‘For Joe, in virtuality perfection was possible that would never be true of normal living’
What if you could start again? Create a virtual world in which you are the Lord. (Red Loth) This what the central character in this funny but challenging novel does. Computer geek Joe Lorimer doesn’t just take over the world, he creates his own new one. And this is a world of satirical comedy revealing the enduring desire for stereotyping amongst people. It’s nothing short of the virtual re-creation of the real world. In Alternative Dimension, the author creates an amazingly comprehensive cast of characters/avatars – and gives the reader a voyeur’s journey into a fictional virtual world.
And there is humour aplenty. Like a picaresque novel, or a weird modern version of Pilgrim’s Progress, or maybe even a Canterbury Tales for our times, the throw-away observation that Alienating readers and creating art are not the same thing at all is an example of the witty, pithy humour that pervades the novel. There’s a Swiftian feel to it all but in a casual and underplayed way. The deep points are well padded in the humour to make them much much more palatable. For example, there’s a pub called The Joke and Cliché in AD and an Agatha Christie Club populated by risible but highly plausible characters. Suggesting that there’s always a ‘norm’ in any society it’s just that ‘different rules apply’, in AD Kirton repeatedly illustrates how the ‘norms’ in this virtual world are oh so familiar ones. More than that, he points out that if you give people their freedom all they do is make rules and religion.
The relationship between people and their created ‘avatars’ is explored and exploded. The added level of complexity to relationships carried out ‘virtually’ when people want some ‘reality’ in them as well, is humorously exposed through a panoply of characters (and their avatars). Sometimes one reels in the multiple dimension of character being offered through the various levels of ‘reality’ portrayed. There are so many branches off the main story that they become stories of their own. And this is, of course, intentional and reflective both of the ‘game play’ and the way virtuality functions. The distinction for players between virtual and real seems hard to maintain and virtuality becomes a kind of reality not only for them, but for the reader as well. All of which brings up interesting questions about what ‘reality’ means to any of us.
Stichley Green is one of an astonishing variety of characters who reinvent themselves to ‘exist’ in AD. A ‘loser’ in real life, he becomes a virtual entrepreneur and thus the loser becomes a winner. He becomes a virtual plumber and finds a gap in the virtual market – not through plumbing – but through exploiting newcomers. Tongue firmly in cheek, Kirton shows us that the future lies in ‘consultancy.’
On a deeper level the novel considers how people extend their real life into their virtual one and explores the positive benefits for their real life as people become more confident. But there’s always a downside. Humiliation, embarrassment and existential angst are at least as prevalent in AD as in the ‘real’ world. Kirton issues that existential rallying cry ‘Hell is other people.’ They define you and you can’t escape their opinions. This is the same whether you are in real life or a self created avatar. And of course it’s impossible to imagine that things a) won’t get out of control and b) will come to a happy ending.
There is a ‘magic’ of AD of course, in that it brings together people who would never normally meet in the ‘real’ world. And so many of them are looking for love. There is poignancy and tragedy in the way that love is ‘played out’ in this game which is so much more than a game. A game where the boundaries between reality and virtuality are first blurred and then increasingly, crossed.
Consequently, when an Independence Day occurs where the avatars start arguing with their own creators and things look like they are getting seriously out of control, one expects it but is still forced to consider what it will mean to the future of virtual and real life. There follows a crossover of avatars commenting on ‘keyboarders’ which is how we ‘real’ people might be seen by them. This is actually quite chilling if you allow yourself to think about it. Kirton's humour can protect you only so far!
And while I laughed all the way through, it is this depth which I really enjoyed, the exploration of the counterbalancing between the ‘real’ ND and the ‘virtual’ AD lives that I found most fascinating. In the end I concluded that AD finally just reflects the real world; for all its weirdness and fantasies etc, people are people. A world of imagination shows us only how limited (intellectually) most people’s imaginations are, how lacking in any real depth they can be and how people respond wholeheartedly to mediocrity in all things.
The avatar becomes a genuine extension of the person and avatars become the ‘real’ reality. From coexistence between the two dimensions of reality the real world becomes cheap and scary. The inexorable fusion between real and virtual worlds can have only one end – . Which is for you to find out for yourself!
Bill Kirton is better known for writing the DCI Jack Carston crime novels but he does a mean line in satirical comedy too.