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The Future That Was Viral Times

August 31, 2022
Posted by:
Ron Seybold

 A dream delayed is better than a dream denied. It's a natural element of being human to look into the future, a skill that the community of HP 3000 computer owners polished over the first decade of the 21st century. Across the same period, working as an editor of a monthly newsletter, I did polishing of my own. I was realizing a dream that looked denied but escaped its delays.

That's Viral Times, the novel I began to write in earnest after HP stopped writing its futures for the 3000. My wife and I founded a newsletter in 1995 for the 3000 owners, catering to a captive, avid market with The 3000 NewsWire. But in 2001, HP called a halt to its plans to keep making the computer. I had to do the next thing.

The NewsWire needed tech storytelling. Viral Times needed tech to make the thriller soar. It seems like a good place to apply my skills.

In early 2012, the novel became a reality in printed and ebook versions, available on Amazon. I think of Viral Times as my HP 3000 emulator — a software product devised from a sense of necessity, given up for lost at least once, but revived and delivered after a surprising amount of challenges in its creation. Emulators keep things alive, like computers, when they begin to fade.

I believed my novel had fans waiting in their seats to experience its magic. Not a bestseller's number of readers, partly because the book's wide-scale release was no more likely than the prospects for that emulator to reverse the trends of 3000 ownership. People were leaving the computer behind. Becoming a bestselling author just about always means selling your book to a publisher.

But you don't need to be a bestseller to tell a good story that carries meaning for the future. To be sure, if you don't tell a good story, there's far less chance that book becomes a bestseller. Of such small books and modest software projects come enduring classics, if we're patient and lucky.

Buy 2012, there had been plenty of time to practice patience with that emulator. It was first discussed in 2002, the time I began training as a writer of fiction, taking classes at the Austin Writer's League. The concepts of both ventures, book and emulator, changed a great deal, just like the fields where they appeared. The '02 emulator was first heading for a specialized hardware design that could mimic the computer's PA-RISC processors. Software would be essential to the product, but at one point the leading vendor was looking for leftover PA-RISC chips to placed in a PC-slot card.

Viral Times started off in a very different place, too. This story of a star reporter, who was disgraced after a brave act and must redeem himself and recover love during pandemic times, once opened in 2044. I thought I needed that much elbow room into the future to show a society locked down into virtualized life—even virtualized love to avoid disease. Written in the late Aughts, it's story now starts in 2020. By the time it went into release in 2012, my shorthand for the tale was "It's a story in a future closer than we think."

Of course, the future turned out to be about eight years away. I had a hunch it could happen that fast. Nobody saw Covid coming, did they? Some novelists and moviemakers did. The film Contagion ushered Viral Times onto bookshelves. I wanted to have my say.

In an emulator's tale

The 3000 owners first believed they needed a replacement right away to stem the departure of customers from the platform. Anything that would arrive later than HP's exit date, in 2006, would be meaningless. The reality of the 3000's future was a more interesting story.  It turned out to be a tale of preserving the computer's operating system, not the hardware and applications we'd come to call the HP 3000.

Nothing was ever going to reverse the outflow of 3000 customers from that community. Too much change took place as a result of the dot-com Web boom to give enough of a growth path to that 3000's vendor-locked computing. In that era of business, an open model fed by many allied, independent players was the only way to grow. Within a few years, the 3000 community started spinning its story of the future. The changes didn't signal the end of other kinds of computing, though — not any more than the rise of ebooks meant the demise of paperbacks.

The 3000 has survived, still working in a few places that won't let it go easily. It's like a hardback large print novel. Needed, but far out of vogue.

Even though Viral Times will enjoy a long life as an ebook — it will never go out of print — it also received a loving debut as a story printed with ink on paper. I published it in 2012 using everything the 3000 community gave me the chance to polish: deadlines and printer double-checks, research and feedback — I told the community that we call that last one "workshopping" in the fiction business. We used to call such books "self-published," a lot like the 3000 market used to call most of its products "third-party."

But independence from strategies of the past is driving both books and computers. Looking to the future provides a great spark of "what if." HP once enjoyed using that same phrase when it introduced a touchscreen computer, the HP 150, a 9-inch marvel of the MS-DOS heyday, too far ahead of its time in 1984. Now there are pads and phones everywhere.

Viral Times needed eight years of planning and work (plus another half-dozen  before that) to become a book I could sign and hand over to readers. When publishing was still just embracing ebooks, the Viral Times version could be downloaded to an e-reader like a Kindle, or an Apple tablet. Like Viral Times, the iPad was brand new as 2012 rolled into view

The paper will always matter. Just try signing a tablet. The act of a human hand pushing ink across paper is one of those pleasures we continue to enjoy. I reveled in signing at a little release party here in Austin. People enjoyed seeing a writer at work, jotting down personal messages above a signature. But the ebook lives a long as digital editions play out over pages and phones.

What I didn't see coming when I started writing was virtualizing the means of publishing a book. People tell stories that can be read without acres of paper to prove their worth. Self-publishing, the old vanity press, became affordable, widespread indie publishing. We still print stories on paper, even as we emulate books. That's a future of media that's unlikely to change, even through our era of Viral Times.

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