The sf genre has always posed the question, What if? Its sister genre, high fantasy, has held the throne of popular attention for some time, but now authors are employing hard and soft sciences again, creating novels of the near future. Many are examining the role that games and virtual worlds will play, or will have played, in the development of those futures.
The purpose of this column is to draw your attention to a few of the prognosticators, because the games and game-related events you offer in your libraries today will contribute to tomorrow’s reality. One caveat: those seers will almost certainly be wrong, but they will be right in unexpected ways.
Sf regularly gets things wrong; we haven’t colonized Mars, figured out antigravity, or invented hyperdrive. But from screen savers to atomic bombs, weightlessness in space to the Internet’s ability to flout international borders, giving us both porn and the exposure to totalitarian government practices‚ to say nothing of predicting the development of the Internet itself‚ sf writers got there first.
Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash is one of the influential early works addressing the possibility of stepping fully into another world, sharing an alternate reality with others, all accessed through a computer. Stephenson popularized the term avatar for the pixelated representation of self on the web and inside virtual worlds, and the virtual earth in the novel may have influenced the development of Google Earth.
Stephenson has just released Reamde, which essayist Lev Grossman describes in Time magazine as a high-energy Bourne-style international thriller. In the end, despite Stephenson having coined the term Metaverse, he takes the position that real life is the ultimate hack.
A fellow librarian suggested to me Diane Duane’s 2010 Omnitopia Dawn, and now it holds center stage for all of my discussions about virtual world gaming. Game designer Dev Logan’s Omnitopia offers every variety of story and game environment imaginable, especially as skilled and able players are given the tools to create pocket universes to expand the multitude of universes. The plot turns on politics played out by believably depicted people and Omnitopia itself: fallible, very human, and decidedly multidimensional.
Ready Player One
A 2011 debut novel by an established screenwriter, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One was called a nerdgasm by author John Scalzi. Set in 2044, the real world is grim. At the death of James Halliday (the Bill Gates/Steve Jobs of his time), he launches a worldwide game inside the virtual OASIS, his life’s work, to qualify one person to inherit his enormous fortune. Halliday’s obsession with the 1980s of his youth shapes the game and its many pop culture references: the arcade and console games, the music, TV and movies, the comics, and more. Along the way, Cline addresses issues of physical fitness failing those jacked into the game every waking hour and the security of anonymity while living in an avatar.
Numerous other books touch on or use games, game worlds, and persistent virtual spaces as a significant part of the story. In Little Brother (2008), Cory Doctorow’s protagonist communicates with his compatriots through his game console; in For the Win (2010), the gamers espouse and communicate Doctorow’s socioeconomic themes with precision, played out in terms familiar to any MMO [massively multiplayer online game] player.
In Tad Williams’s monster Otherland series (the first is City of Golden Shadow, 1998), the young players log into the network but then find they cannot log out, their real bodies falling into a coma. (This is not the advertising copy I’d want on the recently announced MMO of Otherland.)
Charles Stross’s Halting State is not for the weak of heart: the second-person narrative alone (a format to be found in gaming manuals and guides) can put off some readers, especially when added to the gamer jargon and Scottish brogue. Part game economics, part mystery, and all too feasible in the near future, it’s worth the effort.
And for those wanting less challenging reading, Mari Mancusi’s Gamer Girl (2008) may not be prognosticative, but it seems a reasonably good snapshot of being a teen girl in an online game.