Readers of technically sophisticated science fiction are, I assume, accustomed to having life catch up to the ideas in their favorite books, even if it takes decades or centuries. Typically, the final form of the invention, be it a submarine (Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) or Dick Tracy’s watch, does not exactly match the writer’s initial concept. Some ideas seem so far-fetched and difficult to achieve that we would be foolish to hold our breath waiting for them: a Dyson sphere, for example. Others are flat out impossible, as Lawrence M. Krauss had great fun demonstrating in The Physics of Star Trek.
But that is by the way. The job of science fiction writers is to imagine potential futures, not to create them.
Although I have written two novels classified as science fiction and a third that blends contemporary graduate student life with a computer-generated literary/historical world, I never expected life to catch up to my imagination, especially within ten years of my developing the original idea for Dreamlife Productions and its Scarlet Pimpernel game. So I was first amused, then astonished, to hear that Microsoft had developed a new virtual reality headset that allowed users to manipulate their environment (by smashing the coffee table in their own living room with a hammer and watching it fragment before their eyes while remaining quite untouched in reality, for example). Three days later, the New York Times declared virtual reality “on the verge of taking off” and announced that “the virtual reality content race has begun.” What happened?
Now, the virtual reality of the present is not the seamless, wireless, instant-transmission-to-the-brain process described with minimal detail in The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel. It involves clunky headsets and in some cases a smartphone that serves as a screen. At best, the experience resembles a three-D movie up close and personal; Microsoft is so far unique in overlaying virtual reality on actual objects within a room and allowing users to act on those objects. It will be a while, I’d guess, before we can follow Ian and Nina into our favorite novel and feel every minute as though we are caught up in a story world where we can interact with and influence the developing plot. But it’s a beginning, and we have reached it surprisingly fast.
This image, although now available on the Internet, is © 2006 C. P. Lesley.
I created it in Photoshop as part of the original cover for The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel using public domain images from Wikimedia Commons.