Three Books I Read on Simulated Realities

As with all rapidly losing-blooded Americans, I want a global virtual reality network.

Much as I was excited about diving into a few novels (Snow Crash Neal Stephenson, Ready Player One Ernest Cline, Rapture of the Nerds Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross) in a row about this type of thing, every imagining of some form of Virtual Realm (VR) has problems. Annoying ones:

  • The rules are badly defined. 
  • Virtual characters do things that make no sense.

These books aren't annoying as stories. They're exciting adventures. 

Snow Crash combines ancient religion, computer hacking, rival corporate gangs and the urban virtual world, the Metaverse, in a violent action story that takes a humble katana-wielding pizza delivery man to the root of all human language. It's a satire of corporate idealism, American evangelicalism and post-Nuclear politics (there's a dude rolling around on a motorcycle with a warhead), but the only element without the humorous play up is the Metaverse.

Stephenson coined the term and since then it's been every geek's dream to bring it into existence in various forms, such as SecondLife. The MetaVerse is an urban landscape and for the most part people interact and act much like they do in reality from a first person perspective. Of course, you can make your avatar look however, many folks resorting to cheap duplicate avatars similar to Barbie and Ken dolls.

In contrast, the hero of Doctorow/Stross's book, Rapture of the Nerds is staunchly anti-technology and horrified of upload himself up into the cloud. It's a virtual reality, but you go there once and you stay. For most of the world, it's a gateway to immorality; for Huw, the story's protaganist, it's dying. It takes a while for the book to get up in the cloud, in point of fact, it's a pretty wild undertaking of Apocalyptic Christians living in a giant anthill, bizarre cyborg infections, multi-genitaled religions and repeated betrayls. 

Once in the cloud, Huw's reality is completely virtualized and controlled, down to his own emotional reactions, which have buffers, filters and dials to adjust. He can fork his own self repeatedly to aid him in processing or trying different realities at different speeds. It's a strange form of conciousness to describe, but nicely matching with how we currently view computer programs own operations and manipulations. 

Ready Player One is the most familar virtual universe. The OASIS is a gaming environment turned virtual world. School classes are now held there as does most socializing, and of course there are thousands of adventure worlds of every imaginative ilk - sci-fi, fantasy, hybrid or simply friendly places like SecondLife - to explore. The real world is a bit of a shithole, so the book makes no satire - it's just better to leave the real world and enter the OASIS, where the book spends most of its time.

Each book has its own successes and failings as novels, but none of these really annoy me and when they are flagrant, it's typically because the story needs to move on. It's sci-fiction after all. But on the technology stuf - well, that's worth taking a look at.

The main issue with the majority of these proposed virtual worlds is the inefficiency. I get the literary motivation for the avatars - a VR is just an excuse to have a fantasy world that plays by whatever arbitrary rules that satisfies the story's need for excitement. Better than any fantasy world too, because the author can just decide whenever that previously stated rules don't apply.

Why the emphasis on rules? When you have wizards inside of Cyberpunk planets fighting starships (as in Ready Player One), you need rules so you can understand what is important or what is at stake. Stories without stake are pretty boring. 

But back to inefficiency. In the movie Hackers, there's so massive hack at the end where the characters are all using these virtual reality headsets to navigate some database. It really doesn't make sense - why can't they just type some macros into in a command line and get what they need immediately? It's the same in these literary VRs.

Why spend a bunch of time walking, actually walking, to your friend when you can just message they instantly. We do that now. Why make a rendezvous in some secret location when you can just email a person? I think it's easier to encrypt a simple text message over encrypting instant voice communication and digital rendering of several characters simultaneously as happens repeatedly in Ready Player One.

It's a problem of motivation. The author's need to play in a sci-fi world makes sense, the reader's desire to be in that sci-fi world makes sense, but why the characters would operate in this made up world that humans made and then elected to be a part of doesn't.

Since I've picked on Cline's book a bit, I'll say at least his has small caveat that the VR was originally a gaming environment, but in general, when the modern day Web user has more instaneously and efficient modes of communication than folks in a vast global virtual reality network in the future, the author's imaginings at this point are akin to fiction of modern magic, not because of the level of technology required to produce a VR environment, but because we know that VR realms just don't operate in the manner's described as we've had some taste of it with online communities and gaming.

It's sort of like one of those images where you see what the future looked like to folks 100 years ago 

It takes a couple core concepts of what "technology" is and pushes them to extremes. Ships were the most powerful form of technology at some point, so therefore the future will be dominated by ships of war that can go on land. Watch out!

It's unfortunate, but Stephenson's Metaverse style fiction isn't all that enthralling and the need for a full digital rendering of a person in the other novels is not a breakthrough in a science fiction sense (I doubt the author's think so or care). It is just another fantasy world erected in order for characters to do cool things and have fun. 

Quiet frankly, you do have fun and perhaps because you aren't struggling with a mind altering concept of reality just to turn the pages, you can enjoy that.