20 February 2010

[Literature] Cyberpunk views of virtual worlds - Neuromancer and Snow Crash

I have read Neuromancer and Snow Crash in French, so I am not giving quotes from these books. However, I am giving quotes from Count Zero, the second book from the same trilogy as Neuromancer. As for Snow Crash, the quotes come from digitalspace.com (I did not check them, but I can remember having read many of them in French).

William Gibson wrote Neuromancer in 1984. Neuromancer is the first book of the Sprawl trilogy, the last book of this series was published in 1988. Gibson's official website mentions With Neuromancer, William Gibson introduced the world to cyberspace. The cyberspace (also called "matrix" in the books) in the Sprawl trilogy is not accessible to everyone: only cowboys jacking-in with electrodes on their skull are directly linked so intensely that sometimes the feedback ate into his [a protagonist's] nervous system (Count Zero, p21-22). The visions inside the cyberspace are complex geometric forms inside a three-dimensional space, with planes, rectangles, lines and layers of ice protecting multinational companies' systems from cowboy - hackers ride a deck to enter the cyberspace (Count Zero, p104-105).

Neal Stephenson wrote Snow Crash in 1992. In this novel, nearly everyone can log into the virtual world, called metaverse: dating teenagers, business men and hackers. he sees two young couples, probably using their parents' computers for a double date in the Metaverse. He is not seeing real people, of course. This is all a part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer. (Snowcrash, p35). The connection with the virtual world is less intrusive for the users because they only need to wear glasses to see what happens in it. What the virtual world contains is more a Second Life-like reproduction of a city with bars and houses than a geometrical representation of big companies' software systems. Hiro is approaching the Street. It is the Broadway, the Champs Elysees of the Metaverse. It is the brilliantly lit boulevard that can be seen, miniaturized and backward, reflected in the lenses of his goggles. But right now, millions of people are walking up and down it. (Snow Crash, p24). Moreover, there is room for UGC: Developers can build their own small streets feeding off of the main one. They can build buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that do not exist in Reality (Snow Crash, p24-25).


The earliest cyberpunk vision of cyberspace is dated from 1980's - the term cyberspace was first coined by Gibson. Only few people access the cyberspace to hack systems. It seems that in the 1990's, the metaverse has become a more public place following the same rules as reality (eg gravity). I have not yet read cyberpunk novels dealing with virtual worlds and published in the 2000's. However, movies like eXistenZ (1999), The Matrix (1999-2003), Avalon (2001) [see my post about some of the aspects these three movies share] or Paprika (2006) seem to have accepted that virtual worlds are accessible and comparable to the real world. Moreover, these movies have raised issues to the public: becoming locked/imprisoned inside virtual worlds, being able to make the distinction between real and virtual, or using the technology to achieve personal goals, whether morally good (helping clients solve their psychological problems) or bad (governing the world!).

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