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An Interview with Author Toby Downton

The year is 2020 and 18-year-old Nova is caught up in an epic year-long virtual reality game. With her life fractured and her strength constantly tested, will she have what it takes to be the last player standing?

Toby Downton’s novel Solarversia is the first step in a multi-platform storytelling experience that explores the relationships between artificial intelligence, technology and the human spirit. Weaving real world technology, such as the Oculus Rift and Bitcoin, into the novel, Downton blurs the line between reality and fiction to create a breathtaking adventure

Downton sat down to answer a few questions about his ambitious novel, the future of virtual reality in real life, and why he chose to release limited editions of his book through ascribe.

Out of all the genres you could write fiction in, why Science Fiction?

Essentially, because it’s the one that interests me most. Yes, I read other genres – the occasional thriller or book-prize winner – but sci-fi has always been, and, I think, always will be the genre that interests me the most. That probably comes from my love of technology, the way in which it enhances our capabilities, giving us, in some sense, god-like powers. In that way, it’s also the most important genre; it’s a way for mankind to forecast what might be, to inspect the endless possibilities that exist between the utopian and dystopian futures of our species.

Why focus the story around virtual reality?

It may sound strange, but I never made a conscious decision to write about virtual reality. I spent ten years searching for meaning in my life, a time when I read a lot about science and spirituality. After ten years I felt that I had found the meaning I was looking for and gave up the search. Shortly after that I had the vision for “a year-long game played in a virtual world,” an idea captivating enough that I have devoted a good portion of my life to it ever since.

What’s your favourite virtual reality experience available today and why?

That would be an experience called Titans of Space (a guided tour of the planets and stars). It was one of the earliest demos to be released, and, as such, isn’t necessarily the most advanced of the offerings out there, in terms of pushing the Oculus headset to its limits. But, like with films, it’s the overall experience that matters more than the degree to which cutting-edge technology has been incorporated. And that’s where Titans smashes the ball out of the park. Of course, I might be biased – like the name suggests, the virtual world of Solarversia is modelled on the solar system, so I was naturally drawn to the app.

What’s the relationship between storytelling and gaming?

The key difference of course is the element of interactivity: storytelling is a one-way medium, while gaming is bidirectional. But it’s become increasingly clear that the two complement one another in some not-so-subtle ways. There’s far less of a relationship in casual games like Candy Crush for instance, where gameplay is more about the mechanics and instant gratification. But once we move toward games like Grand Theft Auto, we see the former feeding into the latter. So, I can drive around and shoot people – great. But why I am doing these things? All this points to something that storytelling has always provided: meaning. As such, the relationship concerns the way in which storytelling imbues gaming with meaning, adding an element of depth to the experience.

Why weave a story across a multi platform delivery model?

Again, it’s connected to the vision I had. Starting early next year (when headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are released) we’re going to be inhabiting virtual worlds, which will act like proxies for the real world, meaning we’ll be doing similar things in them – we’ll travel around them, have social encounters within them, and play games together (just for starters). I realised that virtual reality is the first technology in the history of mankind that truly enables someone like me to write a fictional story about the game they’ve envisioned (and the company behind it). So the novel acts like a promotional tool for the company itself. With any luck, book would be turned into a movie, and following that, the actual game would be released in 2020, just like in the book.

How do you plan to promote the book upon its launch?

I’ve attempted to align the promotion of the book as closely as possible to the story itself, in an attempt to bring it to life (which is the ultimate purpose of course). I’ve focused on a central concept of the Solarversia game world known as the Player’s Grid – which acts like a giant scoreboard for the tournament and contains profile squares for each of the 100 million players – and have selected a 10×10 section of it, known as the Golden Grid. These 100 numbers will be assigned to people via a series of competitions, starting with the Amazon Reviewers Game, which is open to anyone that reviews the book on Amazon within the first month of its release (31st August – 30th September).

Why use bitcoin?

In the book, bitcoin allows The Holy Order (a terrorist organisation based in the depths of the Mississippi Delta) to send anonymous payments in one of the rounds of the game. This is a feature of the currency that has been praised by some, vilified by others. It was of course the technology that enabled The Silk Road to take off for example. What’s becoming clear is that it isn’t the bitcoins themselves that are the interesting thing; it’s the decentralised blockchain technology behind them, that is. I don’t pretend to understand all of the implications, but I sense that they’ll be wide-reaching, and possibly even revolutionary in nature.

As a writer, why use a service like ascribe?

I feel that ascribe is doing something important and necessary within the blockchain ecosystem, and as an author who is interested in technology (and who has included bitcoin payments in a scene in his first book) I felt it only right that I sign up to use it.

What do you see is one of the primary benefits to using ascribe?

Authors make their living from their ideas. And those ideas have value whether they are printed or digital. ascribe’s limited edition and provenance features allow me to release an electronic book which has the properties of the physical world. It allows me to release digital editions which hold value – without DRM. I’m still not entirely sure of the impact of this, but at first glance it appears that ascribe’s system helps to answer an important question in the digital world – how do you truly own? The rise of virtual reality means we will spend increasing amounts of time living in purely digital worlds. It makes sense that we have a system, like ascribe, which allows us to buy/sell digital property. It sounds like science-fiction, but it’s not.

Giving away 25 limited editions through ascribe is a unique approach to promoting your book. How is the traditional DRM-focused publishing model changing?

The most complimentary thing that can be said for DRM is that it’s dying a slow, painful death, and good riddance to it. People want and need the ability to consume and store content in a manner that suits them, and content creators, and the industries that surround them, need to understand that at the deepest level possible if they are to survive, and more importantly, thrive.

Whether he’s pushing the boundaries of where reality and science fiction meet, or designing the next immersive game to drive the story, one thing is certain: Solarversia is like nothing you’ve read before.

Want to own your own limited edition of Solarversia? Provide us with your email in the form below and we will send you a special limited edition version.

Thanks to everybody who signed up to receive a free limited edition version of Toby Downton’s Solarversia! All 25 editions have been claimed!