Last time I posted in this series, I talked about the characters, major and supporting. This time around, I'll run down some of the major themes in the story as I saw them.
The very early incarnations of this story were attempts at dealing with virtual reality as a social concept — the idea that we construct our own "reality tunnel" (to use Robert Anton Wilson's term). Modern neuroscience makes much use of the idea that our notions of reality are an ever-shifting composite made from the way our senses sample the outside world. All human "reality" is virtual reality. That doesn't mean reality doesn't exist, only that our perception of it is an imperfect composite from our senses, and that the more composites we compare against each other, the less inaccurate our overall impression becomes.
The idea I kept entertaining, though, was that of people who construct their own reality tunnel, or bubble, the better to keep the rest of the world at bay. This sort of thing can start harmlessly enough: kids playing make-believe. But it becomes a problem when people stop wanting to know where the bubble ends (or where someone else's bubble begins). Cult movements are one extreme example of this: the cult dictates what reality is for its members, and rigorously polices any contact with reality.
All that made me think a cult movement, or something like it, might be an ideal vehicle through which to explore the concept. The creators of a virtual reality all their own, without even needing helmets.
If there's been one consistent thread of thought I've encountered in geek culture, it's the idea of heroism. Maybe not heroes, but certainly heroism — sometimes the idea that there are people who stand above us all and lead by example, but as often, if not more so, that the act of leading by example, wherever one stands, is what matters most.
I remember one conversation about this subject, many years ago, that affected me deeply — one of those late-night (not drunken, but might as well have been) rambles with a friend in a shared hotel room. "If everyone who read a story about a hero embodied something about that hero just once in their life," my friend said, "we'd be living in fucking paradise by now." I was young enough that I wanted to believe it myself: what was stopping any of us from being awesome?
But then, a little later in life after some other things had happened to me, I thought about how hard it is to implement anything like that — not just because the world is arrayed against you, but because some of us have very different ideas of what heroism entails, and how those things are not necessarily compatible with making a better society. Action heroics are fun on paper — god knows I write them all the time — but too often they make for lousy real-world heroism, because most of the world does not revolve around extreme heroics, and any world that does require such things quickly becomes unsustainable.
Many of us jump at the chance to be heroes vicariously, whether by reading a book or playing an RPG. It generally sates the need to be a hero in that mythic vein, again because it's hard to be something like that in the real world without it becoming a bad deal for everyone involved. Again, any society that requires heroics to save it is probably not going to saved — not that it isn't worth saving, but that there aren't ever enough of us motivated like that to make the kind of difference we like to believe is possible.
Not that this would stop some people from trying, though. Or in believing it was all worth trying, even when the evidence of their senses told them otherwise. The feeling of touching that flickering flame even once would be enough.
I was in my teens when I first read about Yukio Mishima and the outlandish way he ended his life. He embodied the idea that some things were worth experiencing once even if they meant forfeiting everything else. I didn't believe in this idea then, and still don't, but the psychology behind it fascinated me. What drove people to discount literally every other aspect of their experience in favor of one thing that they had labeled as transcendence?
The people most willing to do this weren't people who, from the outside, had worthless lives. Mishima had lived one of the most fascinating and richly appointed lives imaginable. But whatever lives they had weren't anywhere nearly as interesting to them as what lay just over the hill of their transcendent experience. I found that tragic, a sign of a soul in pain
A few things about Welcome To The Fold became clearer to me both after I had written it. One involved the presence of drugs in the story as a catalyst. Some of the cults I'd studied had used drugs as a way to make initiates more pliant. But not all of them needed to do this. One's presence within the cult, and all of the renormative things taking place in it, often "put the zap on one's head" (to borrow a great line from Apocalypse Now) as effectively as any physical intoxicant.
If I'd thought about this a little more, I might well have never used the drugs as a story element — especially not after seeing, in real life, how powerful the effects of something like QAnon could be in the right social circumstances. The "virtual reality" of cults has been relocated right into the mainstream of life, now that we have social mechanisms to not only make that possible but easy.
The facts were further ahead of me than I realized. But I still feel like I paid homage to the right subset of those facts in my own way.