It’s no secret that my ‘Avatar Dining Club’ series is a tribute to Isaac Asmiov’s ‘Black Widowers’ short stories, a collection of no fewer than 66 short stories written by the SF Grand Master between 1971 and 1991. I like the idea that his stories about a group of monthly diners were inspired by his real life membership of a dining club (The Trapdoor Spiders), and my stories about a group of diners are inspired by his.
Today is the anniversary of Asimov’s death, so I thought I would publish a story I wrote recently that draws on an idea Asimov fans will recognise from his Black Widowers story, When No Man Pursueth.
“Everyone say hello to Juniper July,” said Deadly Number, the brand new member of the Avatar Dining Club. On the laptop screen at the end of our table in L’Albero Verde, the Italian restaurant in Basingstoke that hosted our monthly get-togethers, a dark-haired, middle-aged woman smiled at us and waved in that odd, hand-waggle fashion that people sometimes do on a video link.
“You are most welcome, Juniper!” said our white-haired host and founder, Edward, and he quickly went through his customary speech on the rule that we were all to remain strictly in metaverse character throughout the meal.
“Juniper is my writer friend,” Deadly added.
“What does that make me?!” I blurted, with barely concealed bluster. I had known Deadly in both real life (since our school days) and the virtual world, which he had introduced me to some ten years previously.
A look of blank incomprehension came across his face for a moment. Then he said, “Oh right – those books you do.”
“Yes,” I said flatly. “Those books I do.”
“He means his successful writer friend,” Indigo Williams commented.
“I’ll have you know I got asked to do an interview by ‘Avatar Action’ magazine just two days ago,” I told her, hotly.
“Never heard of it,” said Raw Concrete, the young metaverse builder who sat to my left.
“I’ve heard of it,” Indigo told us, “and I’m not entirely sure that the kind of action they’re referring to is something you want to be associated with, Leonard.”
“Guys!” said Rainy September, who was sitting to Deadly’s right, her arm looped around his adoringly. “Might we allow our guest to speak, perhaps?”
“It’s ok!” Juniper called from the laptop. “Actually, I think I’ve read one of Leonard’s short stories. Something about a guy in the metaverse who always spelled a particular word wrong?” She spoke in a strong New York accent, which made it the second month in a row we’d virtually hosted someone from the Big Apple.
“Hey!” cried Raw. “That guy was me!”
“I just took the basic idea and expanded on it,” I said hurriedly.
“He misspelled the same word as two different avatars and someone used this to deduce they were both the same person,” Juniper continued.
“Still me!” declared Raw.
“What you’re hearing here is just the story skeleton,” I explained. “The actual details are completely different.”
“You’re writing up our meetings, Leonard?!” Rainy asked, incredulously.
“I do hope you’re respecting the confidentiality of our discussions, Leonard,” said Edward. There was an unusually stern look on his lined face.
“If any of you took the time to read my work,” I said huffily, “you’d know that the main character is actually a metaversian superhero, and the guy who deduces his secret identity is his arch nemesis.”
“Oh yes that’s right,” said Juniper. “I should probably have mentioned that too.”
“Superhero, eh?” said Raw, thoughtfully. “I do like the sound of that.”
Jennifer Bit, who sat opposite me, asked, “What sort of powers does a metaverse superhero have?”
“Was I bitten by a radioactive prim?!” cried Raw, buttering a roll with what I assumed was some sort of heroic flourish.
“We’ve established that it’s not a story about you,” Indigo told him.
“In this case,” I said, happy that one of my works was finally the topic of conversation (and aware that this moment would not last for long), “’The Red Avatar’ has the ability to manipulate other people’s objects, plus he can locate any avatar that’s logged in anywhere on the grid and teleport directly to them – even if they’re in a private region.”
“Doesn’t really have quite the same ring to it as super strength or the ability to read minds, does it?” mused Indigo, as she chewed thoughtfully on a breadstick.
“If I was writing a story about a metaverse superhero, he’d at least be able to fly,” said Raw.
“Everyone can fly in the metaverse!” Rainy cried.
“So he’s basically just a hacker, then,” Deadly said to me.
“Essentially, yes,” I said quietly.
“Poor Leonard,” Mary-Anne Middlemarch said, to my right. “One of these days your genius will be appreciated.”
“Probably long after I’m dead,” I grunted.
“Come now, Leonard,” Edward told me, “there is no greater legacy that can be bestowed upon a person than that.”
At that point, Enrico, our tireless waiter, announced the arrival of our food. On the laptop screen, Juniper drank from a glass of water, and it was only then that I noticed she was herself seated in a restaurant.
“Will you be eating with us, Juniper?” Edward asked her, as he took receipt of his bucatini all’Amatriciana.
“I ordered just before we made the connection,” she replied, squinting to see our dishes. “Are you guys in an Italian too?”
“If we don’t go somewhere where they serve pizza then Raw will starve to death,” Indigo told her, pointing across the table at the attack being launched upon a large Hawaiian.
“Sweet! I’m in The Milano, at Fifth and Eighteenth. I’ve been coming here ever since I was a kid. If you ever make good on that promise to visit, Deadly, I’ll be sure to bring you here.” Behind her two men entered, talking in raised voices. They started up the stairs at the far side, one of them bellowing from halfway up, “Henry, a scotch and soda for a dying man!”
“Though it can get kind of busy,” Juniper added.
We took a moment to start eating. After a fashion, Edward said to our guest, “So tell us, my dear, what do you write?”
“To be honest,” she replied, “I prefer the term ‘blogger’ to ‘writer’… I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s that ‘writer’ sounds too highfalutin. And what I blog about is anything and everything to do with the metaverse.”
“I’m an avid follower of your blog,” Mary-Anne told her. “Your article on ‘the top ten things newbies to the metaverse need to be told before their first session is over’ is still a resource I call on frequently.”
“Oh yes, I read that too!” exclaimed Jennifer. “There was one thing there that really made me laugh.” She thought for a moment, and then said, ‘You are right in thinking you don’t look as good as other avatars. There are two things you need to do in order to look as good as them. The first is to upload money into your account, which is achievable right now. The second is to learn the various systems of layers, appliers, skins, interfaces and different body types, a process which will probably take you weeks or months, which will feel like learning to drive all over again and which might well be obsolete by the time you master it.”
“Almost word perfect!” Juniper laughed. “I do love it when people quote me!”
“It must be a nice feeling,” I mused.
“Is it just for your own blog that you write?” Edward asked.
“Actually no,” she replied. “I’ve written freelance articles for a number of different blogs and metaverse magazines – though you’ve beaten me into ‘Avatar Action,’ Leonard.”
“Really not something to be proud of,” Indigo assured me.
“Does that pay well?” Raw asked, already halfway through his pizza and taking a break to wash everything down with full sugar cola.
“Not really. The financial prospects of a blogger are nothing like those of the high profile content creators, I’m afraid. I won’t be giving up the day job anytime soon. But it is great publicity. And I love seeing my work in different places across the web – provided, that is, the editors do actually publish what they paid me to send them!”
“What do you mean, Niper?” asked Deadly, his hand placed over Rainy’s and his thumb stroking absently her little finger.
“Oh, I’m just a little cross at the moment, is all,” she said. “I sent a piece to an editor over a month ago and he still hasn’t published it.”
“A commissioned piece?”
“Yes yes. It was a review of an exhibition opening at a leading gallery in the metaverse. The artworks were by his partner. I turned up, mingled, wrote the review and had it emailed to him by the following morning.”
“And he hasn’t paid you for it?”
“Actually, yes he did: he paid me for it straight away. That’s not the problem. The problem is he hasn’t run the piece – and I don’t suppose he’s likely to either, now that the opening is old news. In fact, the exhibition finished a couple of days ago.”
Jennifer smiled broadly and said, “Sounds like we have another Avatar Dining Club mystery on our hands.”
“Oh, it’s nothing really,” Junpier said. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it, it’s just playing on my mind.”
“In any case, it’s no mystery at all,” I stated confidently. Publication, after all, was something I did know a little about. “Magazines can take anything up to a month or more to prepare. All that text content has to be typeset and laid out on the page, and accompanying images have to be arranged alongside it. It’s a painstaking process. It’s perfectly normal for what you write today to not appear for several weeks. Take my Avatar Action interview, for example – not the first magazine interview I’ve done, by the way – we’re now in February, but this will be for the April issue.”
“I’m well aware of publication cycles,” Juniper told me, a little testily. “This was an article for a major metaverse blog – not a magazine – and the editor specifically asked me when he commissioned it if I’d be able to have it to him within a couple of days so he could run it by the end of the week.”
“You mentioned that it was a review,” said Indigo, “and of the editor’s partner’s artwork. Was it an unfavourable review? Might he have withheld it because he thought it might upset her?”
“First of all, the partner is a he, not a she,” Juniper replied. “Second, the very reason why I was asked to do the review rather than him writing it up himself – of course, he was there also – was that he said he wasn’t impartial enough.”
Indigo dismissed the comment. “Just because he said that doesn’t mean he wasn’t secretly hoping you’d write a favourable review anyway. Obviously he doesn’t want it to look like he’s just bigging up his own boyfriend: that’d risk undermining the credibility of his blog.”
“Ok, well then thirdly I didn’t write an unfavourable review at all. I thought the artworks were great – and said so.”
“Could he have just forgotten?” Jennifer asked. “We’re all human.”
“For the first five days, he could indeed have just forgotten,” Junpier replied. “But since then I’ve been asking him when he’s going to publish the article on a weekly basis!”
“And what has he told you in reply?” Deadly asked.
“The first time, he told me the photographer hadn’t yet sent him the photos she took. The second time, he replied saying he’d been ill with flu. The third time he said he’d lost the article and asked me to send it again. Excuse after excuse after excuse.”
“But all plausible,” Mary-Anne said.
“I don’t know. I have this feeling that he’s running down the clock, that the next time I ask him he’ll say it’s too late now. I can’t say why I feel that – it’s just a hunch.”
“Well if it’s that important for you to see the article published,” said Raw, “why don’t you just put it up on your own blog?”
“Breach of contract,” I said.
“Leonard’s right. The standard contract for this sort of work gives the purchaser first publication rights. I could run it on my blog – but only after Ben has run it on his. Since he paid me for the piece I’ve effectively lost control over it if he doesn’t post it.”
Indigo said, waving a piece of broccoli on her fork as she did, as though she was thinking out loud, “You said you had a hunch he was running down the clock… do you mean you think he’s deliberately withholding the piece?”
“I don’t know,” said Juniper, looking conflicted. “When you say it like that it does sound absurd – I mean, why would someone pay for something and then not use it? I can’t escape the feeling, though. It’s like that feeling you get when the way someone talks to you changes ever so slightly, and you can’t help but wonder if you’ve said something to offend them without realising it.”
“Well could it be that that’s exactly what it is? Is it possible you wrote something in the article which annoyed him in some way, even though that wasn’t your intention?”
Juniper sighed. “I wondered something similar myself. Honestly, I can’t think of anything. I wrote a little about the artist – all good – I wrote about the pieces themselves and I wrote about the reaction from some of the attendees at the opening. Pretty standard stuff.”
Edward said, “I wonder if it’s possible for us to see the article. Perhaps the fresh eyes of the club might spot something you’ve missed?”
“Absolutely!” our guest replied. “I’ll email it to Deadly and he can pass it on to you.” There was a momentary lull in the conversation whilst this was arranged. Once Deadly had the text, he sent it to our WhatsApp group, and an unusual silence descended as we all read together.
The article was exactly as Juniper had described it. A brief, factual bio of the artist was followed by three paragraphs on the artworks – a collection of sculptures created to depict the various anxieties experienced by people as a result of their interactions with social media. Juniper had talked in detail about three of the sculptures in the first two of these paragraphs and in the third had gone on to expand on these specific examples to discuss the overall relevance of the collection. Whilst the tone of the piece was analytical, there could be no doubt in the reader’s mind that she had found the exhibition to be a very satisfying one.
Then there was a final section giving some details of the attendees and their reactions. It read as follows:
Prixel’s opening was attended by some forty or so avatars over the course of the evening. Notable figures amongst them included artists Hugo Bloom, Freddie Frankie, Helpme (who visited wearing a twelve story building under construction, complete with a row of builders luncheoning on a girder) and Amy Harrogate; the botanical builder Peacemaker Green; photographers Simon Stencil, Abi Jobs and Instamotic; and fashion designers Arbuckle Jones and Sarah Twist. Benjamin Bookis, known to you as the editor of this very blog but also Prixel’s partner, was present as well. Gallery owner Stephen Whatt, in attendance with his partner Harvey, opened the exhibition with a short speech about anxiety.
Grabbing a couple of minutes with Whatt whilst attendees started absorbing the pieces, I asked him to outline the appeal to him of Prixel’s work. “Let me put it this way,” he began, and then spent a moment in that impossible struggle of composing words to describe that which cannot really be expressed in words. From across the room, Bookis suggested, “He creates objects which pull you in initially, but the more you look at them and start to understand what they represent, the more you want to look away. They catch you by the brain, but then they grab you by the gut.” After a moment, Whatt said, “Yes: that.” I don’t think I could have put it better myself either.
Similar thoughts were expressed by a number of the attendees. Frankie described the pieces as, “breathtakingly unnerving” and Stencil went so far as to declare the collection as “so powerful it induces in me a sense of panic… I have twice already in real life this evening run gasping to my front door for air.” Meanwhile, Bloom commented that he had not felt such self-doubt since he was a teenager. Dialling things back a little, Twist said simply, “I think I’ll skip my second cup of coffee today.”
The exhibition runs for four weeks.
“Are they for real?” Indigo laughed. “Who the hell is running gasping for air after seeing a virtual sculpture?! That’s absurd!”
“It’s an art opening,” Juniper said, deadpan. “People say stuff like that.”
“You don’t think Bookis read all that and thought they were all being sarcastic?”
“These were all comments typed into public chat. Everyone saw them, including Bookis and Prixel. Actually, Bookis sent me a private message before I left the event telling me how overjoyed Prixel was with the feedback.”
Indigo shook her head and stabbed a piece of mushroom with her fork. “Artists,” she said. “They’re in a world of their own.”
“Aren’t you an artist?” Jennifer asked her. “The skins you make are stunning.”
“Thank you,” she replied. “But no, I’m not. You can’t just say that anything that’s aesthetically pleasing is ‘art.’ ‘Art’ has to make some sort of statement about the world.”
Edward looked at her with sudden admiration. “You know,” he said, “that’s really not a bad definition at all.”
“So by the same logic,” Jennifer continued, scowling just a little, “Mary-Anne and I, being virtual world fashion photographers, are also not artists?”
Indigo thought for a moment and then said, “I suppose it’s possible a fashion photographer could make some sort of statement through their work, but I also think it unlikely that most will. As a side note, not all virtual world fashion photographers manage even to achieve aesthetically pleasing.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” remarked Juniper.
“So all those people were basically saying how uncomfortable the sculptures made them feel,” said Rainy, looking confused, “and that’s a positive review?”
“A very positive review,” Juniper confirmed.
“I think I’ll stick to shopping.”
“And board games,” added Deadly, winking at her.
“I don’t see anything in there that your editor could have taken offence at,” said Mary-Anne.
“I do,” I said and everyone turned to look at me. “Isn’t it obvious? He committed a serious faux pas. He interrupted the gallery owner when you asked him what had attracted him to Prixel’s work. His failure to publish the article has nothing to do with a worry that his partner might look bad and everything to do with a worry that he might look bad.”
“I will admit that that did feel a little strange at the time,” Juniper said. “But you have to understand how confusing big events can be. It only takes a handful of people to be talking in public chat for the screen to be full of quickly scrolling text. Actually, I was partly to blame. Instead of saying in one line, ‘So Stephen, what is the appeal to you of Prixel’s art?’ I split it over two.”
“I don’t understand,” said Raw.
“I typed, ‘So Stephen’ and hit enter, and then I typed, ‘what is the appeal to you of Prixel’s art?’ and hit enter again. But between my two lines, six or seven comments got made by other people. Ben told me later on that he’d seen my question but not the ‘So Stephen’ bit – and he’d assumed that the question was an open one.”
“Except Whatt did start to reply,” I pointed out. “He said, ‘Let me put it this way.’”
“Again,” said Juniper, “Ben missed that. He was looking down at his keyboard and typing out his reply, and that comment by Stephen scrolled up his screen unnoticed.”
“In any case,” I said, nonplussed, “the very fact that he had this conversation with you at all proves that he feels uncomfortable about the whole thing. There’s no mystery to this.”
Juniper sighed. “I guess there’s some sense to what you’re saying. But look, out of everyone here it was only you that perceived the social awkwardness in what I wrote. It’s not like I made a big deal out of it. And if he did have an issue with that part, why not simply ask me to change it?”
“Maybe that conversation about the gaff was his way of asking exactly that,” I suggested.
“Except that conversation took place at the event – before I’d even written the article, let alone before he’d read it. He’s not said anything further to me on the subject since then. I don’t know. It still feels like I’m missing something.”
“Perhaps,” mused Edward, “he hasn’t mentioned the faux pas again because he doesn’t want to draw attention to it.”
“How do you mean?” Juniper asked him.
Our host thought for a moment. “Some people keep logs of their private messages, but very few would ever go so far as to keep logs of public chat – just think how quickly those files would grow if you did, what with all the things that get said around one by all the people one mingles with – not to mention all those tiresome system messages: they’d be enormous in no time whatsoever! So a mistake like the one made by Bookis in public chat is likely to be forgotten in a way that a mistake made in a private message might not be: ordinarily, no record of it would exist.”
She frowned. “So? I still don’t follow.”
Edward put down his fork. “Suppose he made the comment to you about his slip after it occurred because he wanted to explain it away as something innocent, something totally ordinary, something – most importantly of all – completely forgettable. But you didn’t forget it, did you? You actually wrote it down! So now he has to keep your account of it out of the public eye, and he makes no mention any more about it so as not to draw your attention to it and thereby risk making you suspicious.”
“Suspicious about what?!”
“About the true reason for that mistake.”
“You’re talking in riddles, Edward,” said Indigo. “What are you getting at?”
“You remember, of course, our conversation about fatal crossposts a few weeks back?” he asked her.
“How could I not?!” she exclaimed. “That led to the break-up of a long-standing and very profitable business relationship of mine.”
“So we agreed back then that a ‘fatal crosspost’ was when someone typed a nasty comment about person A, intending for it to be received by person B but instead accidentally entering it into person A’s private message window, or – worse – into public chat. But what if a person was using two avatars instead of one, and the comment they typed was a perfectly nice one and directed at the right person, but from the wrong avatar?”
“Oh my God,” said Juniper slowly, “I think I see where you’re going with this.”
Raw’s hand shot up. “I don’t!” he informed us.
Edward looked at him. “In our very first meeting, my young fellow,” he said, “you told us how you have two avatars – one for work and one for leisure. Suppose you logged both of them into the virtual world simultaneously and both were standing in front of me – and I didn’t know they were both you.”
“Now, I ask a question of avatar A and you type the first line of your reply into avatar A’s chat window. But then you receive a private message from someone via avatar B so you switch over quickly to that account to say to them – let’s say – ‘Sorry, I can’t talk right now.’”
“Ah,” said Indigo.
“Then you resume your answer to my question in chat, but you forget you’re now in avatar B instead of avatar A – after all, they’re both standing in the same place and looking at pretty much the same things. An easy mistake to make, in the heat of a busy moment, no?”
“Whatt and Bookis are the same person!” Jennifer exclaimed. “And the scoundrel’s in a relationship with two different guys. He’s worried he gave himself away!”
“The wicked flee when no man pursueth,” Edward said. “Someone who made a mistake like that might be very keen to prevent any permanent record of it from entering into the public domain.”
“I’ll be dammed,” said Juniper.
“Just a theory,” Edward cautioned.
“Deadly told me you were good,” she told him. “How do you work these things out?!”
“Sometimes we must ask ourselves what emotions might lie behind an action,” he replied. “You were all thinking it might be anger or embarrassment: I just wondered to myself whether it might be fear.”