Presence is a new novel about VR, clones, and virtual theme parks

Richard MacManus was the founder of tech blog ReadWrite and is now a full-time author. His latest book, Presence, is an exploration of VR and virtual experiences and promises thrills, excitement, and plenty of virtual weirdery. In the following excerpt, the protagonist Gats Holloway meets up with a virtual clone of her former friend, Manny. They meet inside a virtual representation of Tangier – a unique experience that I’m sure will become more commonplace in the coming years.

Virtual Tangier was one of several so-called theme park cities that existed in Doppel. That is to say, it didn’t much resemble the modern city of Tangier. It was built to the specifications of a previous era instead, in this case the 1950s, when the Moroccan port town had been the hangout of a group of American and British writers: William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Paul Bowles, and others of the Beat Generation.

Many people called virtual Tangier the worst example of a theme park city invirt because the developers — the same company that owned many buildings in virtual Las Vegas — had tried to recreate the most infamous parts of Beat-era Tangier. Drug dens, sex parlors, and the like. Their plan had worked, and nowadays virtual Tangier had a thriving drug scene and was a popular destination for sex enthusiasts.

I’d be meeting Manny’s clone at the replica of Gran Café de Paris. It was a popular hangout due to the inreal place being a favorite of Burroughs and his literary buddies. As I approached, I saw the familiar giant letters of the sign on a dilapidated white hotel building. Manny hadn’t told me where he would sit, so I settled outside at one of the tables facing the street. A waiter immediately approached, and I ordered a black coffee.

I watched the street warily as vendors and small Moroccan children hassled tourists. Even invirt, opportunities were plentiful for the locals to make money from the thousands of tourists who flocked here every day. That was because of the free Doppel portals in real-life Tangier, which allowed the locals to partake in virtual life. Those were of course funded by Doppel, to be as inclusive as possible with its virtual reality platform. Local companies ran the portals, but I’d heard they took advantage of the (mostly poor) users — demanding commissions on sales of goods and services to tourists, and so on.

After about five minutes, Manny’s clone emerged from the cafe and walked over to me. He had probably been waiting for me inside, but the expression on his face betrayed no annoyance.

“Yo, Gats,” he said, attempting a smile. But he looked worn out. The smile was more like a sad grimace.

“Hello there,” I said. Something wasn’t recognizable in the face of the clone. He still looked exactly like Manny, but his expression was foreign and his eyes empty. “How are you?” I added. I was genuinely interested to know.

“I’ve felt better,” said the clone, sitting down opposite me. A small metal table separated us, and I was glad about that. The clone wore a black T-shirt with Moroccan writing on the front, blue jeans, and sandals. He gazed absently into the busy Tangier street. We were silent for a couple of minutes, listening to the clamor of the city and feeling the anxiety of tourists as they fended off vendors and beggars.

“So, uh, you’re the clone I met before?” I said, more to break the silence than anything. “I mean, there is only one of you, right?”

“Yes, there’s only me,” he said, sighing deeply. “Like I told you, Manny created just one copy of himself. He created five Dr. Crain clones — at his request, of course.”

I felt myself getting angry, but I said nothing.

The clone leaned forward, the expression on his face pained. “Gats, I’m so sorry about what happened. Manny never meant to involve Adrian. It all got out of hand. He thought he was some kind of commando. Bought into the vision of blowing away capitalism, opening up our world.”

I scowled at the clone, and he shrank back in his chair.

“Opening up the world, ay. Well, that’s actually happening! The president is nearly impeached, and those billionaires that Crain so despises are running for cover. You must be thrilled about that.”

“It wasn’t worth it, Gats. Not at the cost of human lives.”

“I’m still furious with you, Manny!” I said, louder now. “Your lame apology means nothing to me. You killed my best friend!”

In virtual Geneva, raising my voice had embarrassed Manny. But this time he simply bowed his head. I looked around at the half-empty cafe, but nobody was paying attention to us anyway.

“I know… Manny is dead too,” he finally replied.

“Why are you talking about yourself in the third person? You’re Manny’s clone, so you are basically him.”

“Well, I’ve changed…”

“Riiiight. Ok, answer me this, Manny 2.0: was Manny 1.0 murdered by Crain?”

“Yes. Dr. Crain had one of his hitmen do it. Manny knew they would come after him, though, so he destroyed the cloning technology just before they got to him.”

“He destroyed it? Ok…”

“Yes, he realized he’d made a huge mistake. Unfortunately for Manny, it was too late.”

Thinking of the clone as a consciousness different from Manny was making my head spin, so I reverted to addressing him as my former friend.

“That’s the reason for your conversion, then, that you’re sorry you got knocked off?”

“Well, partly. But since then I’ve developed my own identity. I’m not Manny anymore. I’ve had experiences invirt that he never had. And never will have, now.”

I sighed and threw up my hands in frustration. This was just great. Manny’s clone had become self-aware and remorseful. That wouldn’t bring back Adrian, and I certainly didn’t want to be buddies with this virtual thing calling itself Manny — even if it was less evil now!

“Listen, thanks for making contact. But perhaps you should hand yourself over to the authorities. I’m sure they’d love your help in capturing Crain.” I got up to leave, but the clone reached over and placed a hand on my arm.

“Please stay,” he implored. I shook his hand from my arm and glared at him. But I sat back down.

“You’re my only hope, Gats. I can’t go to the authorities because… well, because there are no authorities inside Doppel. Even your own company long ago lost control of this place.”

I looked down at the table. I had to concede he had a point. Before the Treasury bombs, the DDN had been making inroads into policing Doppel. But since then it had been under fire from the media, not just for being controlled by billionaires, but for the fact it wasn’t even doing its purported job — it had failed to prevent two Freedom Federation attacks. Also there had been an alarming increase in invirt violence since the second bombing, as gangs and random thugs like Khris realized that neither Doppel Corp nor the authorities had much control over the virtual world. As for Detective Williams, he and his cop colleagues had struggled to understand Doppel when investigating Adrian’s death. What on earth would they make of a dead man’s virtual clone?

“What do you want from me, Manny?” I finally asked.

“Maybe I can help you in some way…”

“Help me how, exactly?”

“I can guide you inside Doppel, like Manny did when you tracked Khris invirt. I can help you track down Dr. Crain invirt — and his clones.”

“Why don’t you do that Manny? Why not just create more clones of yourself and save the world?!”

Manny frowned. “Because it won’t work,” he said. “A new clone needs to be controlled by a host human for at least a few weeks. Like a puppeteer controlling a puppet. But I don’t have a host anymore.”

“So you can’t create more clones for yourself?”

“Effectively, no.”

“I don’t understand, Manny.”

“Ok, Gats, here’s how it worked,” he said, suddenly sounding more upbeat now that he had technical stuff to discuss. “The digital scanning part was easy — everybody has those machines nowadays. Most people use Doppel’s, of course. Anyway, the real clever part is how Manny programmed the clone software. He had created a kind of implant, in the form of a pill. He destroyed the remaining pills before he died, but let’s say you had one of them right now, back at your apartment. It’s packed with thousands of nanocomputers, each programmed with Manny’s cloning software. You swallow the pill and it dissolves into your bloodstream, and the nanocomputers make their way into your brain. Here’s the kicker: once inside your brain, the tiny computers scatter. Each one gathers a huge amount of data about how you operate. About what you do and what you think. Your memories, even. That data is ported into the clone — as part of the puppeting process — through the Doppel headset. For a while the clone needs support from its human. I don’t think Manny ever figured out why, but I know he tested it without the human support and it didn’t work. Anyway, after about three weeks of puppeting the clone has learned to think for itself and do things autonomously. So then the clone can be set free, as it were. Although the clone’s consciousness is regularly shared with the host, via the cloud. So the clone remains tethered to the host, in that respect.”

“Tethered? But you said in Geneva that you didn’t know what happened to me in Istanbul…”

“Yes, that’s true,” he replied. “The host owns all the data but can choose custom sharing settings. In other words: everything I did was shared with Manny, but he could pick and choose what to share with me.”

“Ok,” I said, “so does that mean the more clones a host has, the smarter he gets — since each clone could potentially be learning something new inside Doppel, all at the same time, and then pass it on to the host?”

“That’s correct.”

I looked Manny’s clone in the eye. “So we don’t want Crain making more clones. Can he do that?”

“Technically, yes. He has a digital copy of his brain already, so he doesn’t need the pill. Dr. Crain himself is still alive, so he can host as many new clones as he wants. But he still needs me, since I’m the only one who knows how to make it all work.”

“I see. So have you spoken to Crain recently?”

“Not since the second bombing. But he and his existing clones have been hunting me.”

As Manny said this, his hands began to shake and a look of despondency fell over his face again. He was a nervous wreck. We both fell silent.

“It’s such a strange feeling, Gats…” he said after a few beats. “I’m so alone now, in this netherworld…this virtual reality called Doppel. I’m all alone. Yet I’m also the most wanted person inside here. They all want me; they need my brain.”

I looked at this sad, depressed shell of a man. It was still Manny’s likeness — plus, of course, a copy of his mind. But the avatar I saw before me seemed infinitely empty. Like its soul had departed. Or perhaps had never been there to begin with.

Presence is a speculative look at the future of Virtual Reality. It’s a science fiction thriller set in the year 2051 and you can buy it now on Amazon.