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I was reading this question and was reminded of another story with a virtual or augmented reality nursery.

It might be a short story in a collection or it might be just a sub-plot of a novel. It's been probably 20-30 years since I've read the story (likely paperback), so the only thing I really remember is that the nursemaid freezes at one point. The child walks around the room to realize that the image wasn't actually 3D, but a perspective image made specifically for their line of sight. As such, the nursemaid is smeared across the floor and walls and only looks normal from the original spot where the child was standing. I believe it was a single child, because the perspective wouldn't allow for more than one child to view it at a time.

I want to say the nursemaid was a clown, but it could have been a lady teacher, I don't remember. The nursery may have been in a cryogenic sleep spaceship travelling between stars, and the nursery error froze because of a problem with the spaceship. I also want to say that the child was there for between a couple minutes to a couple hours before their parents (maybe just the mother) showed up to get them out. I seem to think the nursemaid froze mid-word and it was telling the child there was a problem.

I believe the child was 8-12, possibly a boy, being young enough to need a baby-sitter, old enough to not want to be there, old enough to understand what happened with the nursemaid, mature enough to wait fairly patiently for rescue, and young enough that they weren't allowed to exit the room by themselves.

I seem to think that the child was put in the room while the parent(s) were working on the ship.

It's been so long since I've read the story that I don't have any more information than this. I've read so many sci-fi books that I could be conflating multiple books into one. I just don't know. Sorry if this isn't much to go by. I've added as much info as I can come up with and will continue to add more if I remember more.

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I think this is probably from Chasm City, by Alastair Reynolds.

One of the narrative threads concerns the life of Sky Haussmann, growing up on board a generation ship. He is taken care of in a VR nursery, much like Star Trek's holodeck, and interacts with an avatar called "Clown":

There were many toys in the nursery, and some of them were capable of holding limited conversations-even, fleetingly, giving the impression of true intelligence. Sky sensed that these toys were built for children of about his age, designed to mesh with a typical three-year-old's view of the world. In most cases, he had begun to find them simplistic and stupid not long after his second birthday. But Clown was different; not really a toy at all, although not quite a person either. Clown had been with Sky for as long as he remembered, confined to the nursery, but not always present even then. Clown could not touch things, or allow himself to be touched by Sky, and when Clown spoke, his voice did not come from quite the place where Clown stood-or seemed to be standing.

When the ship is damaged one day, the image of Clown freezes and is distorted, as described in the question.

But there was something very wrong with Clown, and indeed, with the entire view. In the instant of the flash, Clown had become misshapen, stretched and malformed in all the wrong directions, painted across the walls, his expression frozen. The boat in which they had seemed to be standing curved away in sickeningly distorted perspective. It was as if the entire scene had been rendered in thick wet paint which someone had begun to stir with a stick.

He is trapped in the nursery for several hours, until power is restored to the ship. When life returns back to normal, Sky goes back to the nursery, and discovers why Clown appeared so distorted:

He could see now that all Clown had ever been was a pattern in the tiny coloured squares that covered the nursery's walls, floor and ceiling. Clown had been a kind of moving picture that only made sense-only looked right -when seen from precisely Sky's point of view.

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  • This is definitely an author I've read, and I think I remember reading the book as well as seeing it on my bookshelf, but the synopsis doesn't sound familiar. Looking at other books listed in the series, I know I've read several/most of them, so it's likely that I have read it and also likely this is the correct book. I'll have to read it to be sure. I'm still interested if other people have suggestions. May 20 at 20:34
  • In truth that's not a great synopsis. A lot more happens in the book, with various interlocking narratives. Let us know when you decide if the answer is wrong or right! May 20 at 22:02
  • Will do. First, I want to wait to see if there are other suggestions and second I want to read the book to see if it sparks any other recollection. From what you've posted, it seems a very good match, but I don't remember a boat being in the image or a flash, so IDK if this is the book. The rest of it sounds familiar, but I really had the impression the child was older. I just need to read the book before I can accept this answer or not. May 20 at 22:09
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    @computercarguy this is most definitely the book, it even covers the iffy bits of your question (parent goes outside the ship, child is stuck in the room etc). While memorable, this scene is a small part of the book and sets up the reader to understand the protagonists background as they grow up in this environment, so that probably speaks to your concerns around the childs age as well.
    – Moo
    May 21 at 6:18
  • I downloaded the book and read this part in book with all the context. It didn't spark any more recognition than this answer did, which is very good, but it's very likely that this is the book I'm looking for, as I seriously doubt any other book would come this close. It was just too long ago that I read it last time for me to recognize any more of it. May 30 at 21:09

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