Chapter 1 - The Party
This morning Miranda had an inspiration - real candles! We'll have real candles - made from real beeswax and scented with real bergamot for my final party as a celebration of my life and my death. This brief candle indeed!
In other circumstances she would be turning 60 next birthday. With her classic figure, clear skin and dark lustrous hair, by the standards of last century she looks half her age, barely thirty, the result of a good education; modern scientific and medical knowledge; a healthy diet and lifestyle and the elimination of inherited diseases before the ban on such medical interventions.
It's ironical that except as a result of accidents, skiing, rock climbing, paragliding and so on, Miranda's seldom had need of a doctor. She's a beneficiary of (once legal) genetic selection and unlike some people she's never had to resort to an illegal back-yard operation to extend her life.
Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me, il nome mio nessun saprà! [But my secret is hidden within me, my name no one shall know...] Pavarotti's glorious tenor announces a delivery.
Miranda had chosen Nessun Dorma in a moment of whimsy, as the apartments' automated Concierge never sleeps.
This particular delivery is for her final party so it warrants the sudden burst of Pavarotti to announce its arrival.
In the family salon little George is playing with his toy city and his planes. Since before he could talk he has loved to be read to about 'Loopy the Plane' and the 'Fat Controller', even though it is many years since planes have had pilots or trains have had drivers.
"Are you excited about the party Georgie?" she gushes, not expecting him to grasp its true significance.
But George just frowns. He appears to be far too preoccupied adding another a huge tower with a spiral road. He is Mary's child and rather intense, like his father, Ross.
Miranda likes Ross. He's a good find for Mary who has chosen her men badly in the past. She had hoped that Mary would have another baby but Ross already has an earlier child and he would need to sign a Ten-Two contract; or Mary would need a change of partner. Ross is a bioengineer and has, according to Mary, a very impressive credit rating that almost matches Mary's own as a senior knowledge trader. Miranda has long since given up trying to imagine how their work contributes to this modern world; or justifies the big credits they earn.
Not that big-credits are wonderful as such. Now that serious poverty has at last been eliminated anybody can purchase the essential that they need to live quite well. As a result, unless they aspire to luxury, their services are not as easily purchased by those possessing more credit as they once were. Except for those addicted to something costly, desperation is no longer an incentive to prostitute oneself.
Big credits are more an indicator of social position and a mark of esteem, like a sporting medal. But with social position comes the power to plan and decide. And these are the true means of controlling others and the direction of society in general.
Miranda has an aversion to economics and only a hazy idea of the role of credits in capital formation and fiscal and monetary stability. As a result, some of her ideas about wealth are definitely 20th century. Unlike some families that suffered privations during the Great Recession, she grew up wealthy and influential. This together with a pleasant nature and natural beauty has meant that other people have always found her attractive, particularly men, but women too, and she's used to the social power that she has as a result of her 'friends in high places'.
Father is sometimes called the Father of the Cloud. He was one of the whiz-kids of the information revolution and still has seemingly unlimited resources. He has been a great benefactor to many charitable and social causes. He continued to be involved in several of these until mother died last year. Mother was his rock, a famous author and inspiration to the whole family. It was she who kept him going and now, at the age of 93, he seems to have retired from public life. Maybe he will recover but it will get worse before it's better as he's about to outlive his beloved daughter too.
Her thoughts of Dad remind Miranda of an amusing magazine story that she's posted to her screen's scrap-board:
The Cloud - What is it anyway?
The Cloud manages everything in our lives. It gets us to work; it entertains us; it keeps us healthy; it informs us, keeps our credit and sells to us.
Perhaps The Cloud got its name because something 'in' it manages those thousands of buzzing delivery machines that swarm around every large building like the flies around a stockman's head.
The Cloud is their flight controller so that the delivery and collection drones queue elaborately and very seldom clash but coordinate perfectly with the robotic mechanisms that silently move: perishables into refrigerators; clothes to wardrobes; and other goods and furnishings to their pre-assigned cupboards or locations. Meanwhile its recycling drones compete for the airspace too.
Try as we might we can't imagine how we could pilot a drone to collect and deliver just one item without clashing with or crashing into another machine or failing to pick up 'just in time' or to schedule them to the consumer's correct allocated storage. But The Cloud can do this for tens of thousands of deliveries to hundreds of thousands of buildings every hour, without apparent limit.
And where do the goods come from? Why factories of course: those vast white and glass buildings that you can see from a hover taxi.
And how are factories managed and run; the goods designed; the required materials collected; the recycling plants run; the solar energy collected and stored; and a myriad of other such 'techie' things accomplished? Why by The Cloud of course. Can you imagine a person trying to design or make a modern molecular product?
Our little human minds can't begin to grasp the complexities involved. And why should we? There is no longer any need for a person to make so much as a cup of tea - The Cloud will instruct our new tea maker to do it for us.
Housekeeping Hint: You can get your own tea maker for endless cups of tea, whenever you like, for C1,050.00 Just ask your VPA to get you one.
Modern Housekeeping - May 2083
For the journalist, in common with most of his readership: The Cloud is another mystery in his incomprehensible world where Cloud is another word for magic.
Miranda had kept the article for the line about 'flies around a stockman's head'. It gave her hope that some semblance of the poetry of those professions past was retained somewhere in the communal memory. It hinted at a poem in a colourful children's book that her grandfather had liked to recite as she turned the pages as a toddler:
In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy
Gone a-droving `down the Cooper' where the Western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover's life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.
But of course, stockmen are like blacksmiths and garage mechanics: a thing of the past.
As the article described, the apartment's robotic systems continuously accepted, often nameless, deliveries like the ingredients for meals, soaps and creams and perfumes and many transient or disposable items and furnishings and appliances that had reached the end of their useful lives. Other deliveries involved items replaced on a whim and these had a higher status and were usually announced with some fanfare: "Your new dress has arrived madam!"
If she's really honest with herself, this new world order is disturbing. Miranda's always, sometime shamefully, enjoyed the status that wealth brings. She's never held herself above others but others don't necessarily see it that way. One can't avoid the kowtowing of the those less fortunate who like to hang around the wealthy. It's noblesse oblige: the opportunity to endower an art gallery or the Ballet; followed by the fawning of the gallery directors or Ballet staff; and the supplications of the charity industry in general.
'I've enjoyed the freedom to exercise a whim, supporting this or that,' she muses. 'Now nobody really needs my support! The charity industry has all but disappeared. When there are no poor, it takes away the fun of being rich. Instead, it's all about fake celebrity. Celebrity!'
Miranda decries the fact that the 'news' these days seems to be mainly gossip about celebrities, who seem to be manufactured by someone in the media, perhaps some automatic software bot in The Cloud, at a bewildering rate. But most of the sites on the Multidimensional Videowall just seem to deliver sport; or song and dance, so those at home can be on the field or dance and sing-along in multidimensional space.
She blames virtual reality technology that seems to get more bizarre and addictive every day for all society's ills. Years ago, in the late 20th century, people could buy three-dimensional goggles or screens no bigger than a window and then add multichannel surround-sound to get a more realistic experience. Now all the surfaces in a room can be fitted with a three-dimensional screen and walls themselves produce surround-sound. At one moment you can be standing in the vast Sahara with sand off into the distance as far as the eye can see at another you can be realistically tossed in a boat at sea screaming with excitement or doubled over with seasickness.
Many quite ordinary homes are said to have several entire rooms lined with screens like this for a complete 360-degree virtual experience. But it's not for adventure travel that most ViewOyeurs use them but for virtual dance parties and vicarious sporting experiences because you can actually see feel and smell all the sensations experienced by a chosen 'star'.
So sport and dance shows can be experienced as if the otherwise unfit and untrained viewer is their chosen highly skilled player or performer themselves. Just choose which participant you want to 'be' and to what degree. You can even feel what it's like to be a champion fighter in a heavy weight boxing ring - hitting and being hit.
Miranda doesn't have polarised retinal implants or contacts and even avoids wearing her polarised glasses unless she's making a virtual visit to a friend who is inconvenient to visit in person.
She hates things leaping out at her from all directions, particularly from any three-dimensional screen or advertisement she happens to pass in the street. And she certainly has no interest in wearing haptic underwear to provide total body sensations to match the visual and audible experience: 'Heaven forbid!'
Her gardener told her that she's missing out on a lot of marketing 'Info-mation' embedded in the 3D images but she dislikes the illusions that result from wearing those glasses. With multidimensional technology it's getting harder to tell the virtual from actual reality.
"I hate that," she thinks. "It's why I've always avoided hallucinatory drugs. One wants to retain full possession of one's natural faculties and to be very sure that one knows when an experience is actually an illusion."
Like most of her close friends Miranda much prefers to meet people in the real world. But obviously that's not always possible.
Last week she was using the MV to talk to her friend Molly in New York when she met the new puppy that was sitting on Molly's lap. He was so cute! So, the possibility of turning on the touch dimension for their virtual visits arose:
"But I couldn't pet your puppy anyway because only stationary things that have been haptically scanned have the touch dimension. Do I really need to feel the texture of your furniture?" she'd asked satirically.
"Of course, we could wear haptic underclothes and gloves so you can send me your sensations as you pet him - but I can't think of anything more disturbing than remotely experiencing your dog wiggling about on your lap like that!" They'd both laughed at the awkward thought.
"So, what's the point of my wearing any of these haptic devices at all?"
"I've no interest in MV channels that specialise in those dreadful interactive dramas peddling realistic violence."
Miranda and Molly are among the few people who actually bother with news that's unrelated to celebrity. 'Immersion Deaths' has been one of the longest running stories. Like the sound in old movies, in action dramas the actors' actual touch experiences, as recorded by their full body haptic body stocking, are augmented in post-production when the sound and visual effects are added by 'Foley Artists'. The added feelings include realistic slaps; blows; strangulations; bullet penetrations and explosions; that obviously weren't actually felt by the 'talent' on-set.
The intensity of these added effects is moderated to lessen real bodily reactions to the nerve stimulus, such as sudden muscular contractions that might lead to trauma. But some ViewOyeurs add big 'bang boxes' to turn up the sensation channels - like turning up the sound. As a result, there have been several deaths due to shock and heart failure.
Then of course there are sex sites.
Miranda is not a nun when it comes to sex but what is the world coming to? Yesterday she returned home to find her fifteen-year-old granddaughter Alexandra, Anne's daughter, in front of the big salon Multidimensional Videowall, 'experiencing' a 6D chick-flick. She was using polarised glasses for 3D, surround sound, haptic gloves that provide tactile input and feedback, and a scent machine. It seemed quite inappropriate.
Alex just laughed saying that she was not 'fully immersed'.
"Polarised glasses and haptic gloves are old tech Gran! I'm just skimming it and reviewing the production for an on-line critique on my blog. I'm not actually experiencing it as a ViewOyeur."
Her doubts must have been evident because Alex had continued:
"If I was an 'intimate fan' of one of the 'stars' I'd be fully kitted-up in a fully erogenous bodystocking - so I could properly 'sexperience' their relationships."
Miranda had demanded to know where the equipment had come from.
"Where've you been Gran? Everyone has active underwear and the glasses."
She had no doubt that it was true. Kids with fake ID could get hold of almost anything - delivered directly to their closets. For years Alexandra has known how to 'hack' The Cloud. The MV apparently thinks, along with every other cloud-connected device, including the refrigerator, that she's thirty years old.
"Anyway," Alex had continued: "These are just romantic chick-flicks. They have to be soft-core. They're just rated 'Adult Guidance Required' - and here you are, just in time, to guide me," she'd added smiling cheekily.
"If explicit sex takes place, like the hard-core things that real people really get up to before dawn's 'light through yonder window brakes', the production would be adults only drama or maybe, hard-core porn," she added provocatively.
Miranda had let out a little cry of shock and told her not to be so disgusting. "How do you know all this? What on earth have you been up to?" she'd demanded.
"You forget, technically I'm an adult. In earlier times I could be married by now. Juliet was approaching her fourteenth birthday when she first slept with Romeo and Miranda, your own namesake, falls in love and is to be married at fifteen in The Tempest.
"But don't worry Gran, there's no way I'm going to get 3D implants or a tattooed-on bio-stocking. And I've no intention of jumping into bed with anyone just yet," she'd concluded.
Miranda is still getting over how knowledgeable and worldly the child obviously is. Yet she believes Alex when she says she doesn't have first-hand experience. It's true that little Alex is now biologically a woman. It's some months since the family dinner to celebrate her menarche. But she's a paradox. On one hand she's a loving grandchild who would give her life for her little brother George and on the other a seemingly heartless nerd-chick whiz-kid who seems to know too much about sex and has no issue with killing the lifelike Avatars she encounters in the ultra-real video war-games she plays.
It made Miranda think back to her own coming of age. It was so different then. Reproductive sex, even within regulated marriages, became a social evil in the time of the Great Thirst and the Famine. Millions upon millions were dying in the Third World and the conflict zones and those who bred new mouths to feed in the First World were soon regarded as moral pariahs. Everyone quickly learnt to enjoy sex without risking pregnancy. Miranda had retreated to her beloved e-books and romantic fantasy. She thinks back to when she was not much older than Alex and she'd rebelled against the new conservatism and longed for the permissiveness of the past, those periods of flowering: the glory of ancient Greece, Renaissance Europe and Elizabethan England, the Restoration and Enlightenment, the 1920's the 1960's and the 2020's, before the Fall.
Thinking about it again she hopes there will be a return to romance and the love of fine things that is so lacking today. That's why she was so shocked. It was not so much the child's detailed awareness of sex and pornography that shocked her, as the coldly clinical and even cynical analysis Alex had provided. She was like a little social scientist from the days of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research in the early 1950's, wielding instrumented dildoes, the antithesis of romance. It had been a challenge to Miranda's very being. The memory started her thinking about what's wrong with the world today. She can almost forgive Alex her cynical attitudes to human sexuality but much worse, in her opinion, is this new vanilla culture, shared by the great mass of people worldwide.
She's ensured her children and grandchildren have been introduced to the wonders of language and poetry from an early age but she fears they are among a small and shrinking proportion of the population. It's fighting a losing battle against this new melange of English and Mandarin heard on the Multidimensional Videowall. On the MV misused words are tossed in and out as they go in and out of fashion, their meanings completely ambiguous to anyone who is out of touch with the latest trend. The common folk are exposed to a shrinking day-to-day vocabulary and simplified grammar often with no distinction between adjectives and adverbs and even verbs and nouns juxtaposed.
Miranda has long feared that cultural diversity is being lost. The old international boundaries, defined in part by language, have become nothing but historical lines on the map, now that people identify with a Home Town or a Continent. Even traditional lifestyles that once defined many cultural differences, like farming and wild fishing, have disappeared or been banned as impinging on the natural environment. Traditional farming and its traditions and lifestyle was first replaced by scientific farming and now by ESSRRP's, ecologically sustainable scientifically run rural production businesses, otherwise known as the FFF's, food and fibre factories. So, one of the foundations she has endowed attempts to preserve the many languages of the twentieth century together with the poetry of the past.
Courtly romance has all but disappeared to be replaced by brief copulations or synthetic experiences and most people seem to measure their personal esteem by the vast numbers of social 'friends' with whom they share the shallowest of experiences thanks to their VPA: 'It's Mary's birthday - do you want to say Happy birthday to Mary?' How can we ever recover that past intellectual flowering, she wonders, when romance and passion are dead?
But she's about to die too, so why does she care?
The future belongs to the kids like Alexandra and little George.
If that isn't bad enough, Miranda's ex-husband has a child, Charles, by his new partner Samantha. Charles was born two months after Alexandra and he's another techno-nerd:
"It runs in the family from Dad I suppose, he's the original wizard of coding and 'Father of the Cloud'. I suppose it was inevitable that the children would take an interest in the family business."
Alex and her biologically younger uncle have competed in nerdy-ness since they could crawl around together - alternatively mortal enemies and 'thick as thieves'.
It's several years since the child-minding software she had installed at home to monitor the children's' unsupervised behaviour has indicated anything of interest. Miranda is certain that they quickly found it and spoofed it. Now it reports two angelic children playing with Lego or studying most of the time when she knows perfectly well that they are doing something entirely different.
At fifteen years old Alex and Charles can both be dreadful smart-arses. But they're far too immature to handle their almost supernatural powers inside The Cloud.
Miranda fears for a brave new world with such creatures in it.