The Russian Dolls: A Short Science Fiction Story by Extropia DaSilva

Extie is back, and this time she wrote not an essay, but a short story 🙂 — Gwyn

This story was originally written for my sis, Jamie Marlin, to celebrate our aniversary.


The television set materialised out of thin air, neatly filling the space that Adam had been staring at the moment before. He sat on the edge of his bed which doubled as his sofa when he did not need to sleep, and its sudden appearance made him HAPPY.

Adam was a simple soul, whose emotions were tied to the objects that surrounded him. There had been a brief period in his earliest days when he had occupied a room bereft of any furniture or appliances. Unable to satisfy his most fundamental needs, he had been MISERABLE, HUNGRY, THIRSTY. But then the fridge and the microwave had appeared in his kitchen, and an autonomous response had sent him wandering over to these new additions, where he fixed himself a meal. His mental state had changed to SATED, QUENCHED and CONTENT (but bordering on DISASTISFIED) as a result.

But this did not last. Before long his bladder and bowels needed emptying and he dutifully did so — all over his floor. Flies began to accumulate around the pile of shit and Adam’s condition slipped into ILL. Those early days were bleak indeed.

But then, a job was given to Adam. Each day at 8:30 AM he would walk out of his door and each day at 5:30pm he would come back home. Whatever he did, it put money into his account which was promptly turned into furnishings, decorations and appliances for his home. The basics came first. A toilet and a sink to wash his hands in. A bed to sleep in. A dustbin for disposing of waste. Adam did not bring any of these things into his home. He never shopped for them. Instead, they simply materialised inside his house and when they did so, Adam just knew how to use them, like a spider just knows how to weave a web. With mechanical purpose, Adam would go about his routines, fixing his meals, clearing away his trash, emptying his bowels, washing himself, sleeping, waking up, going to work, over and over again.

The days when Adam’s state of mind had been firmly in the MISERABLE range were now but a memory. But hitherto he had never been able to achieve a state you might call HAPPY. That all changed when the television set appeared before his eyes. Adam sat on the edge of his bed, elbows resting on his legs, head resting in his hands — the posture of the telly addict. He sat there for what must have been hours until, finally, his more basic needs became so overpowering that he had to go and satisfy them. While he was in the kitchen, the television set popped out of existence as quickly as it had appeared, and Adam’s emotional state jumped back to CONTENT (bordering on DISSATISFIED).


A child’s finger pressed gently on the button of a mouse, initiating a command to remove a graphic representation of a television, and place it back in the inventory slot from whence it came.

Emily, like all children, learned about her world and her place in it through the medium of play. Like little girls before her (she was seven years old) she had toys that were her companions and mentors, who helped her roleplay key skills she would need as an adult. Those toys had changed, somewhat. Where once there had been dolls and dollhouses, now there were relational artifacts — toys that actively responded to your play, almost as if they could read and react to emotional states. She was too young to understand the smoke-and-mirrors aspect of these toys, how their tiny sensors and microprocessors only had enough power to detect the facial expressions and tone of voice of the person they were interacting with, adopting facial expressions and mannerisms of their own while not actually having any inner-life at all. But then, whoever designed the animations and the software that triggered them understood human psychology so well, even most adults occasionally felt a twinge of empathy toward these toys.

Emily’s favourite toy was the computer game WeePeeple (at her immature age, she did not question the curious convention that things must be misspelled in order to be cool to the kidz-sorry). It fell into the genre of games known as ‘sims’. You designed your own inworld character, selecting a number of pre-designed noses, eyes, chins, ears, body shapes, and then adjusting sliders that reshaped each part, making it smaller or larger, fatter or thinner until your character conformed to whatever image you originally intended. The design interface that controlled this creative process had been refined over the years, so that this aspect of the Sim experience had gone from the Second Life era, when nobody but the most artistically gifted could craft anything but a butt-ugly avvie, to WeePeeple’s delightfully intuitive setup that let even little girls like Emily sculpt beautifully realised characters.

The real fun began when your character was taken out of the initial design stage and placed into the world proper. One did not control WeePeeple directly. Instead, each character acted autonomously, driven by basic needs such as hunger, thirst, fatigue, restlessness, need for companionship (or solitude). On top of that, each character had personality traits, modelled on the ‘Big Five’ (extroversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism) and, depending on the settings of these underlying traits, your character could be a companionable, sociable type (or introverted and reserved); friendly, empathetic and warm (or suspicious and egocentric). All kinds of personality types that fell between these extremes were possible.

Although Emily did not control her character directly, she did have an indirect influence over his life. Most importantly, it was she who had to design and build a home for him to live in, and fill it with furnishings, appliances and whatever else she considered might be necessary. In a very real sense, every design decision a player took affected the development of the character. Walt Witworth once said, ‘a child went forth every day/ and the first object he looked upon, that object he became’. This was literally true for WeePeeple. Adam’s AI was primarily concerned with path finding — being able to navigate his way around any room and any obstacle without getting stuck or confused. All other abilities that he acquired as time went by were actually scripts embedded into every object. When Emily bought him a cheap microwave oven, the instructions contained within it directed Adam, so that when his hunger drive was sufficiently high, he would seemingly operate the appliance as if he knew how to microwave a meal. When his levels of fatigue were high, his bed told him how to turn down the sheets, lay down, and sleep. Every design decision that Emily made — what color to paint his living room wall, what flowers to set upon his kitchen table — affected Adam’s state-of-mind, shaping his personality.

Since there was no set goal in WeePeeple, there was no proper way to play it. It was not so much a game with fixed rules, more like a sandbox, a toyset that encouraged experimentation. People had devised their own games; their own reasons for playing. Some people tried to create ‘icons’. In other words, they designed their character to look as much like a famous person as possible, and then set about creating a living space that would direct their evolving personality traits into becoming just like the person they were meant to be. Other people seemed to enjoy killing their character, and routinely posted online videos of ever-more complex Rube Goldberg contraptions of goldfish bowls and ironing boards and knife blocks and dinner plates and cricket balls set up in such a way that the hapless character would set off a lethal chain reaction as soon as his or her need to use the toilet triggered a familiar routine.

Emily belonged to neither camp. She simply enjoyed looking after Adam, gained satisfaction from watching him develop from a near-hopeless case that could barely boil an egg and tidy away his mess, to a skilled cook who could entertain guests, carry out extensive DIY, and who had a range of hobbies that he could use in both social settings and for keeping himself occupied when he was alone. Adam had almost no inner-mind to speak of, but that did not matter. Emily imagined that he did, attributing despair whenever he walked or sat dejectedly, seeing triumph whenever he bested a companion at a game, or successfully completed a task like fixing a wonky table leg. Emily attributed consciousness to Adam, her vastly superior mind taking basic psychological cues and using them to weave a far richer inner-life than her character could actually have.

To put not too fine a point on it, Emily enjoyed interacting with Adam because her own hopes and fears and needs and dislikes were mapped onto him. His cartoonish antics were a charicature of her own developing self. She identified with his daily struggles, understanding in an intuitive way (even if she could not have expressed this in words) that Adam was like a mirror, but one that reflected her personality rather than her appearance. By guiding Adam, she was learning about herself and what sort of person she would want to grow up to be.

Emily wanted Adam to be happy, but she had played WeePeeple long enough to be able to predict when a choice she made now would have a negative effect on him, even if it seemed of benefit in the short term. Her mind had raced forward in time as she saw how Adam had sat, glued to the television. He would forgo sleep, forget to eat, he would go (reluctantly) to work and underperform in his lethargic state (a player never saw their character work, the game merely showed them leaving the house, and then returning with the inworld clock jumping forward several hours). It was tough love, she knew, but the television would have to go. The experiment to design for Adam a home that gave him the most positive attitude possible would go on.

Emily finally hit the Save icon, and shut the computer down. She walked over to a window and looked out onto a suburban street, lined with trees. It was an autumn day, and a breeze was blowing through the trees, every now and then causing a few leaves to break away and tumble to the ground. Her eye caught one such leaf, and she followed its zig-zag path as it was blown this way and that by the force of the wind.

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