This is part of CNET's Technically Literate series, which presents original works of short fiction with unique perspectives on technology.
On the second Tuesday morning of winter quarter -- LitClass was structured on a quarter system, like classes at Stanford, where its creators had gone for a year before getting enough VC to drop out and make the game -- Amos put on his favorite Thomas Pink shirt and a Penguin tie and Diesel jeans and went into work. He checked in, did the first half of his shift, shuffled off to the break room, took up the Oculus Rift headset, fitted it uncomfortably over his glasses and, before selecting his level for the day, looked down in the lower right-hand corner, where the superscript read, "5."
The night before it had also read, "5."
Five people had logged on to class. It took a thousand to win the game, get tenure, to actually get paid to teach LitClass.
He entered a room that looked like a lounge in a Scandinavian ski chalet. A virtual fire was on in the virtual fireplace. Suspended midair over an ersatz Herman Miller sofa was a series of flags. He turned his head to the right, selected "1957" and hit the A button. He turned his head to the left, selected "Kenyon College" and hit the A button. The living room disappeared in a puff of smoke. When it cleared, he was standing in a cloistered room with black-and-white photos of old white men on every wall.
"Welcome to American Literature, 1900 to the present," Amos said. "I'm Dr. Abrams, and I'll be your professor this quarter." He looked across the lacquered wood seminar table at the 11 students, all of them 20-year-old men in white starched shirts and blue knit ties, all of them programmed to discuss literature with varying degrees of sophistication. One avatar hadn't yet been filled in; it was just an egg-shell-toned ovoid head atop an egg-shell-toned torso.
On the table in front of Amos was an ashtray, slow cigarette smoke coiling up in the air between him and them.
"Over the course of this course -- I mean to say that as we start to -- uh..." He saw a corn-fed boy across the table look down and snicker at his fumbling. Amos stopped. The arrows over every head had now gone red, no one actively playing any of the avatars. He hit the B button, which brought the phrase "BACK 15 SECONDS" floating above Cornfed's head, hit the A button.
Class started over. Amos introduced the course again.
"Over the duration of this course," he said, "we'll be discussing modernism and its inheritors. For today, we finished the Fitzgerald. So to start: In his review in The Baltimore Sun, H.L. Mencken said the book was little more than a 'glorified anecdote.' 'Gatsby' was horribly reviewed when it came out. Fitzgerald wrote his legendary editor Maxwell Perkins to say he felt it was because of its length, under 50,000 words. So why do we consider it one of the great American novels today?"
Somewhere a whooshing sound like the air being let out of every tire in a parking lot. Somewhere the smell of dark-roasted coffee beans.
Amos surveyed the room. Each student had his book cracked on the table in front of him. Suddenly the arrow over one student's head flashed yellow, then green, indicating someone was actively playing the game. He didn't know if he had it in him to find out, so he decided to call on one of the other avatars first. Directly to his right, where the game was programmed to place the best student, he saw that a short swarthy young man had his hand raised enthusiastically to the ceiling. Amos looked at him, hit the C button, and the name Reggie blinked on the kid's forehead, then blinked out. Amos looked straight at him.
"Good question, professor. As E.M. Forster argues in his seminal 'Aspects of the Novel,' a novel is a long prose fiction, at least 50,000 words. So perhaps Mencken was basing his critique on Fitzgerald's having so clearly flaunted that rule."
"Good, Reggie," Amos said. He always asked a lot of questions, trying to facilitate discussion. "And nice work citing your source. But who gave Forster the authority to dictate the rules for the novel? Are novelists just to follow rules?"
"Yes," Reggie said. "When the rules are reasonable."
It wasn't what he was looking for, so up-the-middle, but at least he was engaging his class. It brought a feeling like his lungs were filling with air, his legs stronger than they'd been when he entered the room. He decided he'd try and reach out. He looked across the table at the tall blond senior with the solid green arrow over his head. He hit the C button and saw the avatar's name was Travis. OK, he'd try it. Amos called on him.
"Ass-shit poongesticals! Shits and farts!" the player using the Travis avatar said. "Farts farts farts shit farts -- "
Amos hit Pause. He felt like his lungs were empty and flat again, tired and dejected. Every time he thought -- wished, hoped -- there might just be someone in one of the avatars taking his class, and almost every time the green arrow lit up, it was the same thing: some kid just in there trolling, at best a spam bot selling porn. He hit a button. The puff of smoke again. He was back in the Scandinavian living room.
This time he left the campus option the same. He changed the year to 1997. He pressed A. Now he was sitting at the same seminar table, only the ashtray and cigarette were gone. In a back corner of the room was a boxy television on a wheeled cart, a VCR on top. All 13 seats around the seminar table were filled, only now they were filled by 10 young women and 3 men. There were 4 African-American students, 1 kid wearing a yarmulke. Amos breathed a little easier. All of the arrows over their heads were solid red. He asked them the same question he'd asked the previous group.
Somewhere the hiss of steam, somewhere the smell of hot milk. Somewhere cardamom, somewhere cinnamon.
Amos looked around until he settled on one of the African-American men, across whose forehead flashed the name Derek.
"It strikes me," Derek said, "that if we apply any real Derridean ideas about signs and signifiers, that Mencken must have been responding to the unfixed tropes Fitzgerald was employing. Could the green light at the end of the Daisy's dock signify Gatsby's desire? Sure. But it could also just be a light."
Another avatar raised her hand and said, "Derek's right. If we say 'light,' how do we know the reader thinks of the same sign based on its signifier?"
Discussion proceeded apace. It was the kind of class Amos had always wanted to teach -- at the two campus interviews he'd had in his six years on the job market, he could barely get the students to talk no matter how many questions he asked. But this, this here was the dream. The dream as realized in a VR game, but the dream. The kid with the yarmulke raised a series of salient points about Fitzgerald's latent anti-Semitism, particularly in his depiction of Meyer Wolfsheim. One young woman avatar agreed. She pointed them all to the specific paragraph in which Fitzgerald described Wolfsheim's nose "flashing," quoted directly from the book.
"I mean, how does a nose even flash?" the woman said. "I have to agree. Problematic. Plus he uses the word 'holocaust' to describe Gatsby's murder at the end. Just weird."
Amos said they all made good points, and he was about to hit the button to get out -- rich as it was, he'd led versions of this discussion dozens of times -- when the arrow over a quiet girl's head to his right flashed yellow, then green. It stayed green.
Amos knew it was almost certainly a 12-year-old boy behind her eyes, or an offer of coupons for 20 percent off at Bed Bath & Beyond. But he couldn't put it off forever. He took a breath and called on her.
"Have you ever considered the possibility that character is destiny?" the girl said. It was something of a cliche, to be sure, but hope sparked somewhere down in the balls of Amos' feet.
"I'm not sure what you mean," he said. "Do you want to unpack it?"
All the other avatars in the room were looking at her.
"Oh, sure, Mr. Whatever, I could unpack a bunch of shitfarts and shitty poongestical fart fart fart -- "
Amos hit a button, returned to the Scandinavian living room and took the headset off.
It was time for him to get back to his shift anyway.
Amos had a morning shift, which was always busiest. It was a little after noon before he was able to take a break. He locked himself in the break room again, put on the headset, logged in. The superscript at the bottom read "7" now, but both of the two new users were the foulmouthed kid from the day before, so he reported them as spam. It went back down to "5." Only 995 students to go. He looked to the left, scrolled down to "Colgate University," and hit A. He looked to the right, scrolled down to 2006, and hit A.
Now he was in a seminar room not unlike yesterday's. A 50-inch flat-screen television was mounted to the wall. There was a view out a window in the back of the classroom that looked out over the campus' sloping green hills. In the distance was a large pond, where Amos could just barely see three girls in bikinis sunning in the early fall noon. Directly to his right at the seminar table was an avatar that looked not entirely unlike him.
In fact, it was him. When he was first testing the game out, Amos had built avatars of himself as a freshman, sophomore, junior and senior, after proving that he had been enrolled there at the time, a new function of the game in the LitClass: Nostalgia Edition. This was his Senior Avatar. It had his brown curls from the time -- he was mostly bald now -- and even wore a faded purple and green tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirt he'd owned. By senior year it was tattered full of holes. Amos looked at his Senior Amos Avatar, then the rest of the class. There was a woman in a navy blue hijab, another kid in a yarmulke, and a woman in a sari with a bindi on her forehead and a copper nose ring in her left nostril.
"Today," Amos said, "we're going to look closely at the end of Nick and Tom's trip to see Myrtle for the first time. Did everyone read the article I sent home with you last week, theorizing Nick's latent homosexuality?"
Somewhere the hiss of steam, somewhere caramel macchiato. Somewhere sere-sharp chlorine.
The Senior Amos Avatar raised his hand. Amos looked to his right and called on him.
"I have to admit," Senior Amos said, "I was skeptical when I first started reading that piece. But returning to the book, I gotta say -- it's pretty convincing. I mean, why is the whole scene after Nick goes to Mr. McKee's room elided? It's the only place in the whole book where there's just an ellipsis in place of hours of scene, and no explanation."
"Very good point, Amos," Amos said. "Now what page was it on again? Please cite page numbers so we can all follow."
The avatar directly to his left raised its hand and started waving, the way a student might in kindergarten. When he turned, Amos could see both that it was one of the eggshell ovoid faceless avatars -- and that, without his having noticed it, the arrow over its head was solid green.
There was someone in there.
Whoever it was hadn't decided to create an avatar, as advertisers and trolls invariably did. Amos called on it and waited for the inevitable poop emojis, the coupons, the Rick roll.
"Hello, class," the ovoid head said. "Happy to be here. To join you, that is. Um, so. I don't mean to play devil's advocate. But at the same time, aren't we reading into it way too deeply?" Amos didn't say anything. He looked directly at the avatar. It spoke with a light accent, he thought probably from the subcontinent, though he couldn't tell for certain. "I'm just saying that really anything could be contained in that elision, couldn't it?"
Somewhere the hiss of steam, somewhere the smell of soy chai latte.
Before Amos could speak, Senior Amos said, "Yeah, but isn't that the same argument I'm making? It's like we're stuck in some tautological reader-response criticism. Where I see Nick, famously elusive, filled in with a character attribute Fitzgerald couldn't give him at the time, you see nothing. Wouldn't Occam's Razor suggest the simple answer is that he did sleep with Mr. McKee?"
"Occam's Razor," the ovoid avatar said. "It's not entirely clear you know what that term means."
"Don't I?" Senior Amos said.
"Do you?" the ovoid avatar said.
Somewhere a whining tinny sound like a mosquito.
"Let's not make this personal," Amos said. It was the closest he'd ever come to navigating a real conversation, not just between two avatars, but between two students. One of whom was an avatar of himself as a college senior, at 10 on every skill level as he'd built him. But still. "You guys are really after something with this line of questioning. Let's try to unpack it."
"Unpack it," Senior Amos said. "Huh."
Somewhere the whinny tinny sound again, only much louder. Somewhere a treble sound. Somewhere a voice clarifying itself into language.
The ovoid avatar said, "I'm just saying, it would seem simplest that given Nick's love for Jordan Baker, Fitzgerald just left out some of the scene at the end."
"You both make excellent points," Amos said. "And -- " Somewhere the treble tinny sound clarifying itself into a voice saying, "Amos? Amos? Amos!" as loud as the conversation in the classroom. "And -- Oh, hold on."
Amos pressed Pause and took off the headset. He was momentarily disoriented. His head felt like it was expanding, his eyes couldn't focus, and he started to fall over backward when the café manager, Patrice, grabbed his arm.
"Amos!" she said. "I've been calling you for, like, five minutes. Huge postlunch rush, and Dante hasn't shown up. We need you behind the espresso machine, pronto."
"My break's not over," Amos said. "I was right in the middle of class."
"Class," Patrice said. "Yeah, Jesus, right. Class. OK, I hear you. But. We've got a rush. So -- you. Up front. Pronto. You can come back to your game as soon as it slows down."
So in the middle of the most successful class Amos had ever taught on VR -- or in just regular R, for that matter -- he headed out of the break room to make lattes.
That night, Amos brought the headset back to his apartment for the first time in ages. All his roommates were asleep already, and he knew he'd have to whisper. He went into the bathroom, selected "Colgate" again, then "2006" again, and started teaching the next class. It was criminal they only got a day to talk about Flannery O'Connor, just one class meeting, but he would have to attract far more paying players if he wanted to write his own syllabus, which you could only do after your 100th enrollee -- a goal that had seemed increasingly impossible. Until today. He looked up and scanned the room. To his right was Senior Amos. To his left, the ovoid avatar with a red arrow over its head.
No one in there.
Somewhere the faint smell of urine. Somewhere mildew, somewhere Tom's Mint toothpaste. Somewhere Listerine Total Care.
Amos taught the class. The arrow over the ovoid avatar's head stayed red the entire time. It was very, very late at night. Tenure felt again as distant as something impossibly distant. He went to bed.
Every day for the next week Amos went to work at the cafe, did his shift and taught his Flannery O'Connor class, the same Flannery O'Connor class, over and over and over. Every day he taught it to a room full of avatars, focusing on the one he'd made of himself. On Friday, he took a chance and tried teaching a programmed class on Rabindranath Tagore, but he didn't really know how to lecture on his work and when a green arrow finally appeared above one of the avatars to his left it was advertising a sale on shorts at J. Crew.
It was early December.
Somewhere the sound of hissing. Somewhere the reek of failure.
He closed the game and made eight consecutive caramel macchiatos.
Tuesday the following week, Amos planned to do one more class on Flannery O'Connor. For the year he'd being doing the class, he'd always lectured on "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" -- who doesn't like "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"? -- but he took a moment in the Scandinavian chalet living room the night before his shift and saw that a new option was being offered. So he reread the story and then selected it: "Everything That Rises Must Converge." He'd forgotten about that story, about the kind of outsize character, Julian, so displeased with his clueless mother. He was reminded of just how cartoonish O'Connor could be, how perceptive, how gleefully disdainful of her characters. But with the volume of that disdain came the pure moral clarity to her work too. Amos reread some of her letters the night before teaching the class. They were glorious in their candor and unadulterated confidence. Oh, to have Flannery O'Connor's confidence! To always know what you were saying, and to whom, and why. If he'd had that confidence, maybe he'd be teaching a class, not LitClass.
He finished his Tuesday morning shift, put on the OR headset. Just as he was about to go back into the same classroom as before, he had an idea. He selected Colgate again, but this time he turned his head to the right, picked 2003.
His freshman year.
In he went.
Cloud of smoke, and he was in the seminar room. An avatar of Amos was back at his right, but his curls weren't there yet, his hair still short, wearing the same Grateful Dead tie-dye, only now the purples and greens were bright, vibrant, and there were no holes.
This was his Freshman Amos avatar.
The same view of the pond stood idyllic in the corner of the window in the back of the room, but now it was midwinter. Amos saw where a deer had laid faint tracks all the way from the woods down to the water. Right at the center of the pond he saw the matte start of ice that had formed on its topwaters. There the deer stood, head at a 45 degree angle to the ground, two fawns next to it doing the same.
Amos looked past the seminar table, where all the students were looking at him, and focused plaintively on the lake. The group was evenly divided between men and women. Directly to his left, instead of an ovoid avatar, now there was his Senior Amos Avatar.
In the classroom.
Two Amos Avatars.
This Senior Amos Avatar wore the same tattered tie-dye, had the same long hair. Whoever was playing him hadn't changed him at all. Amos looked at him closely. It seemed as if it was truly looking back, eyes fixed on his own. Over the avatar's head, the arrow flashed yellow, then green. Solid green.
Amos looked to his right, where Freshman Amos avatar was now sitting. From the other side of the table he heard one of the students say, "Uh, so will we be getting started soon? I've got field hockey practice at four and coach says we can't be late this year."
Senior Amos to his left said, in its Indian accent -- it was clear now she was Indian -- "Doesn't it seem like Julian's disdain for his mother in the story presages the civil rights movement in many ways?"
To his right, Freshman Amos said, "You know, I'd have to agree -- "
Somewhere the hiss of steaming milk.
Everywhere the hiss of steaming milk.
For the first couple months playing LitClass, Amos had felt the best way to engage his students was to be wholly attentive, to ask questions and tend to their every whim, but all at once at that table with his Freshman and Senior selves he remembered his favorite teacher when he was an undergrad: Professor Holly. She was six feet tall, had once had coffee with James Baldwin in Paris. She was aloof, answered virtually every question with a question of her own, sometimes didn't even acknowledge you. She had a famous system where she used something called the "Holly Line" when grading papers -- if you lost her interest entirely at any point, she'd just draw a horizontal line across the page and grade only what was above it. At the time it had seemed so cruel, but sitting here at that same seminar table, after a night of imbibing Flannery O'Connor's certainty, looking at a real human inside an avatar of his own freshman self, waiting to hear what he could say about "Everything That Rises," Amos didn't even turn his head. He remembered Professor Holly's command of the classroom.
"Somewhere in her letters," Amos said, looking at Freshman Amos the whole time, "Flannery O'Connor wrote, 'I think I believe in distortion, not abstraction.' Take out a piece of paper and a pen and write down what you think she meant by it."
Somewhere the hiss of steaming milk -- Amos looked out to where all the avatars but Senior Amos put their heads down to their notebooks and were furiously scribbling. Senior Amos, embodied by someone he'd never met and never would meet, was just looking at him. He saw his younger face, remarkably accurate in the way the game had let him build it: a scar above his left eye where he'd fallen and split it open on a stair when he was nine. His front teeth slightly overlapped in a way even teenage braces couldn't fix. The prickly beard he'd grown summer after junior year, when the idea of having a job was still some inchoate thing, a wet seed in the hot dusty ground, when he'd looked up at Professor Holly and thought, That's what I want. That's all it was at the time: a yearning, an ache. There was no sense of process then, of what it meant to get a Ph.D., to try to find work when he finished his graduate studies. It was just the wet seed of an idea, to sit and read books with 18- to 22-year-olds who were discovering them along with him, wet seeds themselves in the same hot dusty ground, all of them looking for something. Somewhere the smell of mocha, somewhere chai -- Amos looked at the student to his right, the student to his left, and he said, "So since I am after all the professor, I think I'll start today, then hear your responses later. When O'Connor said, 'I think I believe in distortion, not abstraction,' I'm pretty sure she was saying something like -- "
Somewhere, everywhere, here now around the table three new green arrows light over avatars' heads, but Amos is lecturing, and he won't call on any of them until he's done.
Illustrations by Roman Muradov