Thursday, May 25, 2006

Flawed Avatars

The idea of an avatar is an old one, coming from Hindu mythology, being a physical manifestation of a god. Since those days science fiction has used the concept with varying degrees of success and consistency. In science fiction, avatars are a human sized embodiment of significantly larger constructs that are self aware, such as ships or habitats. Rommie from Andromeda is probably the most well known, being one of the few who've made it to TV. In books, the Ships and Habitats of Iain M Banks' The Culture have numerous avatars.

Unfortunately, most of the time when avatars are used in science fiction, they tend not to act as they would given their stated capabilities. In Andromeda, the ship Andromeda Ascendant is a self aware entity. But it is a mixed up being. First there are four manifestations of the Andromeda. First is the ship itself. Andromeda's AI is able to control nearly every system on itself. Second is a visual display, that mainly just gives information. Third is a holographic projection that has a role similar to that of the visual display, but is more interactive and displays more of a personality. Finally is Rommie, an android who shows the most personality.

Nominally, all of these have the same ability to control ships systems, access data and sensors. However, in practice, the different manifestations not only have different levels of control, but indeed have distinct personalities. The android can be considered an exception as it is somewhat autonomous, both physically as well as computationally, as it has operated well beyond any ability to be controlled by the ship itself. But even while on board, differences in access and personality exist. This is a rather odd way of doing things, when the main task of these avatars is to communicate with the crew on board. Having more than one persona with varying degrees of overlap between the different versions would just complicate matters.

I think that the avatar is a good idea, and can be used to good effect. Iain M Banks has shown this, most effectively in Look to Windward, and not so well in Excession. The biggest difference in the presentation of these avatars is that Banks does not treat his avatars as independent entities. This is probably the root of most poor representations of avatars, that they are considered separate things to what they are a representative for. Banks' avatars are quite upfront about being the appendage of something greater.

So in conclusion, avatars good, just be clear about what they are and how they act.

End Post
Writing time:
Time since last post: 1 hour 7 minutes
Current media: The Daily Show

No comments: