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The Silence of the Avatar: In Her Image

Over on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, I've let it be known that my short story "In Her Image" (Analog, October 2002) has been reprinted in the collection Apexology: Science Fiction and Fantasy, which is available from Apex Publications as a digital download for only $2.99. The book contains eighteen stories by a variety of authors associated with Apex, and I'm proud to be a part of it.

I'm also pleased to be able to bring further attention to "In Her Image."

In 2009, Hugo-nominated fan writer Steven H Silver, who edits the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus, asked several authors the following question: "Which story have you published which seems to have disappeared without a trace?" I immediately thought of "In Her Image" and wrote a short essay explaining where the story came from and what it was about. Up until now, that essay, "The Silence of the Avatar," has only been available in Argentus 9 (and still is if you wish to download the issue).

However, as an enticement to get people to consider downloading Apexology: Science Fiction and Fantasy, and with Steven's permission, I've decided to reproduce the essay below. If, after reading the essay, you'd like to read the story, you know what to do.



The Silence of the Avatar
by Michael A. Burstein

Around the year 2001 or so, I first came across the word “synthespian.” A hot topic around Hollywood at the time, a synthespian is a computer-generated actor. In essence, any animated character could be considered a synthespian, but often the term is reserved for characters that are meant to appear real and to interact with human actors on the screen.

Filmmakers have used computer-generated actors to some extent, but with mixed results. The movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) was one attempt to create an animated film that had realistic human characters. Many critics felt that it failed in its attempt, as did The Polar Express (2004) a few years later. On the other hand, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) did succeed, probably because the character wasn’t meant to be human.

At the moment, motion capture and an actor are still needed to bring the character to life. In general, actors are threatened by the whole synthespian concept, because if actors can be replaced so easily, they might find themselves out of work. One movie, Simone (2002), approached the controversy from the perspective of a producer dealing with a diva actress; he fires her and replaces her with a secret synthespian.

I was intrigued by how this concept would work within the complications of copyright and trademark law. For a brief time, Hollywood was bringing actors “back to life” by splicing their images into commercials. Usually this involved some delicate negotiations with the actor’s estate, as the actor’s image was not free for the taking.

I thought of the story of how Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had sold all the rights to Superman for a pittance in the 1930s. Today creators are more savvy and generally hold onto more of the rights of their own creations, but a large enough paycheck dangled in front of anyone might make them willing to take what could turn out to be a bad deal in the end. And so I wrote the story of a young woman who sells the rights to her image to a Hollywood studio outright, and then years later, as an old woman, wants those rights back. I named the woman Janet LaRue, which in retrospect was probably a little too on the nose.

“In Her Image” was published in Analog in October 2002, with a very nice piece of interior art that showed an older woman staring balefully into a mirror at a younger version of herself, representing her avatar.

Probably a writer shouldn’t praise his own work too much at the risk of appearing immodest, but I thought the story was moving and powerful. It touched on one of my common themes, of how the future might remember the past. I wrote it in present tense, a departure for me, so it would carry more of a sense of immediacy. And I deliberately crafted a downbeat ending, another departure for me but one that Analog was willing to embrace.

And then the story disappeared without a trace.

I’m still puzzled as to why. At the time, a lot of my stories were garnering attention, and the premise of “In Her Image” was one that very few other writers were exploring. Perhaps the story was too depressing, or maybe readers just weren’t interested in the idea.

No matter. I’m pleased to have this chance to bring attention to the story yet again.

Comments

And I had just been thinking: “hey, now I have a smartphone with a Nook client, and a B&N gift card... I could use some good cheap ebooks.”
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