Okay, so why is it that I sometimes call myself “Zander the Heretic”? (You'd think I'd know, wouldn't you? No, actually I do.) It's nothing to do with religion, or politics, or science, though I've felt sometimes that my views in all those fields were regarded as heretical, or perhaps simply stupid, and it's certainly a role in which I can be comfortable. (That's the role of heretic, not stupid person. I just want to make that clear.)
This starts with a game. Myst. My first love among computer games. I'm sure I don't need to explain what Myst was, at least not within my own lifetime. Suffice to say that it was the first game I had seen that actually looked decent—that actually looked as if it was happening in a real place. It took me years to acquire a computer that could play it, and by that time the sequel, Riven, was out, and that was even better. These games could have been made for me. I didn't have to die, I didn't have to kill anything, I didn't have to worry about experience points or damage points or pointy points or any of those tedious statisticky things. Slow reaction times and poor co-ordination didn't matter. I just had to work out where I was, what I was doing there, and what I was supposed to do.
So, anyway, eventually along came Uru. Uru was going to be the online game we Myst fans had all been waiting for. Unfortunately, not enough of us were waiting for it to satisfy either of the two major publishers who tried it, and the latest news is that the non-profit, bare-bones-plus-fan-created-content version that was going to be coming out any time now has been put on indefinite hold because the American financial system collapsed, which I think is a feeble excuse, but there we go. Anyway, I played Uru online, and loved it, and before I could play it online (because, guess what, I needed another upgrade) I established myself as a character on the various online forums relating to the game and to the universe of the Myst games in general.
Here, as they say, comes the science part.
The Myst games are set in a universe almost but not quite like our own, in which there is an enormous subterranean city under New Mexico. This city, D'ni, was built by a people called D'ni (sometimes pronounced Dunny, but I prefer to stress the second syllable because it sounds less like an Australian toilet, and that pronunciation has gained some ground) who came here from another universe ten thousand years ago. They possessed the ability to write worlds; they could describe a world in a book so well that you could use the book to travel, or link, to that world. That was how they came here. They wrote our universe.
Can you see why this idea leapt up my nostrils into my brain, grabbed on with all twenty limbs and has not let go once? I'm a writer. I write worlds, but mine stay on the page, or only live for a brief while in my readers' minds. To write worlds that became real...that would be real Writing. That would be perfect.
And then I went on to the online forums, and discovered that the makers of the games, being good church people and not keen on blasphemy, had decreed that the writing of an Age (which is what the D'ni called their worlds) does not bring a world into being, but merely establishes a link to a world that already exists. The Creator has already made all the worlds that could possibly exist. All the Writer is doing is picking one, like selecting a sandwich from a machine.
Can you see why that idea immediately knocked all the joy out of me? It was like being taken to the beach as a kid and being told I couldn't make a sand castle because all the sand castles had already been made by a bigger kid, but I could go and look at them if I liked. It made the whole thing pointless. Why bother trying to imagine something if it already existed?
And then I began to think, and I began to look at what had actually been said, and I realised that this decree had only been issued through in-game personae. No actual living person at Cyan had got up and said in his own persona, “This is how it is.” And since there were no D'ni left around to ask, it was an in-game theory. And one, moreover, with no more evidence in-game to back it up than mine, and no less.
Now I personally don't believe that any God worth his name would regard it as blasphemy if one were to suggest that some day human beings might have the power to create worlds. There was a time when human beings didn't have the power to create fire, or iron, or powered flight. But as soon as I ventured to suggest my alternative theory on the forums...boy, you should have seen the fur fly. Was I suggesting that the D'ni were gods? How dare I? (All this purely in-character, by the way, Myst fans aren't lunatics any more than any other kind of fan and they know the difference between reality and a game.)
So I became the Heretic on the Uru forums, and it's become part of who I am. I evolved some other heretical ideas and started pushing them around. Some people backed me up, and became very good and much valued friends: others tried all they could to demolish my arguments, and sometimes found that they couldn't, though they could make me feel exceedingly hacked off, and frequently did. The one place I couldn't follow them was, of course, quantum physics, which has never made sense to me...but I learned how to get round that, and eventually most of my opponents and I came to an amicable middle ground (the Creator makes everything that can be imagined, but only in potential: the Writer of an Age calls that particular Age from possibility into reality, thus “creating” it).
You may now be thinking “that's five minutes of my life I'll never get back.” You may be wondering what I'm making such a fuss about. It's just a game, and so on. And very likely you will have to continue to wonder, because as I write Uru is dead in the water, and after two tries it's vanishingly unlikely it will ever rise again.
But take my word for it...it was brilliant. It was beautiful, it was inspiring, it was full of potential, and the chance to be part of it was worth far more than I ever had to pay. There isn't another game like it, and I don't think there ever will be. And it taught me how to take a position and hold it, how to stand my ground in the face of rhetorical trickery and spurious arguments, how to let my passion drive the language for a while, and how to be a better writer and a clearer thinker. It made me a heretic. And I think I like myself that way.