sue thomas

july 22th 1998

Imagining a stone: virtual landscapes
I have been writing inside the virtual community of LambdaMOO since 1995, and many of the environments I have created there derive from my sense of the natural world. These places are sometimes fairly realistic, as for example the English fields (below). I built them after I had enjoyed many pleasant Autumn afternoons walking my dogs and wanted a virtual field on my screen for days when a trip outdoors was impossible.
_^^~^___ the fields---_____~~^_^-~~ ____^^___~~~~~~
They stretch as far as the eye can see. It is autumn, and the ground is stubbled with the remains of the harvest. On its way to Africa for the winter, a sheet of birds darkens the sky in a turning twisting mass, then disperses and moves on as a scattered cohort towards the far-off hills and, beyond them, to the open sea. A single curving line of elder and willow marks the path of the sunken stream which has etched its way through the landscape from west to east. Several fields away, a tractor is slicing new furrows in the compacted earth. They gleam darkly against the white of the following seagulls. The sky is an English grey, as if the mists of Autumn are held fast in a canopy above our heads; a canopy which at any moment might fall and surround us, billowing out to hide the stream and the trees and the tractor and the wheeling birds... until we are left alone and silent in a muffling quilt of cloud. (Rm #14691 LambdaMOO)
LambdaMOO is a text-based virtual world so I am limited to the keyboard for my images... and this suits me very well. I like to build pictures out of words. But not all of my textual virtual landscapes are so akin to everyday life. The_Damp_Darkness was created for Liis, one of the virtual characters in my (real, paper!) novel The [+]Net[+] of Desire. It is a slightly fantastical place which houses the red seed from which Liis was born.
A clearing in an ancient wood. The patch of short grass in its centre is almost exactly circular in shape, its surface uneven where the remains of trees fallen long ago form humps and bumps beneath the shawl of green. There are rings upon rings of toadstools at different stages of growth and decline, and the trees make yet another circle around this secret place. One is much larger than the rest, an enormous towering sequoia thousands of years old, its bark gnarled and pitted, its bole a mass of whorled crevices. Here, deep inside one of the fissures, lies a red pod. It is no relative to the tree, indeed it is not kin to any of the species in the clearing, but for hundreds of years it has lain here in the damp and perfumed dark, making a place of peace and sanctuary for the beautiful Liis. (Rm #52249 LambdaMOO)
The novel also features abstract landscapes, such as the room at the heart of the novel, which also features constantly moving randomized text:
A playground for the virtual body. Here you are weightless in the dark, spinning in the soft velvet air. (Rm #87887 LambdaMOO)
Recently I have been thinking about the extraordinary work of the British landscape sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, who uses organic materials to create outdoor environments which feature some intervention or manipulation by the artist to move them just one step away from nature - whatever 'nature' might be. Goldsworthy makes landscape artificial in the same way that text-based virtuality creates a recognizable simulation with its own very individual character.
This piece will be an exploration of virtual exterior landscapes in both 'hard' form (Goldsworthy's) and textual (my own).
Most of the sites discussed will be at LambdaMOO, telnet to 8888 or at LinguaMOO, telnet to
If you are unfamiliar with text-based virtual worlds, check out The Guide to Becoming Virtual
For information about Andy Goldsworthy go to Smithsonian Magazine
Sue Thomas's books include CORRESPONDENCE, WATER, and WILD WOMEN. CORRESPONDENCE was shortlisted for the 1992 Arthur C Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. She writes about technology and inorganics, and is Director of the trAce International Online Writing Community. Her own homepage is at
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