Last week I wrote about didacticism and A Foundation in Wisdom, and left with a cliffhanger. What inspired the story? This week I’ll answer the question. 😉
The An Orthogonal Universe series really begins with the second book, An Ember in the Wind. Although I consider the first “official” draft to have been completed in 2007, bits and pieces of it date further back than that. A Foundation in Wisdom was conceived later, marked as a prequel.
It’s hard to “spill the beans” about A Foundation in Wisdom without revealing pieces of the unreleased An Ember in the Wind. So, this post will have to be split into a third installment.
Also, here’s the obligatory spoiler alert.
The story was inspired by online multi-player role-playing games — in particular, MUDs (the 1990’s text-based predecessors of the more popular MMORPGs like World of Warcraft).
Most of us have heard of the larger games with their vast virtual worlds. MUDs were much more obscure, since they thrived before the 21st-century internet we know today. It’s worth noting a couple things about them.
Most MUDs had a few hundred players, max. This made them more like small-town communities. Everyone knew each other, for better or worse. And since they were text-based, the capital required to build one was minimal. A few bucks a month was all it took to pay for a server, and the staff were typically volunteers.
Marcus’s world in A Foundation in Wisdom is based off of a MUD called “Realms of the Lost Dimension”, or TLD for short. Most of the character names that aren’t names of streets in Tulsa, OK or Spokane, WA were names of former players. These include Ilia, the priestess; Vasigari, the other priestess; Eru, the wise man; and even Ry the Squirrel (who was originally Dots, but I swapped the stage I and II squirrels because Ry was my wife’s favorite).
The connection between TLD, A Foundation in Wisdom, and An Ember in the Wind is more interesting if you know the politics behind the MUD’s playerbase.
TLD started as a joint venture between myself and a friend, who I’ll refer to as K, in 1999. Neither of us knew much about writing C code, but I met and got some help from a group of friends, all from Spokane, who were building another MUD. Then K moved and disappeared, and I put TLD on the shelf when I started college.
A couple years later I was urged to bring it back by a few people who were familiar with the project. So, from 2002 to 2004, TLD was online. It rode through the peak of US reactions to 9/11 in Afghanistan, and the start of the Iraq war. That’s totally related, because…
Ack!MUD, the server code TLD was based off of, had a history with the US Air Force. TLD itself had a surprising number of players who were active military. A lot of people came to play this game as a little escape, but due to the small “everyone knows each other” community, and that it was an international game, it started to become a little microcosm of world politics.
The funny thing is that people often justify playing these games as little escapes. I suppose people could say the same about watching cat videos on YouTube, but the comments section is notorious for political banter.
The world was changing, and most people would rather have not talked about it. But once someone got the ball rolling, everyone else felt they had to chase after it.
This was probably most evident with the “I’m glad 9/11 happened” Irish woman. Apparently she had a difficult life. Her first husband had been murdered by the Irish Republican Army, and she fled to the US. Or Canada. Or maybe none of that happened at all. It’s not like people always tell the truth on the internet. She made one thing very clear, though; she disapproved of the US and George W. Bush.
She had a habit of emailing me Irish folk songs. I don’t know why; perhaps because I was one of the few people who was patient with her. Later, she made her infamous 9/11 announcement, and I’ll let you imagine how that sat with the players who were stationed in Afghanistan. I never learned her real name, but her player character’s name was Mara.
I should point out now that this isn’t the same “Mara” from An Ember in the Wind. Every MUD had a “Mara”. It was a common name to use, and they were all different people. Since nobody had “last names”, it was easy to confuse them with all the other Maras.
“TLD Mara” couldn’t go very long keeping her mouth shut. Once she made too many enemies, she’d start over. The only way to change your name was to start over — which she did about 16 times. Eventually she left for good.
If I had any part in the “war efforts”, it was to give a few hundred people something else to think about.
For those of you unfamiliar with role-playing games, the basic premise is to advance your player character by completing quests, or more commonly, just killing monsters. As your character gains levels, you gain more power, and can kill even more powerful monsters. Eventually, your character hits a max level. Once that happens, players formed “clans”, little groups, and declared war on each other for no particular reason.
Then I came along and decided to create a MUD that was more of an open world / “sandbox” game. The usual implied objective was to kill the computer-controlled characters (NPCs), but I took a lot of that away. Your only quest was to determine your quest. If you’ve read A Foundation in Wisdom, you’d recognize this as the highway’s instruction to Marcus.
At some point, I thought it sounded better to say the highway was meant to be the voice of God, telling man to find his own meaning to life, but I can’t claim to be that clever. Marcus’s infinite scroll was based off of TLD’s lack of a max level, a “feature” which drove most of the players nuts.
There was a sense of accomplishment in hitting the max level, and I took that away. The only satisfaction could be derived out of the journey, since there was no end.
In its 2008 original form, A Foundation in Wisdom was meant to be a satire of the absurdities of virtual worlds. MUDs were good targets, because they were mainly hobbyist pursuits. Most of the game content was built by volunteers, and often, the standards for the game world (areas), code, etc., were low compared to MUDs’ commercial counterparts. “SanCullep Island” is the primary play on the nuances of MUD worlds.
The thing about MUDs being text based was that, like in books, it was easy to describe things that couldn’t be represented visually very well. Rooms in MUDs would give you some written description of what you saw, and a list of directions you could go (usually compass directions, but sometimes there were special ones like “door”, “hole”, “mouth”, etc.)
Rooms didn’t necessarily need to connect in a logical order. In fact, you could chain two rooms, one on the left and one on the right, together so that the east exit of the right room became the west exit on the left. This would create an “infinite road” that went on forever. It was just as easy to create a room in which every direction just pointed to the same room, which resulted in what looked like forks with no roads.
SanCullep Island is based on the many poorly constructed zones that were full of logical errors, typos, and other absurdities.
One of the worst offenses was a room in which you had to type something like “enter door” to go to the next room — but nothing about a door was written in the room’s description. A primary goal of fiction writing is to construct a believable world. The logical fallacy here is that if your character were a real person, they shouldn’t have to hunt for the door.
The funny thing was that most players were willing to let these things go. Perhaps it was because these types of goofs were so common.
John Bartlebee often ridicules Sheridan for his story being outlandish. After a while, though, he begins to accept it.
The unanswered question is whether or not the events on SanCullep Island really took place. It could be easy to dismiss the sequence as a dream — but then where did the idol come from?
Most of the questions about “existence” and “reality” were reflections on the “reality” of virtual worlds. Someone once wrote an etiquette guide which stated the social aspects can be real, even though the game itself is just that — a game.
Much like Marcus’s journey, whether or not these online experiences are “real” isn’t as straightforward of a question as it may initially seem. Virtual worlds are stories in which the character is you, and it’s being written live. A well-constructed world, like a well-written book, can certainly achieve suspension of disbelief.
But not everyone in the game world is a person.
After the initial draft of the first book, I thought the “No People” could be people whose life was sucked dry by the cult Ilia created. But like with the highway, that wasn’t my original thought. The “No People” were non-player characters (NPCs). Since they were computer-controlled, their entire being was dictated by a random number generator. The “No People” aren’t the first instance of NPCs in the Orthogonal Universe stories. Mara’s puppets were based off the same concept.
So how do these NPCs tie in with suspension of disbelief? Well, there’s An Ember in the Wind coming out. So I won’t go into it. Yet. 😉
At some point I realized I had created a little world, and it began to grow out of control. In Ilia’s words, it spread, like an unattended fire in the camp.
I shut TLD down on the day of the 2004 general election. This wasn’t politically motivated; it just happened to be the week I began to prepare for graduate school. I finished my undergraduate degree in December 2004, and made plans to continue into Tulsa’s master’s program. I took on more teaching responsibilities, harder courses, and had less free time. Running a virtual world just wasn’t a high enough priority, and so was cast into non-existence.
Years later, I’m still sometimes contacted by people who used to play there. I’ve never met any of them in person, but I’ve come close. One of the players had a habit of writing poetry, published on the in-game message boards. One day I was browsing an indie bookshop in Wilmington, NC, and happened to recognize one of the poems taped to the wall.
I’m glad TLD is gone, but also that I had the chance to run it. I learned a couple important skills, including, how to program in C, and how to get people to work for you for free. I don’t think anyone would argue those aren’t useful things to know.
But there is one more important piece to the story: who were Sheridan and Mingo based off of?
As I mentioned earlier, when TLD was still a joint venture between K and I, I got some help from a group of friends from Washington. One of them I would keep in touch with.
We talked off and on for the next couple of years, usually about things that interested us at the time. Toward the end of my freshman year at Tulsa, and her senior year in high school, she invited me to her prom. Years later, we would get married, but not after a few years in a long-distance relationship.
Tulsa and Spokane are about 1,800 miles apart, and I got to know the Denver and Salt Lake City airports very well, along with all the common types of aircraft at the time. I won’t reveal why Sheridan is traveling to see Mingo, but their journey was originally inspired by the many trips I’d take to Spokane. Of course, I flew, not drove, so there’s that difference.
If you’ve never flown over the Rocky Mountains, the air tends to be turbulent. One day I got the idea to call them “wind dragons,” and pretend they were playing with the plane, because there wasn’t much else to do when the plane was shaking too much to read. When the turbulence hit, I always knew I was getting close to Washington.
So… that’s pretty much it. A Foundation in Wisdom is based off a game. But there’s still a few stones left un-turned: What exactly happened to TLD when the Afghanistan and Iraq wars broke out? What is An Ember in the Wind based off of, and who was Mara really?
Those questions will have to wait, because An Ember in the Wind isn’t even out yet. Something to reveal in the future, then!