Entry updated 9 April 2015. Tagged: Theme.
In the world of Computers, Cyberspace and Virtual Reality as these concepts already exist, avatars are familiar as the visible icons or points of presence in virtual space of either human beings or software routines. Well-known examples include the representations of player and non-player characters in Videogames, Computer Role Playing Games, and such online VR environments as Second Life. Vernor Vinge's True Names (1981 dos) prophetically illustrated what is now a commonplace: that one can never be certain what is behind an avatar mask, and that humans and software bots are not easily distinguishable. Also preceding the concept's widespread familiarity, computer programs are represented by both humanlike and machinelike avatars in the 3D virtual reality of Tron (1982), and a "sub-program" similarly manifests as a boy called Paco in William Gibson's Count Zero (1986). A logical development, employing hologram Technology, is for an insubstantial avatar to become visible in the real world when special equipment is present – like the titular AI actress of Gibson's Idoru (1996). When suitable infrastructure becomes universal, remotely controlled avatars can manifest more or less anywhere, as with the mysterious Rabbit in Vinge's Rainbows End (2006).
Sf Computers with distinctive visual avatars include the sinister Master Control Program in Tron (1982), Holly in Red Dwarf (1988-current) – which also features an Uploaded character appearing as a hologram – and the computer of the titular Spaceship in Andromeda (2000-2005). The AI avatars of John Clute's Appleseed (2001) are rich with visual symbolism.
It follows from the sf concept of Upload that, again as in Tron, avatars may also represent software copies or transfers of human mentalities. This encyclopedia thus also uses "avatar" in a broader sense to denote such quasi-AI copies as well as their visible manifestations. As software, they can be stored and can also exist in multiple instances – coexistent Identities, like the three online variants of the uploaded protagonist in Robert J Sawyer's The Terminal Experiment (1995). Greg Bear's Eon (1985) refers to such instances as partials, since a specific avatar may have been edited – split off for a particular assignment – and may not contain the original's full personality. Such voluble partial personalities, here called Aspects, inhabit data storage within their descendants' heads in Gregory Benford's Great Sky River (1987) and its sequels. Greg Egan's Permutation City (1994) simply calls them Copies. It is frequently noted that such a copied avatar, though feeling itself fully human, may be a temporary expedient and subject to erasure: an avatar character in Frederik Pohl's The Annals of the Heechee (1987) finds it difficult to accept this fate. But the shipload of avatars (certainly not a Ship of Fools) on a voyage of no return into a Black Hole in Egan's "The Planck Dive" (February 1998 Asimov's) have voluntarily traded their personal futures for scientific enlightenment, knowing their other selves will continue.
A further logical sf development is the rehousing of such a software construct in some kind of physical avatar body, not merely an icon and point of presence but something able to interact normally with the world of matter. Rudy Rucker's Software (1982) places human software in a Robot body and discusses the philosophical issues with black Humour. The AI "Minds" of Iain M Banks's Culture sequence routinely use humanoid avatars (so named) to interact with their human charges, notably in Excession (1996) and Look to Windward (2000). The protagonist of Geoffrey A Landis's "Approaching Perimelasma" (January 1998 Asimov's) copies himself into a tiny physical avatar to enter a Black Hole as in "The Planck Dive", already cited; still tinier avatars, approaching the theoretical limit of measurable physical smallness (the Planck length), feature in Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder (2002). David Brin's Kiln People (2002; vt Kil'n People 2002) weaves a complex plot around the possibility of physical "ditto" or "golem" (see Golem) avatars whose memories of their time-limited separate existence may (or may not) be merged back into the parent personality.
The term has been made famous in an sf context by the commercially successful film Avatar (2009), whose projection of human personality into a body suited to the toxic (for standard humans) Alien environment was anticipated many years previously by Poul Anderson in "Call Me Joe" (April 1957 Astounding). [DRL]
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