Here’s A Look Back at How Sci-Fi Literature Predicted the Rise of Modern Virtual Reality

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Here’s A Look Back at How Sci-Fi Literature Predicted the Rise of Modern Virtual Reality

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on July 1st, 2016 and has been republished in relation to the Ready Player One movie trailer debut.

With the introduction of top-end devices such as the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive as well as the simple ones such as Google Cardboard, Virtual Reality is the next digital frontier. While it’s a world that can now be practically realized, it’s not a new idea: Science Fiction has long been imagining virtual worlds within imagined ones.

From the early 1950s, authors had begun to experiment with stories involving simulated worlds. Ray Bradbury’s 1951 story The Veldt dealt with a pair of children and a virtual nursery, while Fredric Pohl’s 1955 short story The Tunnel Under the World told the story of a man who relived the same day over and over, only to discover that he was trapped in a cruel marketing simulation.

Virtual Reality provided a useful device for authors to examine a couple of interesting themes, territory unexplored by fiction at large. Technological advances were beginning to allow for the possibility for multiple realities: the real world, and ones which the characters could no longer distinguish between real and fake. Where reality was as real as the world under one’s feet and with what someone could see and feel, technology made everything questionable. Authors didn’t just explore their characters being manipulated: they began to question the very notion of reality itself.

James Tiptree Jr.’s 1973 story The Girl Who Was Plugged In is a good example of the manipulation that authors forecasted in their stories. While it doesn’t directly predict the rise of virtual reality, it does act as an important precursor to the entire cyberpunk genre.

In it, a woman named Philadelphia Burkes suffers from pituitary dystrophy, and is given a new opportunity in her life after she attempts to commit suicide. In this future world, remotely piloted ‘gods’ are used in place of advertisements:

“Look around. Not a billboard, sign, slogan, jingle, skywrite, blurb, siblimflash in this whole fun world. Brand names? Only in those ticky little peep screens on the stores and you could hardly call that advertising.”

In this world, the ruling corporate interests manipulate the population of consumers by strategically placing these perfect people in media to use products and encourage people to buy them. The body is a simulation for the people who surround it, but also for the girl plugged into it, who gets to experience this artificial life.

The Girl Who Was Plugged In was a major work from its author, who earned a Hugo Award for best novella in 1974, and it would become a major precursor to a subgenre of science fiction that would change the idea of virtual reality forever.

By far the most influential work of cyberpunk fiction is Neuromancer by William Gibson. Written a decade after Tiptree’s novella, Gibson was struck by an experience that he had in a Vancouver arcade: “Even in this primitive form, the kids who were playing them were so physically involved; it seemed to […]
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