Escape from reality?

Dan Stein

There is a very common concern that virtual reality technology will do horrible things to mankind. The idea that a new, virtual reality-enhanced life will be preferred [Baudrillard] over the harshness of reality, is one that pervades the work of William Gibson in his Neuromancer trilogy, and that of Neal Stephenson in his novel Snowcrash.

Gibson's Sprawl is not presented as the most pleasant place to live. It is depicted as quite the "urban jungle". Because of the fast pace and hard times experienced by citizens of this land, it is easy to understand the need for escape. This desire is quenched by virtual reality through the matrix and technologies like biosoftware and sim-stim. A great example is that of Billy's Mom, who prefers to pretend she lives the life of her soap stars.

Although Stephenson does not paint as gloomy a picture of the future as does Gibson, he is certainly weary of this type of effect. Through his passages and digressions, he makes it clear, in his usual sarcastic and hilarious manner, that life in the streets of the Metaverse can be much better than real life.

So Hiro's not actually here at all. He's in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse. Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse. It beats the shit out of the U-Stor-It.

This desire to escape from reality is not reserved merely for the characters who are living under poor conditions. For all of those pop-stars who have been told, "Man, you look much thinner [or taller, or cuter] on TV" the Metaverse provides an escape from the forces of gravity and the need for make-up artists.

The Movie Star Quadrant is easier to look at. Actors love to come here because in the Black Sun, they always look as good as they do in the movies. And unlike a bar or club in Reality, they can get into this place without physically having to leave their mansion, hotel suite, ski lodge, private airline cabin, or whatever. They can strut their stuff and visit with their friends without any exposure to kidnappers, paparazzi, script-flingers, assassins, ex-spouses, autograph brokers, process servers, psycho fans, marriage proposals, or gossip columnists.

Stephenson further demonstrates his characters' need to escape their Reality by showing us how upset people get when they are even reminded that what they are experiencing in the Metaverse is not actually the real thing.

The Nipponese businessman lies cut in segments on The Black Sun's floor... But the air does not rush out of him, he fails to collapse, and you can look into the aperture of a sword cut and see, instead of bones and meat, the back of the skin on the other side. It Breaks the metaphor. The avatar is not acting like a real body. It reminds all The Black Sun's patrons that they are living in a fantasy world. People hate to be reminded of this.

This discussion and these bring to light the insight in Baudrillard's seemingly wacked out Simulacra and Simulation, as he urges us to beware the Simulation and its possible ability to confuse our sense what is real and what is not.

[To other discussions of Snow Crash by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]