Underground Reading: Killobyte by Piers Anthony
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Killobyte (1993) is a one-off science fiction adventure by the master of pornography and punnery - Piers Anthony. Anthony is worthy a thousand posts, especially on this site, as the bulk of his writing straddles the intersection between porno and kitsch. Pun intended, of course.
The core premise of Killobyte is that virtual reality technology works. Gamers put on special suits in their living rooms, then plug in all around America to the game of Killobyte. They play cooperative and competitively, in environments that range from 'fantasy castle' to 'Beirut'.
Also, because this is Piers Anthony, the limitless freedom of the new technology enables people to talk endless about their childhoods and, of course, shag like rabbits.
Killobyte starts as an intriguing, well-paced investigation of the virtual reality concept. The protagonist, Walter, explores the game from the earlier 'levels' - ushering the reader through the early ramifications of the new technology. Walter soon encounters multi-player gaming and Anthony, to his credit, deftly explores the repercussions of that aspect as well - a virtual reality world for one is wildly different than a world shared with others.
Anthony even does a credible job showing the difference between power-gamers, social gamers, role-players. While Walter is out to explore the new world, others, like the woman, Baal, are merely using it as escapism. And still others are playing to 'win' - ignoring the meaning of the worlds they play in and just trying to rack up points.
Anthony being Anthony, however, the initial promise of the book is quickly ruined. Walter and Baal immediately kick off a romance (complete with VR sexual exploration), based almost entirely on the fact that they're both 'misfits' - Walter is wheelchair-bound, Baal is diabetic (something Anthony touches in repeatedly in his books). Several meandering expositional (yet in no way interesting) chapters later, their budding relationship is spoiled by a HACKER. Hackers, we learn, are the emo terrorists of the future. This one, Phreak, is a lonely kid who reaches out by logging in to Killobyte and heckling people. Unfortunately, in the case of Walter and Baal, his heckling has the potential to prove lethal. (dun-dun-DUN!)
Although the reader should be grateful for Phreak's interruption of Baal & Walter's awkward sexual ministrations, the plot is nothing less than pure goofiness. In the weird 1994 version of the internet, full Virtual Reality is possible (on a modem, no less!), but the equipment is magically and conveniently lethal (and inescapable), and a single hacker has godlike power. Plus, there's the oddly-overlooked point that, even while trapped in the game world, Walter and Baal are surrounded by other people. Other gamers do serve as allies - generally in the most convoluted way possible - but why Walter and Baal don't just ask someone to unplug and call the police is never explained.
Walter and Baal are both fairly wretched characters as well. Although Virtual Reality is positioned as a godsend for both Baal and Walter - a chance for both to experience a 'normal' physical life, that is quickly undermined by the whole plot of the book. Even in the realm of imagination, the two are unable to escape who they are. Cue: an entire book filled with sterile, self-absorbed internal monologues. Anthony's tendency for super-rational, over-thinking protagonists is on full display here, as Walter dutifully contemplates everything in painstaking detail before doing anything.
This goes for the book's invariably sexually-charged atmosphere as well. Killobyte (the game) has computerized harems and brothels alike. With an air of nobility, Anthony has his characters point this out. Walter even takes a female role at one point - and is personally aggrieved by the unfair nature of the system (in between contemplating his own breasts). The whole thing smacks of hypocrisy. "Look! A digital harem!", says the noble character, "I can't believe how shocked I am by all those big, round breasts on display. And how TERRIBLE it is that I can have sex with everyone here!" (Outraged titillation continues until reader is done masturbating).
Anthony's traditional sexism is on display here as well. Anthony is quick to point out that the female roles in Killobyte are sexist. In the 'fantasy castle' scenario, for example, the only female roles are 'nymph' and 'princess'. Walter and Baal are constantly shocked by the sexual availability of the computer-controlled female characters. More than 'points', the game seems to reward success with robotic sexual favors.
Alas, that doesn't cut it. Just having characters comment about how sexist something is... doesn't actually make it any less sexist (please take note of this, Joss Whedon). Rather than using virtual reality as an excuse to step out of gender roles, the game reinforces them. Similarly, rather than exploring the concept as an means to avoid stereotypical gender roles, Anthony uses the book to reinforce them. Girls are girls and boys are boys, and nothing can change that. One will always be the hero, the other will always be the object. He is defined by his concerns over his manhood, she is defined by concerns over how pretty she is. The whole thing is more than a little painful.
Overall, Killobyte is like having an entire Anthonian series condensed into one short volume: an interesting premise, swiftly ruined by an appalling commitment to lackluster characters and ludicrous sexual escapism. The book's trite ending is particularly appalling - a ham-fisted appeal to some sort of geeky gamer utopia, where geek meets geek under the starry sky, to be accepted by one another - if not by the rest of the world.
Tube journeys: Part of a long plane flight