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A friend just commented that they couldn't use VR because it made them question reality and it reminded me of a story I can't remember the name of...

Story Summary The protagonist enters a shady business in the global south that sells custom time-accelerated VR and seeks to be tortured.

They have been a torturer (I think mostly for punishment, rather than information retrieval) for an oppressive regime for some time - putting people through endless virtual hellscapes and resetting them before breaking them utterly.

One day brings a fresh subject - an ex-collaeague/associate of the protagonist. They discover in one of the simulations that the subject has feelings for the torturer/protagonist. This is used against the subject relentlessly - countless virtual versions of the protagonist humiliate and beat the subject to death, over many subjective lifetimes. The protagonist discovers that even when the subject is absolutely broken the subject still loves the protagonist. This horrifies them and causes them to re-examine their life.

And so they come to be tortured, clutching stolen money. The story persuades the VR artist, and the protagonist gets put in the VR pod, and it closes. Seconds later the pod opens and clothes are thrust in the protagonist's hands - enforcers are on the way, the money has been traced.

The protagonist stumbles away, scraping their knuckles to the bone on stucco walls, convinced that they are still in the machine... End summary

I do think I probably read it in paper, and it's probably "golden age" anglophone SF, but I can't remember more than that!

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  • The golden age in SF is normally the post war period and they didn't have VR back then. I'd guess this story would have to be post 1980s. Can you remember when you read it? Nov 15, 2021 at 8:48
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    TBF, it might not have been referred to as VR in-story - it felt real to whoever was exposed to it, and happened in an accelerated timeframe (hence being able to expose people to multiple futures). I probably read it in my teens, so 90s. Nov 15, 2021 at 10:57
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    From the use of the word ‘pods’ I would assume this a matrix like invention. The key words for this subject would be ‘dive’ ‘Fully immersive’ I am unsure of any other keywords that can assist
    – Chewie
    Nov 19, 2021 at 7:46

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This is "Solace" by Gardner Dozois, originally published in 1990. It's in the Dozois short story collections Geodesic Dreams and When the Great Days Come, and is online here. You've summarized the plot almost exactly, with only a couple of minor errors. The last line is "He dragged his fist against the rough adobe wall until his knuckles bled, but he couldn't convince himself that any of it was real."

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  • Wonderful! I did indeed own a copy of Geodesic Dreams now that I see the name! Oof, I'm a little embarrassed I thought it might have been Golden Age! Nov 22, 2021 at 17:05

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