Myra Sherman: Marko, I really enjoyed your short story Simulators. It’s such a unique portrayal of addiction and recovery. I don’t believe I’ve read anything like it. Your ability to convey a serious subject in a fantasy world, in a manner both humorous and chilling, is remarkable. And with internet addiction now becoming a concern, the issues addressed go far beyond the world of gaming. I was most reminded of the Sci-Fi television series, Caprica, and its exploration of the dangers of living virtually. And that brings me to my first question. You’ve set this in what appears to be an alternate reality in the early 1980s. The time period is part of the story’s fascination, but still seems an unusual choice. Was there a particular impetus or inspiration for this story?
Marko Fong: Myra, first thanks for your always kind and thoughtful take on my story and I need to check out Caprica. Oddly, Simulators grew out of my real attempt to create a computer game in 1986. At that time, it was still mostly shooting or maze games. One of the exceptions for home computer was flight simulator. Supposedly, you could learn to fly without the danger or expense of actually flying an airplane. The mechanics of being a pilot aren’t that complicated. The thing that needs to be simulated is the fear of dying should you make a mistake. The computers of the time couldn’t convey visceral panic. You need to do these things with the instruments vibrating, the wind blowing, and your adrenaline screaming, “Help me Mr. Wizard!”
As mentioned in the story, AIDS and herpes were then on every single-and-looking person’s mind and Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” was still a Tonight Show monologue staple. Pre-internet computer games weren’t interactive yet. A “date simulator” needed to have something resembling artificial intelligence. Enter the Turing Test.
Alan Turing helped crack Enigma, one of the German codes in World War 2. Turing also happened to be gay and in those days gay dating involved a level of cryptography beyond the alphabet soup on Craig’s list or Perfect Match. The Turing Test was a simple humanistic measure of artificial intelligence. If a person couldn’t distinguish between the answers given by a computer program and those given by a real human being, then it could be said the program had achieved a level of artificial intelligence. We now know better – you can replicate human behavior, but actual intelligence is different, which explains Rick Santorum.
As with most magic (finding love being a form of magic), the illusion really comes from the willing suspension of disbelief more than it comes from making something impossible happen. It was pre-Nintendo Wii, but I wanted to attach sensors to a computer and use the feedback to determine how the computer game responded. The other “self” in the date simulator program would just be a projection of the player’s excitement level. Sadly, the friend doing the coding didn’t have the foggiest idea of what I was after and I was too lazy to write it myself and wound up without a Wozniak. Anyway, instead of becoming Steve Jobs 2, I turned the idea into a short story that no one would publish. In 1987, it wasn’t literary and it wasn’t science fiction. I should mention that I’m very shy in person and I had no idea how a good date was supposed to go.
Weirdly, the real world arguably caught up with the story. Mary took pity on Simulators and saw that it was about addiction and recovery and not just speculative fiction.
MS: I was quite taken with your prefatory note. It both places the narrative in the past and foretells the future. The ending may also offer insight into a time when we were just human, which adds so much. Did you first conceive of Simulators without the prefatory note? Or did you start with the note, and then write the story?
MF: I added the note in 2011. When I resuscitated the story, a few people told me that it was still funny, but arcade-based computer games felt too dated. I was reluctant to eliminate all my jokes about quarters. I stole a page from Canticle for Liebowitz and Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and it somehow added that same layer of “might have happened or maybe already did.”
MS: Then there’s the last line, I felt the coolness of her wedding band when she grabbed my joystick. I’m sure you’ve had many different reactions to this ending. I first thought it was funny, and not literal, but then began to wonder. I’m sure ambiguity was part of your intention, but could you clarify, or at least share how the line came to you?
MF: Those who hate electronic gaming call it a form of masturbation and I always found the visual similarity between joystick and phallus ironic. Addiction to pornography is partly due to the fact that the image you’re getting off to doesn’t have a mind of her/its own, but the fantasy is that it/she does and she wants to do these things with you. I had this image of Jerry and Gretchen turning themselves into flesh and blood date simulators.
Some readers were really offended by the drift into porn ending and I find that’s often a sign that you should keep something. It means you provoked someone emotionally. Gardner talks about the fictive dream, but I sometimes aim for the fictive splash of consciousness.
MS: One of this story’s strengths is your strong depiction of addiction. You’ve captured the obsessive-compulsive quality, rationalization, and escape into internal fantasies. At least that’s how I think of addiction. I’d love to know your thoughts on this, how you see addiction.
MF: Funny you should ask. In your wonderful short story collection, Jailed, I noticed how many of your characters were both affected by the literal walls of the jail but also how they were prisoners of various addictions which land them and keep them there. We get addicted because it’s a shortcut to some pleasure center of our brain that screens out pain. Over time, the path to that pleasure center gets grooved and at some point you start spending most of your life inside that groove. A rivulet of chemicals turns into you-on-this-little-raft-on-swollen-Amazon-rapids. The rush is very psychological and internal, but the triggers are very physical. It’s why the joystick and the quarters are such big players in the story’s physicality. Once he starts the routine, Jerry’s cycle gets shorter yet more consuming.
MS: Another intriguing idea was that people didn’t want personal home-Simulators. I found this surprising. Could you explain your thinking here?
MF: The one very dated bit in the story is the big blue box instead of the various tiny personal devices implanted into modern life. I recently lost my cell phone while on vacation and I felt some mixture of being either naked or having had something amputated. Twenty plus years ago, you could play Tetris or Space Invaders on your home computer, but I had noticed that it lost its appeal much faster. In the arcade, you could get obsessed with posting one of the 10 high scores even though you didn’t have the faintest idea who “MarylovesJack10” was, but it was like a dialogue with that unseen person. Once you made the “hall of fame”, you” owned” the machine, but someone else could show and lift his leg and mark your territory. Alas, Simulators didn’t anticipate the internet, so Re: the ownership thing, boy was I wrong! Explains why Steve Jobs is a famous dead person and I’m an obscure writer with a day job. Even when I saw the future, I couldn’t see enough of it.
For what it’s worth, I miss pinball, my long ago addiction. It was this 25-cent celebration of the marvels of the electro-mechanical age. “Tilt” made it alive and sexual in some way, even though it was unapologetically a machine. Also that thwack sound when you happened to win a game or got a match for a free game. Way more satisfying. My neighbor’s wife bought him a restored pinball machine. It just wasn’t as much fun without quarters. Had they kept that part, I might have covered their mortgage for them or at least their dsl connection.
MS: How would you explain the recovery process in your story? And what are your thoughts on recovery in general?
MF: I was trying to raise the question are Jerry and Gretchen recovered? Their real relationship as husband and wife becomes a kind of methadone. Is this a happy ending or are they just free of the physical addiction to the machines?
I think real recovery involves some form of fundamental change in your relationship to yourself. It’s very deep stuff and there’s no magic formula which is I suspect why Mary’s been able to build a journal around the subject. The Simulator in the story is really only a projection of the player. Jerry’s not really recovered until he’s open to love with Gretchen as another independent soul with all the risks and surprises that come with that. As it happens, the “soul” and whether or not it’s an illusion was one of the philosophical questions raised by the Turing Test.
MS: Thanks, Marko. Any last thoughts or comments?
MF: I still wonder how Darwin Leon knew what I looked like. Thanks for your very insightful take on Simulators and can I borrow some quarters?
Myra Sherman is a clinical social worker, and past r.kv.r.y contributor. Her short story collection, JAILED, is available from Desperanto Press. More information about Myra and her writing can be found at www.desperanto.com and www.myrasherman.com