[A draft of an introduction to the forthcoming anthology of flash fiction stories. Please comment.]
The City of New Babbage is real.
On one level, of course, New Babbage is a series of
magnetic impulses imprinted onto a series of disks in a nameless data center.
On another it is a series of leased servers running Linden Labs’ Second Life
protocols, accessed periodically by client software run on the computers of
users scattered across the world.
But that’s just the physics of it. To say that New Babbage
is “just” a computer-generated environment would be like saying that Paris is
just stone and plaster.
Because New Babbage, like Paris – like any city, really – is
a place of people. People live and work and play there, they fill it with their
artifacts – their buildings and furniture and their vehicles and their art – they
decorate its spires and domes with their dreams and fantasies, and they fill
its alleys and basements with their lusts and rages and drunken ramblings.
And they fill it with their stories.
New Babbage is a consensual hallucination of a Victorian-era
steampunk city in a time that never was. Real people from all over the world “go”
there on a daily basis through their computers, for any number of reasons. Some go to build, forging their creative impulses into digital objects they
can share and drive and sell. Some go to socialize, forging
friendships and enmities and partnerships. Some go for the roleplaying, forging
improvisational multi-threaded storylines that branch out and twist back on
themselves over days or weeks or months. Most go for all three.
By common agreement, we are all avatars in New Babbage. We create
personas that are street urchins or evil geniuses, society ladies or
self-absorbed mechanics, arcane dark-art experimentors or dashing airship
pilots. The real people behind the avatars are mostly unregarded and mostly
The City is not a top-down place. We have no central visionary
or purpose. New Babbage is nominally ‘owned’ by one of us, a benevolent,
laissez-faire despot we call our Clockwinder, but his role is limited (by
choice or necessity, few can tell which) to that of tax collector and bill
payer and occasional arbiter of disputes – with a bit of artful sewer designer
thrown in from time to time.
But in truth our City belongs to us. We decide what happens there, what is acceptable and what isn’t, and we voluntarily imbue it with
action and life and events.
Most of us even pay for the privilege. Every parcel in New
Babbage is leased by a resident. We use them to build homes, laboratories, shops to display
our wares … cafes and theaters, garrets and palaces. It is a lively
place, actively used, every building consciously designed by someone for a
And oh, the buildings! Soaring glass-windowed factories
housing vast inscrutable machines, foreboding gothic towers faced with an
endless variety of clocks, narrow cobblestone alleys and crooked staircases
stained by decades of rainwater and the passing of countless feet. Something
about New Babbage attracts good builders, and even veteran Second Life
residents can see a higher standard there than can be found most other places. Even
though there is no central authority, the variety of builds holds convincingly –
surprisingly – together. The net effect – when looking out onto the City from,
say, the municipal airship mast – reminds one not of some sloppily-rendered digital
cartoon, but of Leeds or Pittsburgh or Warsaw … with an airship overhead for
Needless to say, with so much creativity running through these
virtual streets, many of us fancy ourselves writers. Like texturing primitives
or chatting in neo-Victorian cadence, narrative prose is just another technique
we use to tell our stories. When the opportunity presents itself, we rise to
the occasion and cast our stories into text, as this collection indicates.
Not all the stories – or even most – are set in New Babbage,
nor do they necessarily relate to the avatars or characters who inhabit the
City. But all are inspired by it, directly or in spirit.
We are proud of our City and you are cordially invited to visit.
It’s free and easy to reach (no further away than the computer in your next
room). Should you find – as we have – that a piece of your spirit yearns to
haunt our streets, then there is a place for you there – or rather, that steampunk avatar
you’ve always wanted to be.
So, yes, New Babbage is a digitally mediated,
non-linear virtual environment; really nothing more than pixels on screens.
But it’s also real.