in the jungle or something. You don’t get beds in the jungle.”
This is an old game we play. “It’s the forest, Marlene,” I say patiently. For all the uncomfortable implications of gender and power, having a stupid, pretty girl to explain things to forces me to break down my thinking and reason meticulously rather than through leaps of intuition. It is efficient. “And the bed not belonging is supposed to help the subject understand that he’s not in a real forest. I wanted it to be soothing and strange at the same time.”
“it’s strange, all right,” she agrees. She picks up the coffee and pours me a mug, wrinkling her nose at the smell. I decline; there’s no point in me drinking a cup of coffee created from my memories of coffee. I already know what it tastes like. “You done? You’re destroying the curve, you know: the average turn-around time for work like this is… oooh, way longer. Like, forever, compared to how quickly you’ve done it.”
I shrug. “I’ll probably make some adjustments over time.” I don’t tell her that my alien brain-infection might have something to do with it. Any other simulspace designer would have spent weeks writing code, tweaking light levels and fiddling with numbers. I just sort of think things into existence. “Just stick it in the pile and don’t tell the client I’m done yet. Let’s hang on to it until we miss at least one deadline, to keep up appearances.”
Marlene snorts. “Yeah, yeah. Your pile. You have no idea how many CPU cycles I spend just keeping that thing indexed.” She waves a hand, and there’s a momentary, disconcerting cessation, as she saves the data to memory and diverts processing power, leaching the scene of its sensual component. Then sensation comes flooding back.
“What?” She’s looking at the bed critically, prodding at it with a long finger. “You look like you’re about to say something.”
The smirk she gives me is wicked. “You know, since there’s a bed and all, maybe we could give the scene a test-run. Y’know. For professional reasons.”
The gutter-mind is not my doing, I swear. It’s an artefact from the software I used to design her appearance. The porn-star looks unfortunately come with the occasional libidinous impulse. An AI capable of spontaneous horniness is enough of a novelty that I never get around to fixing it.
I’m about to chastise her when she suddenly straightens up, and her oversized T-shirt is immediately replaced by a smart-looking suit. Her hair writhes into a severe bun, and she adjusts spectacle-ectoptics that spring into existence. In a split-second, she looks very bit the part of a professional personal assistant, which I suppose she is.
She raises a hand to her ear, miming the act of listening to an earpiece. Nobody does that, of course, and nobody has for decades, but I’ve programmed her with mannerisms familiar to me, to set myself at ease.
The ashen demeanour isn’t part of the programming, however: it’s legitimate, an expression of her core code. She’s worried.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
“Job for you,” she says, still ‘listening’.
I shrug. “My lectures aren’t due for another week yet. I’ve got some bandwidth to spar—“
I stop, because she’s shaking her head. “Not the university, boss. It’s Icebreaker.”
“Ah.” I shut down the simulspace with a twitch of my brain, and between eye-blinks transition from my simulated virtual avatar to my real meatspace presence, opening my eyes to see not the pastoral idyll I was working on, but the grey walls of my hab-unit. “I suppose it’s time to go to work.”