It’s taken me a while, but i finally managed to get around to it, and – although i tried really, really, hard to get to grips with it, i’m afraid that in the end it left me feeling there was something badly lacking. Perhaps it will help – or maybe it won’t – if i tell you what i’m on about… i finally got around to reading ‘Snowcrash‘.
Rumours abound – always denied by those in the know – that Snowcrash, published more than 10 years before sl came onto the scene, provided at least some of the inspiration for what was to become the virtual world that we’re all familiar with. Certainly there are elements of Stephenson’s novel that have come to fruition in sl and, when you consider the technology of its day, there are some startlingly accurate predictions – as well as quite a few that are widely off the mark – of how a virtual world might look and feel, which would be extremely familiar to any sl resident. Even in its day, ‘The Street’ of Snowcrash was leaps and bounds ahead of the most advanced virtual environment of the time – Lucasfilm’s ‘Habitat’.
Personally, i’m not convinced that Snowcrash was at all instrumental in shaping sl, or any other virtual world for that matter – although Neal Stephenson’s legacy is certainly evident, through popularisation of the usage of ‘avatars’ and his coining of the term ‘metaverse’, (although even that has altered its meaning over the years by virtue of the changing nature of the internet). The scope of Snowcrash is far broader than dealing with the metaverse alone, itself merely a vehicle for the wider narrative which – for me – felt terribly wordy and convoluted. Nevertheless, it’w worth sticking with, since persevering reveals some fascinating concepts about language, religion and, erm… pizza delivery. Particularly intriguing is Stephenson’s contention that knowledge can be considered a virus – a topic i may well return to in future.
Unfortunately, if you take the novel as a whole, the metaverse/virtual world aspects of the story – far-sighted though they may be – seem to me to impose rather strict limitations upon virtual living, rather than tapping into the unlimited possibilities virtuality has become synonymous with today.
Which brings me to another novel, or rather series of novels – Tad Williams’ ‘Otherland’ series, all of which also found immense popularity before sl was even a twinkle in Philip Rosedale’s eye. These were books that i immersed myself in and marvelled over; writing that spoke of a virtual world that almost defied the imagination, and – unlike Snowcrash – the virtual world is the raison d’être for the story itself, absolutely central to the theme, and it is also a true metaverse that infiltrates every aspect of life and society.
i read the novels, forgot about them for a while, and then, quite some time later, i stumbled across sl, created an account, and the rest is history.
Right from the start, sl was Otherland! Things that i’d read about in those fictional accounts – things that i’d thought were mere imagination run riot – appeared around every virtual corner and always uncannily similar to the fictional world depicted in the novels, down to the smallest detail. Bots, virtual stores (with virtual greeters), sims, teleporting, roleplay, avatars and builds that weren’t constrained by any rules of form or function, landmarks, IMs, entertainment… it was all there, and it was all real – well, virtually real, anyway. It was a highly unnerving experience at times – a bit like dreaming about an event that hasn’t taken place and then finding yourself experiencing it for real, and everything unfolding exactly as you dreamed it – very unnerving indeed.
As to whether either of these fictional accounts actually played any part in shaping sl, the metaverse or any of the virtual worlds out there, whether by design or unconscious mimicry, i really don’t know – both authors were certainly right on the nail in certain regards – spookily so – but it’s certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that sl evolved quite separately and independently of these visionary novels into something that manages to uniquely mirror those fictional worlds that existed on paper before sl was even in beta – stranger coincidences can, and do, occur. In a way, perhaps it’s better that way – my gut feeling is that if the future is going to be dictated by the limitations of our current imaginings, then it won’t be nearly as exciting as it could be!
There’s just one small niggle that’s bothering me: both Snowcrash and Otherland share one particular common thread: an inworld nasty that can cross the boundaries between the virtual and real worlds, to cause coma and sickness for real, in rl, for those unfortunate enough to encounter it.
And i can’t help wondering…
A binary plague
This is the time of the hacker
Clock DVA – The Hacker