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Over the years the PLATO system has figured its way into, to my knowledge, three science fiction stories. Two were short stories and one was a novel.

Virtual Vengeance book   Future City book

First the novel.

Tom Starr wrote to me last year during a time I was extremely busy and unable to help. But I stumbled across his email again today and thought I'd share what he mentioned to me then:

My name is Tom Starr, and the Plato system impressed me greatly while I was a teenager living in Champaign, Illinois during the 1970’s. My brother-in-law, Mike Johnson, was an electrical engineer on the Plato project when I was high-school student, and he showed me the Plato system inside and out. I was amazed, and the experience inspired me to become an electrical engineer. I am a Distinguished Alumni of the University of Illinois with ECE and CS degrees. I work at AT&T as a network engineer.

Tom then described his book:

I have published a science fiction novel, Virtual Vengeance, largely inspired by the Plato system. This thrilling story is set in a world where teaching machines have become so effective that human teachers and classrooms have become obsolete. One of the last teachers in the world, a professor of computer science, discovers a problem lurking inside the ubiquitous teaching machines which leads to an adventure exploring artificial intelligence and what distinguished man from machine. The book’s introduction discusses the history of the Plato system. Virtual Vengeance has received many favorable reader reviews, see:

The novel has also received a positive professional literary review in the Kirkus review:

Be sure to check out Tom's book using the links above, or click on the book cover image at top.

Decades ago, another science fiction story appeared, in an anthology edited by Roger Elwood entitled Future City: A vision of Man's urban future in all new stories by 24 leading writers of science fiction. Among the authors of the stories were a young Dean Koontz, Virginia Kidd, Harlan Ellison, Frederik Pohl, Robert Silverberg, and one George Zebrowski.

George's story was entitled "Assasins of Air" and PLATO played a key role. PLATO is everywhere, though no longer free. The main character, Praeger, fixes up old cars and sells them to raise money to take PLATO lessons. New cars are electric, but old people in this story still value "the rush of power" (ha, they never sat in a Tesla P90D).

More recently, PLATO figured briefly in a short story, unfinished even, by none other than film critic legend Roger Ebert. While on his deathbed in the hospital, days before he would pass in 2013, his wife had suggested that he take a break from writing movie reviews, blog posts, and tweets, and try his hand at a science fiction story, something he loved when he was young. Roger did, and it was published online as "The Thinking Molecules of Titan" on The New Yorker's website. The story takes place in Roger's beloved Urbana, and includes this PLATO mention in the second paragraph:

“Later,” Alex said. Claire may possibly have nodded. They were leaning over shoeboxes filled with punch cards, part of their project to rebuild a museum working model of PLATO, the old computer program created on the Illinois campus in the nineteen-sixties. The Capital was a vaguely bohemian place, surrounded by disgusting undergraduate hangouts where underage students drank illegal beers. This, in Mason’s opinion, was the upside of their lamentable tendency to stand outside and lean over the sidewalk to vomit.

I doubt more than a handful of New Yorker readers had any notion what "PLATO" was, and I bet the vast majority of the story's readers assumed it was an invention of Roger's. Little did they realize that PLATO was something Roger was familiar with, going all the way back to January 1962, when he was a teenage reporter for the local paper.

I'd love to know if there are other science fiction stories or novels that mention or involve PLATO in some way. If you find any, let me know.


Learn more about the book:

The Friendly Orange Glow: The Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, by Brian Dear

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