Readthroughs and Random Thoughts

Writing about what I'm reading…

Mind Fuck, Manna Francis; Chapter Four

So Dr. Warrick has plans up his sleeve.
Being the control freak that he is, rather than letting Toreth call all the shots, he leaves a message at the hotel Toreth is staying at, inviting him to “Come and experience the future of mind fucking for yourself.” You know, in the Sim, at the university.
And that’s at least somewhat intriguing to Toreth, who decides he’s not essential at this stage in his investigations (and that the suspects involved who are detained can just stay where they are and that if anything happens or if they decide to talk, then he’ll come in [not only do I want Toreth’s administrative assistant, but I kind of want his job… well, the workplace conditions, anyway]) and so takes the day off for the meeting.
And go to the gym. He does a lot of that over the course of the series.
Clearly the sim has people seeing the potential in it, and the SimTech offices seem to reflect that sort of investment, and Toreth gets a personal tour of the facilities from Warrick, where he starts second-guessing his initial judgement of the guy: could it be that he’s “too deeply in love with the sim to mix business and pleasure”?
Let’s face it, though: the sim is pretty fucking impressive.
Probably a brief description is in order: imagine a virtual reality where you’re lying on a couch, hooked up to sensors which are allowing you to interact with another reality, while you are in a sleep-like state. Obviously, when other people are hooked up to the machine at the same time as you, you get to interact with them and their projection. And it has the same sort of seductive “create your own avatar” reality of the internet in its early days (I can’t help but think with the growth in the internet and the fact that everyone’s using it nowadays– there’s more of a fusion between online and “real” life for a lot of people and a lot less of the sort of “you can be yourself… or not” stuff there was online in the, say, nineties) wherein you can ‘be’ or look like whatever you like. Theoretically, you can do anything as long as the programmers can make it so.
I’ve gotta admit, the sim’s potential could be a series of books in its own right, and the damn thing is practically a featured character. (And I will admit this, too: I love it. Like I love kittens and cocaine and being able to sleep uninterrupted. The sim rocks.)
Anyway, Toreth gets measured up and sorted out to use the sim– and Warrick offers the reader an explanation of the machine in another one of those “show not tell” moments. I love two things in particular about his description: firstly, Warrick’s knowledge of it and enthusiasm for it shine through amazingly. To be able to write something that doesn’t even exist, and to have it explained so well to an outside audience who have never encountered such a thing, and to make that enthusiasm so infectious that readers feel like they understand something that isn’t even real but that they get the hype about it? That’s impressive.

Secondly, the sim isn’t perfect, and the issues and limitations identified sound reasonable and give the thing another dimension of believability. I think everyone knows what it’s like when some new piece of technology or some new system is branded as the perfect, glitch-free thing which will change everything, and, well, it turns out to have more bugs than a Windows OS at release. This also explains SimTech’s need for volunteers and more data-gathering for further development of the sim… which is where things start to get interesting…But all of it makes sense and my disbelief is happily suspended, which is a mean feat when it comes to me and fiction.

Warrick also has a nice little safeword clause in there, too:
“While we’re waiting,” Warrick said, “I’d like you to choose a word and say it out loud. Some people don’t react well to the sim. If you start to feel dizzy, or sick, or if you want out for any reason at all, say the word and the computer will disconnect you automatically and immediately. I suggest you make it something you won’t say accidentally.”
“Chevril,” Toreth said clearly.
And two things on that note: a) I giggled, and b) I couldn’t help but think, “That was automatic… you’ve done this before (since starting work at I&I), haven’t you, Toreth?”
They opt for a short session: while Warrick explains that there’s no harm in using the sim for longer, like any other kind of weird experience (I know they recommend this with sensory deprivation tanks, too) it’s best to start small because it can “have some disorienting side effects.”
Toreth realises that he can see– and feel the reality of a room around him, but has the insight to know that it’s not real.
And his reaction is pretty much what mine would be under the circumstances, experiencing that for the first time: “Fucking hell.”
Warrick explains that the room they’re in is merely one of many– a test– and adjusts the sim to give them a different setting. Now they’re in an old-fashioned “club room” — woodsy with a library and lamps and carpets.
And this is the bit where I remember that Room of Requirement and what such an innovation did for the Harry Potter fandom. Remember after that turned up in book five, suddenly every second fic had the “where?” problem solved? The Room of Requirement could be called on in canon by characters who needed it desperately and it would morph into a bathroom or a hiding place or training grounds or what-not. For fanfic writers, it turned into some obscure sort of love hotel plot device where HP characters pretty much had a place and an excuse to get as kinky and as sexy as they wanted to. It was everything from a makeout closet to a fully-equipped BDSM dungeon. I swear, if JKR didn’t know what she did in writing it in, she would have found out pretty soon.The sim is like a real-life version of that, and let’s face it, that’s pretty fucking legendary.

We also get a bit of an idea about what Toreth looks like, too: yet again, Manna Francis does Show, not Tell, and as previously, doesn’t flash all the details about something in one go. I love how this is done.
Spotting a mirror on the wall, Toreth went over. Half expecting some strange effect, he saw only himself, imperfectly reflected in the antique mottled glass: short blonde hair waved back from his forehead, well-defined cheekbones, blue eyes he’d always thought of as one of his best features– currently appearing rather wide– narrowish chin,and lips he’d prefer to be a little fuller.
The usual slight shock of realising that despite studious use of moisturiser, he was thirty-two, not nineteen.
As for that last part, ye gawds. I have had moments of that, myself.
Anyway, Toreth is completely stunned by the sim’s reality, starting with when he sees a sim-reflection of himself in the sim-mirror. And just like he’s experiencing a perfect reflection of himself, we, the readers, get to experience the wonder of the technology through Toreth’s reactions to it. And it’s awesome and believable– not just the graphics– which previously Toreth assumed had been doctored up a bit for the presentation– but the input experienced by the user also moves into areas of the other senses: things feel and smell and presumably taste like real life, too. He’s understandably impressed.
And clearly Warrick is enjoying the affect it’s having on him, and his love for the sim is described in such a way that it isn’t just *obvious*, but contagious. He offers Toreth a drink– and yep– taste is a factor of the experience, too. Who wouldn’t want one of these things?Warrick shows Toreth some more scenes, including some outdoor ones and explains the link between them and the business investors (just imagine the possibilities this sort of immersive virtual reality has, people) and notes a few technical glitches, again, giving a real feel to the writing. I love that the sim is simultaneously perfect but not, and I love how both the author– and Warrick– understand this. And I love how Manna Francis manages to simultaneously give it an air of believability by having Warrick explain it– and she rides on his enthusiasm.

(That’s believable, too, and for me: well, it bypasses one of my pet peeves in sci-fi and fantasy, whereby the writer creates something they obviously think is it-and-a-bit but describe so casually that we’re expected to be a mind reader [and be as attached to as the writer] or go into an annoying, pain-staking, and unconvincing hardsell which manages to irk me rather than win me over.)
I also love that there is not oh-so-much technology in the world that needs serious explanation. Again, a common criticism I have of fantasy and futuristic writing is when a story gets mired down in explanation all the time or the flow is interrupted by a need to refer to footnotes. The Administration series completely avoids this: everything is explained succinctly and when it needs to be, and gradually, so the reader isn’t bombarded with a heap of information all at once; we’re eased into it… which makes it that much easier to buy. We adapt to the universe, it isn’t thrust upon us to make sense of in one great hit.
Warrick explains about the tactile experience of the sim and its capabilities, demonstrating that people can touch one another in the virtual world.
Of course, that makes Toreth have some questions about its capacity of his own.
“And what about pain?” he asked.
Warrick held his gaze for a moment, then stood up and turned back to the control panel, here hanging disconcertingly in mid-air. “Not in this program.”
Oh, ouch. Here we have something interesting: Warrick’s shown him this gorgeous countryside scene with sunshine and meadows and convincingly damp grass, and a peaceful, natural beauty, and Toreth’s first real question is about how the sim can be used for something not quite so wonderous and content and beautiful.
“But it can be done?”
“Yes, of course. Don’t worry, you can report back that it would all be extremely useful for yoiur purposes if they could afford it.”
“My purposes?”
“Interrogation.” Flat voice, eyes intent on the console.
“I’m a–“
“Para-investigator. That’s what you told me,”
“No I didn’t.”
“Not quite in so as many words, no. But you told me you rape minds.”
Hmm. So much for Warrick’s cool, ambiguous attitude about the use of the sim for interrogation purposes as demonstrated in his presentation when he was responding to the university-educated idealist. I think it’s crystal clear how he actually feels about that.
“I said ‘I fuck minds,’ I think you’ll find.”
Warrick shrugged. “It’s all in the inflection, really.”
“So what do you think about my inflection?”
The strange half smile again, this time in flattering profile. “I think you probably can’t tell the difference any more.”
Just this: Oh. My. Fucking. God. Seriously. He’s absolutely repulsed by him, yet has had some compelling reason to give him the tour and show him how beautiful things can be in the sim. I got the feeling that it’s almost as though a part of him was wanting to see if Toreth really was— or just did— his job, and then suddenly when he asks about application for the sim to be used to hurt people, up go Warrick’s defenses.
And he’s so slick about it, too.
Admittedly, the first time I read this, I was already feeling a bit defensive for Toreth, and I will acknowledge that was based purely on my own experiences and ability to identify with someone feeling what it’s like to work in a job that other people regard with a level of disgust or suspicion. Warrick’s almost parental protectiveness about his baby being used to quite methodically and potentially inhumanly cause hurt and harm to others wasn’t the first thing to register.
He knew before he invited me here, Toreth thought. He’s known all along and he’s disgusted by the idea of what I do, but he’s still interested. The realisation brought a sharp stab of excitement. He loved to see people wanting to do things they thought they shouldn’t.
*grins* If it hasn’t already been established, Toreth is awesome.
Warrick decides to unbalance him a little bit by changing the scene around them–something else I really love about the dynamic between them. In their beginning of their relationship, especially, there’s a real push-and-pull dynamic where they’re very subtly trying to compete with one another for dominance. But there’s nothing as vulgar and obvious and physical as your usual fight: it’s far quieter and more dignified and headfucky.
Toreth might look like he’s got the advantage given his profession, but Warrick is socially astute and has the sort of backing of a rather brilliant reputation (deserved, when you consider the sim and his smooth-talking)– and presumably an extensive education– behind him. The contrast and yet their similarities (both have control issues, for example, which I’d argue feature heavily in who they are as people) make for some seriously fascinating interaction.
Warrick’s change of scene brings them into a bedroom. Painstakingly, beautifully rendered, too, gorgeously detailled, and incorporating scent into the myriad of senses influenced by the sim’s abilities, and the explanation that brain function can be influenced by the machine. Warrick demonstrates by rendering Toreth completely immobile, and messing with his vision. Scary.
But not scary enough to make Toreth use his safeword which he’d agreed to at the start of the demonstration. Or maybe it’s scary enough to make Toreth dig his heels in and refuse to let Warrick see the whites of his eyes.
“In fact,” Warrick continued, “a lot of truly impressive work is done by the brain. Integrating the signals, smoothing out the imperfections. It’s a remarkably flexible organ. And it works both ways. With practice it’s possible to train the brain to maximally exploit the sim environment.”
“Very much so, For example–” As far as he could see, the man didn’t move a centimetre. But suddenly Toreth felt a hand trace a path down his chest from his collarbone to his navel, the smooth palm brushing distincty against naked skin. He looked down sharply, but he was still fully clothed.
“How the hell did you do that?”
“I imagined doing it.” The hand returned and retraced the same path, more slowly. “The convention of moving the physical representation within the sim is purely that– a convention. With practice, intent alone is sufficient. Practice, and a little creative programming.”
You can most likely see where this is going. Warrick uses the technique to demonstrate that he knows exactly what he’s doing– with his imagination— and that yes, he’s bloody good at it. Toreth sits between being stunned and turned on and hellbent on not yielding to Warrick, but with his own experience with this sort of thing completely absent, he can’t exactly return the favour and is at Warrick’s mercy.  .
He had the feeling– no, he was certain– that Warrick wanted him to ask for it. His mind flashed back to the lecture and he thought: Control freak. Oh yes. However, Toreth wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.
Eventually, he decides that he’s getting some and he kind of wanted that, so why not enjoy it? And then Warrick stops it. Without warning, of course, leaving him begging, and Warrick smirking. Demonstrating a particularly diabolical fashion in which the sim could be used for interrogations, collecting data, or just having some fun and screwing with Toreth’s head? (He’s not entirely evil, though, and he allows Toreth climax before giving him his movement back.)
“You’ve go no fucking room to talk,” he said after a moment.
“About what?”
“Not being able to tell the difference between rape and fucking.”
Warrick was still busy over the console. “Oh, I know the difference. That was fucking. If you thought otherwise, you should have stopped it.”
“Stopped it? I couldn’t move!”
Warrick looked around, the smile reaching his eyes this time. “All you had to do was say the word.”
Toreth realised what he meant even before Warrick elaborated. “The code word.”
The code word. He’d completely forgotten, and yet he hadn’t forgotten– not really, not for a minute. Game, set, and fucking match. He lay there, unable, for one of the few times in his life, to think of anything to say.
And then they’re out of the sim, and Warrick is escorting him from the building, their discussion polite and friendly and casual.
That had a very final ring to it. Toreth made it a rule to never do the chasing– or at least for it to never look as if he were– but he couldn’t let this go. He’d comprehensively lost this round, and they both knew it.
Of course it’s not over, and with a thankyou that borders of vicious, Toreth offers to take Dr. Warrick out to dinner… as payback. Expecting him to say no, Warrick grabs the reins and calls his bluff… and agrees.
It’s on, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s already sizzling.

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2 thoughts on “Mind Fuck, Manna Francis; Chapter Four

  1. Oh yes, yes, yes! This is where shit gets real, and where the story really began to hit its stride for me. I adore how Manna Francis has written the interactions of Warrick and Toreth.

    Part of this delightful complexity gives me two possible interpretations for the order of events in the sim.

    Possibility number one: Warrick starts out on the level, the safe word is only for the advertised purpose (physical discomfort, nausea, etc) and only after their exchange about Toreth’s job as a para (and mindfucker) does Warrick go ahead and take physical advantage of him.

    Possibility number two: Warrick had it all planned out from the beginning! 🙂

    • AGREED. Even after reading it a few times, it’s still one of those (and I hate using this phrase now) shades of grey areas. I do lean towards Warrick shifting in his opinion a couple of times on Toreth, though. Once when he realised that he truly could enjoy the wonder of the sim, and *then* after seeing *that* andshowing him the meadow and getting Toreth’s “Hey, can it do pain, too?” (Which… arrrrgh. I still don’t believe *that* was a threatening question, but just a curiousity. Though I can completely understand just why that got Warrick’s heckles up.

      Though the idea of Warrick planning it all along? I can totally buy that as well since he’s so deliberate and something of a strategist.

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