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Literature / Labyrinth of Reflections

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Labyrinth of Reflections (Лабиринт отражений, Labirint otrazheniy) is a Cyberpunk trilogy written by the popular Russian sci-fi author Sergey Lukyanenko. It is set in an Alternate History where, in the early days of the Internet, a Russian hacker accidentally created a hypnotic pattern that forces human brain to perceive crude 3D computer images as a full-blown virtual reality. As his discovery spread to the public, major computer companies (Microsoft, IBM, etc.) created a Cyberspace colloquially known as "the Deep" that exists alongside the Internet (which has lost much of its appeal, with most social and business functions taking place in the Deep; the only reason people get on the Internet is to find out factual information).

Within a few years, a large virtual city has sprung up in cyberspace called Deeptown, where people can live and work for real money. After all, why should companies pay for office space when all they have to do is pay for virtual space and hire some graphics designers to make crude virtual offices that look awesome to the hypnosis-affected brains? Anyone who works in Deeptown usually does it from home while wearing a full-body virtual suit that allows one to better experience the physical sensations of the Deep. However, a suit is not strictly necessary, as the first person to experience the effect of the hypnotic pattern did so while playing Doom late at work and actually felt like it was him running through those Martian corridors fighting snarling monsters and unable to escape the illusion until he beat the whole game in one sitting.

Since humans are not normally able to break through the illusion in order to return to the real world, certain exit points have to be set up that allow the subconsciousness to "leave" the Deep. These points also act as "save" spots, as the user then returns to the same place after logging back in. There is a small group of humans known as Divers who are able to force themselves out of the illusion and have the natural ability to see programming holes and backdoors as, well, holes and doors and use them. They are usually free agents, although some are employed full-time by major corporations as security experts. Divers are also frequently hired to help a person stuck in an illusion to break free, as some people forget to set an exit timer and can easily die of dehydration or exhaustion (in the psychosis-induced state, people don't perceive their physical body, are not aware of any pain, and don't feel hungry or thirsty). The Divers have created a Code that governs their interactions. First and foremost, all Divers have a right to privacy. Also, no Diver shall use his or her abilities to harm another Diver. Violations of the Code are punished by fellow Divers.

The trilogy consists of two novels and a short story:

  1. Labyrinth of Reflections (1997; English translation published in 2016)
  2. False Mirrors (Фальшивые зеркала, Fal'shivye zerkala) (2001)
  3. Transparent Stained-Glass Windows (Прозрачные витражи, Prozrachnye vitrazhy) (2002)

The protagonist of the two novels is a freelance Russian Diver named Leonid who lives in a rundown apartment in St. Petersburg. He is an experienced Diver but doesn't know much about computers, which forces him to frequently rely on his hacker friend Alexander, a.k.a. Maniac. After breaking into a pharmaceutical company's virtual research lab and stealing their latest product for a competitor, Leonid is approached by someone he calls Man Without a Face (the man's face is constantly obscured), who offers him a job of rescuing a man trapped in a MMO game based on Doom. As a reward, Leonid will be given the Order of Permissiveness, a unique pass that allows him to enter any location in the Deep and requires anyone to let him in. During his adventures, Leonid meets Vicka, a virtual prostitute (who also runs the virtual brothel as an experiment for her psychology dissertation) and begins to fall for her. Leonid manages to reach "Jinx" (as the trapped man is nicknamed by other Divers) and finds out that he is not what he appears. By the end, everyone is after Jinx, and Leonid and Vicka are desperately fighting to keep him safe. The novel has been translated and published in English nearly 20 years after it was written.

In the second novel, several years have passed, and Deeptown has changed. Divers are no longer needed, as mandatory 24-hour timers have been programmed into all computers, and the Divers have lost the ability to see programming holes and backdoors. Leonid works as a virtual furniture mover, and his marriage to Vicka has hit a rough patch. To top it off, Leonid is suffering from Deep Psychosis, a condition that makes him unsure if something is real or not and may even involve hallucinations when he's not in the Deep. Then an old friend of his is killed by a virtual weapon (something previously thought impossible), and Leonid gathers the old gang (and some new friends) to find the answer and to defeat the mysterious Dark Diver. Once again, this involves playing Labyrinth of Death, although the game has since been updated to make it even more challenging. Additionally, there are rumors that the Deeptown may soon give birth to a true AI.

The short story is told from the viewpoint of a young woman who works for the Russian Department of Justice. She is sent to investigate a virtual prison run by the Russian government and discovers that it is being used to run secret experiments on the inmates. Leonid does not appear in the story and is only briefly mentioned twice by two other characters. The short story was originally posted online by the author and actually features two endings. The short story is usually included in the book of the second novel along with both endings.

The trilogy contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Alien Invasion: The plot of the popular MMO game Labyrinth of Death. The sequel is the reverse, with the humans taking the fight to the alien homeworld.
  • Alternate History: One Russian hacker's trippy video results in an entirely new and cheap method of creating VR and changes the course of the tech industry.
  • Attack Its Weak Point: Every monster in the Labyrinth of Death has one and can be, potentially, killed with a basic pistol. However, the stronger a monster is, the harder it is to find and hit that one spot.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Padla has a trucker mouth and is constantly berated for this by the more cultured Chingiz, especially in front of Pat. However, when Padla visits Leonid's home to replace his burned-out motherboard, he shows up with gifts and behaves himself in front of Vicka, so at least he knows not to do that in front of a lady.
  • The Cracker:
    • Maniac lacks Diver abilities but makes up for it with his hacking skills. His "Warlock 9000" virus is capable of breaking any program even a highly secure one.
    • Chingiz also reveals to have been a hacker in his younger days. His proteges (Padla and Pat) are also this.
  • Cyberspace: The Deep actually has very poor 3D graphics. It's the hypnotic pattern that causes the human brain to "fill in the blanks" and perceive it as a full-blown virtual reality. People still use the typical keyboard-and-mouse controls, but while in hypnotic trance they don't feel it. Instead, they feel like they're walking and doing everything normally.
  • The Emperor: The Final Boss of the second version of the Labyrinth of Death. According to the game's story, he's a giant mutated human who leads the invasion of Earth. Leonid finds out that the Emperor has somehow become self-aware when it asks him "Who am I?" At the end of the second novel, Leonid lets the Emperor out of the game.
  • Energy Weapons: When Leonid uses Maniac's "Warlock 9000" virus, it manifests as an energy whip that he uses against two fellow Divers and then to break open a hole out of the Labyrinth of Death. Maniac reveals that the virus was actually supposed to manifest as an elevator. In the second novel, his new "Warlock 9300" virus does exactly that.
  • Falling Damage: Gravity in Deeptown is specifically programmed to mimic Real Life as much as possible in order to avoid being responsible for anyone thinking they can jump from the roof of a building to the street with little to no damage. So, anyone doing that in Deeptown will have to reload from a previously-saved point.
  • invoked Game-Breaker: Leonid uses his Diver abilities in this manner to get through the Labyrinth of Death. Most people aim and fire their weapons the way they would do it in Real Life. Leonid breaks the illusion and uses the old mouse-and-keyboard to aim the crosshairs with much better precision.
  • Kiss Me, I'm Virtual: Certain virtual suits include additions that stimulate certain areas, allowing people to have sex in the Deep without the risk of catching anything. Vicka runs a virtual brothel allowing people to have virtual sex with anyone they wish (the girls simply turn on a different avatar).
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Jinx is either an incredibly-skilled hacker playing a prank on everyone or a being from another world who can only interact with humans through virtual reality.
  • Mysterious Stranger: Jinx is certainly a strange character whose origins are never fully revealed. As Leonid observes, Jinx is a crack shot and appears to be fully capable of completing the level on his own, but dumb luck keeps preventing him from doing that.
  • Secret Test of Thieving Skill: The first book opens with Leonid breaking into a high-security Cyberspace facility of a pharmaceutical corporation to steal corporate secrets for his client. He gets intercepted, however, and learns that his client is the same corporation who set up a fake heist that only a Diver like him can pull off, because they are in dire need of one and want to offer him a much bigger job.
  • invoked Sequel Difficulty Spike: The popular Doom-based Deep MMO game Labyrinth of Death involves players fighting through hundreds of monsters in the midst of an Alien Invasion. Players compete and frequently shoot one another. However, the sequel, introduced in the second novel, moves the plot to the alien homeworld, with the humans trying to pay the aliens back. The monsters are tougher and smarter, requiring players to work as a team (individuals barely make it through the first several levels).
  • Shout-Out: When playing the Labyrinth of Death in the first novel, whenever Leonid kills another player, he announces his current avatar's name with "I'm The Gunslinger!" Whenever he tells that to people (those he doesn't kill), they ask him if he's a fan of Stephen King. Leonid usually replies that he isn't, but he likes the name.
  • Technopath: The Man Without a Face theorizes that the advent of the Deep will eventually result in all humans being able to log into it without a phone line. Leonid possibly gains this ability at the end of the first novel through his interactions with Jinx.
  • Translator Microbes:
    • While 3D technology hasn't advanced much, real-time voice translators are, apparently, so good that no one can tell the difference, which explains Leonid's surprise when he finds out that a fellow Diver with whom he was working with turns out to be Canadian and was speaking English all this time.
    • It's later revealed that translation technology is still quite bad, but hypnotized human brain fills the blanks in sound as well as in image. Played for Laughs, as the example of translated speech heard by un-hypnotised Leonid features several flaws common for automatic translators.
  • Traumatic Superpower Awakening:
    • It's implied in the second novel that Divers' abilities awaken due to a specific kind of psychological trauma. In the short story, the prison warden is trying to artificially create Divers from inmates by re-creating their traumatic crimes.
    • Additionally, Leonid's super-Diver abilities awaken when he's trapped in Man Without a Face's unbreakable trance.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: The hypnotic pattern makes human brains perceive any 3D graphics as real. However, death in the Deep simply kicks the user out without any physical harm. Virtual weapons (basically, viruses made to appear as guns) are made in two varieties: 1st generation weapons only harm the software of the user; 2nd generation weapons can also harm the hardware. The main events of the second novel are kicked off when an old friend of Leonid's is killed by a newly-created 3rd generation weapon.