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Virtual Reality

Entry updated 1 December 2022. Tagged: Theme.

Since the mid-1980s, a popular item of sf Terminology, and for a century or so – in a rather more extended sense – a popular sf theme. In ordinary usage a virtual reality is a computer-generated scenario which seems real (or at least all-encompassing) to the person who "enters" it; one essential quality of virtual reality is that the person who enters it should be able to interact with it. To a degree all Videogames, as habitual players well know, have long offered a primitive form of virtual reality. In other words, the ever-changing picture on the screen, plus the touch of the fingers on the keyboard, is enough to give the illusion of being "in" the game. But the term is usually reserved for those Computer simulations and games currently being developed in which the "player" wears a helmet and gloves whose sensors are electronically connected to the machine "intelligence", so that a turn of the head or a raise of the hand alters the field of vision or the posture of the player's alter ego within the simulation; again increasing available in the sphere of videogames. A further step, not yet available in the real world but a commonplace in sf, is the use of a direct electronic interface between the human brain and the AI which gives the plugged-in person the illusion of occupying and interacting with a reality whose apparent locations may extend beyond the AI to those of the data-networks of which it is a part. Such – it is the most famous recent example – is the Cyberspace envisaged by William Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy (1984-1988), in which hackers can jack into a "cyberspace deck" and project a "disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix".

A good popular guide to the meaning of the term in its more limited, scientific application is Virtual Reality (1991) by Howard Rheingold. The term may have grown from the term "virtuality", used by Theodor Nelson in "Interactive Systems and the Design of Virtuality" (November/December 1980 Creative Computing). The coining of "virtual reality", probably around 1981, is usually attributed to computer guru Jaron Lanier, founder of VPL Research Inc, the company that markets DataGloves. The first sf usage we can trace is in The Judas Mandala (1982; rev 1990) by Damien Broderick, a book with many and confusing virtual realities.

This comparatively restricted use of the term rapidly became a Cliché of the Cyberpunk movement, but it is only a special case of the larger theme of virtual reality. One reason why virtual realities have been popular so long in sf is the somewhat recursive fact that stories themselves are virtual realities (though we interact with them only in a metaphoric sense); so the notion holds an intrinsic fascination for writers of stories, each of whom is, to a degree, a god creating an imaginary world which is real to the characters within it and partly real to the reader who shares their experience, a notion central to L Ron Hubbard's story "Typewriter in the Sky" (November-December 1940 Unknown).

Broadly, a virtual reality can be defined as any secondary reality alternate to the character's world of real experience in which the character finds himself or herself, and with which he or she can interact. The purist might insist that such a world be Machine-mediated. If it is not (or, less obviously, even if it is) then all sorts of questions of Metaphysics instantly intrude. How sure are we that our own world represents the "real" reality? This is not only the sort of question that troubles the protagonists of many novels by Philip K Dick, including The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965). It has troubled writers since the dawn of Western civilization, including Plato, who wondered if what we perceive as reality is only the flickering shadows on a cave wall, reflections of a higher, more solid (or Platonic) reality that we cannot directly perceive with the senses. The idea that our world may, in fact, be only a virtual reality remains intensely popular in fiction and is central, for example, to the situation in which most of Jack Chalker's characters find themselves. Any virtual-reality world might be assumed to have a creator or programmer, a kind of god, so virtual-reality stories are often stories of god-like or demonic creators (see Gods and Demons and Perception for further examples). One good early example is Daniel F Galouye's Counterfeit World (1964; vt Simulacron-3 1964), filmed as Welt Am Draht (1973; vt World on a Wire), which contains a receding and potentially endless series of virtual realities. Other examples are listed under Pocket Universes.

The idea of the virtual reality has often been linked with game-playing, and Game-World stories are often based around virtual realities. An early example (although not machine-mediated) is Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871), in which the virtual reality that Alice enters through the mirror is a Game-World based on an actual Chess game, whose other player is effectively God, and whose puppet-pieces are arguably deprived of free will. The idea, more simply, of plugging into a virtual-reality world for entertainment is also old: E M Forster's "The Machine Stops" (November 1909 Oxford and Cambridge Review) envisages a world of isolated cells whose occupants derive all their entertainment from global information networks; Laurence Manning's and Fletcher Pratt's "The City of the Living Dead" (May 1930 Wonder Stories) imagines people of the future living entirely encased in silver wires which artificially provide sensory input as well as well as physical needs; Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) has a future whose people are entertained by "feelies", apparently a kind of cinema that operates on all the senses to give an illusion of reality (but the experience is passive, so the basic element of interaction is absent); John D MacDonald's depicts total and permanent sensory immersion in "Spectator Sport" (February 1950 Thrilling Wonder); in Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars (November 1948 Startling as "Against the Fall of Night"; 1953; exp and much rev vt 1956), occupants of a static Utopia (not wholly unlike Forster's) amuse themselves with violent, melodramatic adventure scenarios into which they plug their awareness to take part; Brian Ball's Sundog (1965) offers a similar safety valve for inhabitants of military Dystopia under the name "totex" (total experience); George H Smith's "In the Imagicon" (February 1966 Galaxy) plays teasingly with confusions between VR and reality; Mick Farren revisits the theme as Satire in The Feelies (1978; rev 1990).

Virtual reality becomes an arena for the bloodless settling of disputes in Ben Bova's The Dueling Machine (May 1963 Analog with Myron R Lewis; exp 1969) and again in Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix (1985). Clifford Simak's Way Station (June-August 1963 Galaxy as "Here Gather the Stars"; 1963) features a VR shooting gallery in which the protagonist faces a succession of projected alien Monsters, prefiguring First Person Shooter games such as Doom. His VR experience proves valuable in the real-world climax, and VR violence has often since been regarded as a training ground for actual situations of mayhem or War: examples here include Christopher Priest's The Extremes (1998), Rod Rees's Demi-Monde series beginning with The Demi-Monde: Winter (2011), and Philip Palmer's Artemis (2011). The many attempts to "break" the eponym of The Prisoner (1967-1968) include forced virtual-reality experiences in "A, B and C" (13 October 1967) and the Western-themed "Living in Harmony" (29 December 1967).

While this topic has remained a minor constant in sf, it suddenly blossomed into a major theme around the end of the 1970s and through the 1980s, continuing to the present day. Sometimes the virtual realities of this recent fiction are generated by manipulative superbeings, sometimes by machine intelligences. In John Varley's Titan sequence (1979-1984) the artificial world is effectively a theme park, whose nature is protean, subject to the whims of its creator. Theme parks themselves can be read as a form of virtual reality, and often appear in sf, as in Steven Barnes's and Larry Niven's Dream Park sequence (1981-1991) or in the film Westworld (1973). The typical theme-park story has the expected manipulations of a game turned into the nightmare manipulations of Paranoia. The holodeck (Holographic Environment Simulator) of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) is a versatile Computer-operated VR recreation facility in the Federation Starship setting.

Further productions and stories in which humans are, or become, trapped in virtual realities, quite often computer-generated, include Hugh Walker's Reiter der Finsternis (1975; trans as War-Gamers' World 1978), Welcome to Blood City (1977), Vernor Vinge's True Names (1981 dos), Octagon (1981) by Fred Saberhagen, Tron (1982), Brainstorm (1983), Dreamscape (1984), Gillian Rubinstein's Space Demons (1986), Andrew Greeley's God Game (1986), Kim Newman's The Night Mayor (1989), The Lawnmower Man (1992), the Television series VR.5 (1995), Tad Williams's Otherland sequence opening with City of Golden Shadow (1996), Tron: Legacy (2010), Christopher Brookmyre's Bedlam (2013) and the television series 1899 (2022-current). The usual scenario is inverted in the television series Deadly Games (1995-1996), where after a little handwaving about Antimatter, characters from a Videogame emerge into our physical reality. A widespread emergent Cliché, difficult to justify logically but serving to add drama to adventures in essentially unreal worlds, is that a character's death in a VR scenario leads to actual physical death.

A popular variant of the theme is the reality generated by one person's godlike will; such are the deliquescing subrealities – rather like hallucinations which others are forced to share – created by successive characters in Philip K Dick's Eye in the Sky (1957) and by the protagonist of Ursula K Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven (March-May 1971 Amazing; 1971). The latter was filmed for television as The Lathe of Heaven (1980). Another variant is the computer Videogame seen by the unaware protagonist as only a game (i.e., virtual), which turns out to generate a reality that is often alarming (i.e., real). This is the scenario of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (August 1977 Analog; exp 1985) and of the film WarGames (1983), in both of which a war-game turns out to be war itself, the latter's gaming Computer being actually in a position of military command. A shoot-em-up arcade game proves uncomfortably "real" in Michael Scott Rohan's "Vurfing the Gwrx" (in Peter Davison's Book of Alien Monsters, anth 1982, ed anon Richard Evans). Another computer game is used to entice the young hero of The Last Starfighter (1984), his virtual-reality combat skills being required for the waging of a real galactic war.

A further variant is found in those stories in which (typically for purposes of psychotherapy) one person enters another's mind and interacts with what he or she finds there. Classics of this genre include "Dreams are Sacred" (September 1948 Astounding) by Peter Phillips and The Dream Master (January-February 1965 Amazing as "He Who Shapes"; exp 1966) by Roger Zelazny. One mind, in this instance, becomes a virtual reality for the other, and in these stories the transfer is typically machine-mediated, as in Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (1990), in which the reality entered is a malign landscape isomorphic with the mind of a deranged murderer. Film treatments of the subtheme include The Cell (2000) and Inception (2010). Further stories of this type are discussed under Dream Hacking.

The concept of the entire known cosmos being a virtual-reality simulation or archive reappears in Robert Charles Wilson's Darwinia (1998), where Europe reverts in 1912 to an Alternate History prehistoric ecology owing to corruption of a historical data archive at the End of Time; in Stephen Baxter's "Touching Centauri" (in Phase Space, coll 2002), where human probing beyond the bounds of the solar system overloads and crashes the simulator; and in Ian McDonald's Brasyl (2007).

Because of the metaphorical power of virtual-reality stories to examine the processes of creation (and, rather differently, to conjure up paranoid visions of manipulation) it is likely that they will remain popular. [PN/DRL]

see also: Omega Point; Online Worlds; Zone.

further reading

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