As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Pre-History of Virtual Reality

As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Pre-History of Virtual Reality

As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Pre-History of Virtual Reality

As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Pre-History of Virtual Reality

Synopsis

Many people throughout the world "inhabit" imaginary worlds communally and persistently, parsing Harry Potter and exploring online universes. These activities might seem irresponsibly escapist, but history tells another story. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, when Sherlock Holmesbecame the world's first "virtual reality" character, readers began to colonize imaginary worlds, debating serious issues and viewing reality in provisional, "as if" terms rather than through essentialist, "just so" perspectives. From Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos and Tolkien's Middle-earth to the World of Warcraft and Second Life, As If provides a cultural history that reveals how we can remain enchanted but not deluded in an age where fantasy and reality increasingly intertwine.

Excerpt

A map of the real world is no less imaginary than a map of an imaginary world.

—Alberto Blanco

FROM IMAGINARY TO VIRTUAL WORLDS

The modern West has been called “disenchanted,” but that is a halftruth. It can equally be deemed an enchanted place, in which imaginary worlds and fictional characters have replaced the sacred groves and tutelary deities of the premodern world. Many spend protracted periods of time “inhabiting” their imaginations, residing in virtual worlds populated by characters drawn from the media. As a writer for the New York Times observed, “today there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people whose grasp of the history, politics and mythological traditions of entirely imaginary places could surely qualify them for an advanced degree.”

Such escapist behavior is usually ascribed to fantasy fans, who have been the most visible adherents of imaginary worlds. (Soap opera fans and romance readers tend to be less noticeable in public than people who wear Spock ears or Hobbit feet.) They are often derided—sometimes affectionately, sometimes not—as geeks for wasting their youth playing Dungeons & Dragons and demeaning their adulthood by parsing sentences written in the Klingon or Elvish language. Poor, deluded creatures, they should “get a life,” as William Shatner famously scolded Star Trek fans on an episode of Saturday Night Live. But the habits of this minority have arguably become those of the majority in the West: we are all geeks now. Fantasy, a capacious category that subsumes subgenres such as science fiction and the supernatural, has blossomed from a niche interest to . . .

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