16

I believe I first read this story in a hardback SF anthology which I checked out from a public library (in Indiana) in the early 1980s. English language. I can't remember a thing about the title or theme of the anthology, nor what other stories were collected within. However, I can swear this was not a Star Trek-themed story, nor was it a spinoff from any other famous science fiction universe (such as Star Wars).

I remember the plot quite well. Here's a summary:

  1. An enclosed community of, I believe, ten people, has been stationed in some remote spot for the last several years. I have a very vague idea that this isolated community was something along the general lines of "a scientific research base on Pluto" (or some other obscure and remote place, a long trip away from the comforts of Planet Earth). It is critical to the plot that these same ten people have been the only permanent residents for however many years they've been here. There may have been occasional brief visits from others, such as a supply ship coming by every year (or whatever), but I don't recall whether that was stated. The key point is that ever since this outpost was established, none of the founding members have left, and no new residents have moved in; it's been the same ten faces interacting with one another, every single day.

  2. Until now! For reasons which escape me, one of the ten permanent residents has just dropped dead and received a funeral. The story did not turn into a murder mystery, so I expect it was "natural causes" of some sort.

  3. As the story begins and the premise is established, we learn there is a new tension in the air. Apparently, whoever designed this base, including social structures to give people ways to let off steam, chose to set up an unusual form of recreation. (Unusual by our standards, anyway -- I'm not sure how popular it might have been on the "future Earth" of this story.) It occurs to me that it somewhat resembled a Star Trek holodeck, although less immersive. Here's how it went:

    • Everyone sits down in the audience section of a small theater. In front of them is the stage, where the show will take place.

    • Each resident has created a fictional character to participate on the stage. It's the same character, in every session for several years, for each resident. Nobody ever "dies" or otherwise leaves the regular cast onstage, for any reason.

    • The fictional characters are manifested as holograms (I think), each of which is mentally directed by its creator, who is hooked up to some sort of mind-reading computer equipment so that he can send silent signals -- sudden motions, snappy lines of dialogue, wardrobe decisions, etc. -- without other people being distracted by having the person sitting nearby muttering to himself (or herself) all through the performance.

    • The kicker is that the relationship between each resident and his or her fictional construct is a deep, dark secret. The theory seems to be that it can be very therapeutic to let off some stress by acting unlike your normal self, with tons of plausible deniability so that your neighbors will never know for sure if you were the one who directed a certain character onstage to do something seductive, or obnoxious, or clownish, or whatever.

  4. For the last several years, this seems to have worked quite well. The main viewpoint character of this story is a man who is very happy that nobody seems to have ever figured out which character is his, and he's never been sure of which ones belong to anyone else, either. (For instance, there's no rule that says female characters must be controlled by female scientists.) But everyone knows that tonight, the first time since the recent death, things just won't be the same. With one of the real humans having dropped dead, his character obviously won't be getting any instructions via the mind-reading computer system. So it stands to reason that once nine other characters have walked onstage and started going through their paces, the tenth will conspicuously fail to materialize, and everyone will know which character had been stage-managed by their dead friend for all these years.

  5. The viewpoint character takes the lead; his character is first to saunter onto the stage that evening. I'm thinking he was described as something like "The Young Swain." A nice, easygoing, unsophisticated young man with a romantic streak. Other characters drift onstage over the next several minutes, talking to each other. I think one character, who seems to be particularly aggressive about trying to "drive the plot" that night, is called something like "The Out-at-Arms Philosopher." (The protagonist reflects that occasionally, over the years, someone has tried to start up a long-term plotline that would last for several more sessions, but someone else always does something to derail it.)

  6. At one point, another character does something which deeply annoys the protagonist's character . . . and all of a sudden, the protagonist blinks as he sees his character punch or slap the other in the face. The protagonist is thinking: "Wait a minute -- I didn't tell him to do that!" Then the Out-at-Arms Philosopher starts talking fast about how these two fellows will have to settle this nasty dispute with a duel of honor. (Which is odd, because significant physical violence -- such as one character literally shooting at another -- is considered very bad form in this game.)

  7. No duel takes place (I think), but other characters have gradually been drifting onstage over the last several minutes, and the protagonist realizes they now have nine onstage at once -- which means the one who is still missing must have been the dead man's creation. Right?

  8. Then Character #10 comes onstage -- and one of the real women in the audience screams. (She may also have fainted -- I can't recall.) At any rate, the scene ends suddenly. (Implied: someone physically or mentally flipped an ON/OFF switch to halt the show and turn off the equipment. Then everyone went to bed to get a good night's sleep before they tried to make sense of this in the morning.)

  9. The next day, the nine surviving residents meet in a conference room and discuss the situation. The obvious question is: Did someone find a way to hack into the system and manipulate two characters at once -- including the dead man's, whichever that might have been, as some sort of prank to give everyone else a nasty jolt? Nobody admits it (but would they dare to?). So a different solution is suggested: Slips of paper will be handed out, and everyone will be asked to please indicate whether or not they pulled a prank. Just print "Yes" or some other simple message that can't be traced back to you.

  10. The ballots are marked, folded up, tossed into a hat (or some container), and then someone opens them up and looks for a confession. All he finds is such exciting language as "No," "Not me," and "I didn't do it." After these results are shared with everyone, someone suggests a different approach: Print up a ballot with the names of each of the ten characters of the "regular cast," and then each person will be asked to take a ballot and make a simple checkmark next to his or her own character. Then shuffle the papers together so that no one can be sure which one was marked by any given person. Then spread them out and see what you've got. By process of elimination, this will reveal which character was not supposed to appear onstage last night.

  11. The name that doesn't get checked off is . . . the Out-at-Arms Philosopher, who had been the most vocal and aggressive participant in last night's show! I don't think anybody comes up with a great theory to explain this. But that night everyone files back into the theater to try again and see what happens. Somehow or other (my memory fades out here), it becomes quite clear that the computerized hologram characters have somehow taken on lives of their own, and will no longer meekly follow orders from their human creators. (Which may mean that the "research base's mainframe computer" has actually developed split personalities, or some silly thing -- after all, the visible holograms are just lightshows generated by the computer's projectors.)

  12. Then the story ends -- which I thought was really lame.

Sometime in the 1990s, I believe I read this story again -- and had the same disappointed reaction to the way the story just abruptly halts before having anyone start to address the problem of how the flesh-and-blood humans and the holographic characters are actually going to interact with one another from now on! (Assuming the humans don't simply find a way to "pull the plug.")

Does anyone think this sounds familiar? (Note: Googling for "Out-at-Arms Philosopher" gave me a grand total of zero hits, so either this story has never been reviewed online, or else I am misremembering the name of that outspoken character. Or both!)

  • You remember all that, but not the title? (I'm teasing - that level of detail is really impressive.) – Shawn V. Wilson Jul 25 at 20:18
14

"Shadow Show", a 1953 novelette by Clifford D. Simak; first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November 1953, available at the Internet Archive. If you read it in English, in hard covers, in the 1980s, I think it must have been in Simak's 1956 collection Strangers in the Universe.

Synopsis from Wikipedia:

A colony of scientists struggle to develop artificial life. For entertainment, they role-play in a neverending melodrama. Until art begins to imitate life.

Synopsis from Susan Napier's essay "When Godzilla Speaks" in the anthology In Godzilla's Footsteps: Japanese Pop Culture Icons on the Global Stage (pdf) edited by William M. Tsutsui and Michiko Ito:

In 1956, Clifford Simak, an American science fiction writer, published Strangers in the Universe, a collection of short stories that included the piece “Shadow Show.” The story describes a group of scientists who have been sent to a lonely asteroid and commissioned with the task of creating life, specifically sentient human life that could take alien form, thus allowing humans to populate inhospitable planets throughout the universe. To keep the scientists amused and also psychologically sound, an entertainment known as the Play has been created for them in which they can mentally project images of made-up characters onto a screen and have them interact with the mental projections of the other scientists. The characters projected by the scientists are a varied group, ranging from the grotesque—such as the “Alien Monster”—to the comic, the so-called Out at Elbows Philosopher. In the story’s surprise denouement the scientists realize that they have indeed succeeded in creating life, not through their experiments but through the machine that enables the Play. In a shocking reversal, the characters declare independence from their creators and begin to speak and act for themselves, coming down from the screen and appearing on the stage. At the end of “Shadow Show,” Bayard Lodge, the story’s protagonist, walks down the auditorium to meet his projected persona, the “Rustic Slicker.”

Excerpts transcribed from my paperback copy of Strangers in the Universe:

"The Play must go on," said Forester. "I can't be responsible for what might happen if we dropped it even for a night or two. It's the one thing that holds us all together. It is the unifying glue that keeps us sane and preserves our sense of humor. And it gives us something to think about."

"I know," said Lodge, "but with Henry dead . . ."

"They'll understand," Forester promised. "I'll talk to them. I know they'll understand."

"They'll understand all right," Lodge agreed. "All of us recognize the necessity of the Play. But there is something else. One of those characters was Henry's."

Forester nodded. "I've been thinking of that, too."

"Do you know which one?"

Forester shook his head.

[. . . .]

"There'll be one character missing," Lodge warned him. "You know what that might do. It might throw the entire thing off balance, reduce it to confusion. That would be worse than no Play at all. Why can't we wait a few days and start over, new again? With a new Play, a new set of characters."

"We can't do that," said Forester, "because each of us has identified himself or herself with a certain character. That character has become a part, an individual part, of each of us. We're living split lives, Bayard. We're split personalities. We have to be to live. We have to be because not a single one of us could bear to be himself alone."

[. . . .]

The Play was a never-ending soap opera, the Old Red Barn extended to unheard reaches of the ridiculous. It had a touch of Oz and a dash of alienness and it went on and on and on.

When you put a group of people on an asteroid, when you throw a space patrol around them, when you lead them to their laboratories and point out the problem to be solved, when you keep them at that problem day after endless day, you must likewise do something to preserve their sanity.

[. . . .]

Lodge wondered which character would be the missing one. Not the Defenseless Orphan, certainly, for that would not have been down Henry's alley. But it might be the Proper Young Man or the Out-At-Elbows Philosopher or the Rustic Slicker.

[. . . .]

They sat in utter silence as each walked forward to mark a ballot, to fold it and to drop it in the box. Each of them waited for the one to return before another walked out to the table.

[. . . .]

He heard the rippling hiss of indrawn breath from those around him, the swift, stark terror of what the balloting had meant.

For Henry's character had been the most self-assertive and dominant in last night's Play: the Philosopher.

[. . . .]

In just a little while the characters would step down off the stage and would mingle with them. And their creators? What would their creators do? Go screaming, raving mad?

What would he say to the Rustic Slicker?

What could he say to the Rustic Slicker?

And, more to the point, what would the Rustic Slicker have to say to him?

He sat, unable to move, unable to say a word or cry out a warning, waiting for the moment when they would step down.

  • Thank you; that's definitely the one. I guess I didn't know, as a kid, what "Out-At-Elbows" meant, so I just vaguely retained an impression that the Philosopher had a name which suggested his arms (or elbows) were conspicuously "sticking out." (As if he were constantly akimbo?) That explains why my Googling for "Out-At-Arms Philosopher" failed to get anywhere! – Lorendiac Apr 4 '17 at 22:36
  • I read it long after 1953. Role-playing games were common enough, just not with holograms. I felt that Simak "got it wrong" because the characters had no clear quest or task -- and unlike a "sandbox" game like Grand Theft Auto, there was no real setting or non-player characters. The scenario was more like a cocktail party than anything else. However, I've often wondered what our weekly D&D sessions would be like if my gang could play characters anonymously. – Shawn V. Wilson Jul 25 at 20:26

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