VIRTUAL REALITY


VIRTUAL REALITY
   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; oneessential quality of virtual reality is that the person who enters it should be able to interact with it. To a degree all computer GAMES, as habitual players well know, already offer 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. 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 (1984-8), inwhich 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" (Nov/Dec 1980 CreativeComputing). 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 traceis in The Judas Mandala (1982 US; rev 1990) by Damien BRODERICK, a book with many and confusing virtual realities.This comparatively restricted use of the term rapidly became a cliche 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" (1940).Broadly, a virtual reality can be defined as any secondary realityalternate 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 isnot (or, less obviously, even if it is) then all sorts of questions of METAPHYSICS instantly intrude. How sure are we that our own worldrepresents 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 sincethe 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 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 (GODS AND DEMONS and PERCEPTION for further examples). One good example is Daniel F. GALOUYE's Counterfeit World (1964 UK; vt Simulacron-3 US), filmed as WELT AM DRAHT (1973, vtWorld 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 earlyexample (although not machine-mediated) is Lewis CARROLL's Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871), in which the virtualreality 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" (1909) envisages a world of isolatedcells whose occupants derive all their entertainment through plugging into global information networks; 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); in Arthur C. CLARKE's The City and the Stars (1956), an expansion of Against the Fall of Night (1953), occupants of a static UTOPIA (not unlikeForster's) amuse themselves with violent, melodramatic adventure scenarios into which they plug themselves to take part.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. Sometimes the virtual realities of this recent fiction are generated by manipulative superbeings, sometimes by machine intelligences. In John VARLEY's Titan sequence (1979-84) 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 (1981-91) 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.Films 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 TOBLOOD CITY (1977), Vernor VINGE's TRUE NAMES (1981 dos; 1984), 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) and The LAWNMOWER MAN (1992).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 the protagonist of Ursula K. LE GUIN's The Lathe of Heaven (1971), filmed for tv as The LATHE OF HEAVEN (1980). Another variant is the computer game 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 (1977 ASF; exp 1985) and of the film WARGAMES (1983), in both of which a war-game turns out to be war itself, the gaming computer being actually in a position of military command. A computer game is used to entice the young hero of The LAST STARFIGHTER (1984), his virtual-reality skills being required for thewaging of a real galactic war.A final variant is found in those stories in which (normally for purposes of psychotherapy) one person enters another's mind and interacts with what he or she finds there, a classic of this genre being THE DREAM MASTER (1965 as "He Who Shapes"; exp 1966) by Roger ZELAZNY. One mind, in this instance, becomes a virtual reality for theother, 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 generated by the mind of a murderer. Many more stories of this type are listed under PSYCHOLOGY.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

Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. . 2011.

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