The Other Virtual Reality

I’m constantly struck by how wildly digital is missing the point when it comes to the arts, as you know. There is such a cosmic boner across arts and tech these days every time we have minor update in technology, that real human experience, and the question of what might actually be needed is tacked on afterwards, if at all:

“What do we need to make a powerful, engaging piece of work?”

“I don’t know, what have we got?”

“We’ve got some Occulus Rifts?”

“Then that must be WHAT WE NEED. Bring it!”

I’ve already had a go at digital’s obscenely reductionist attitude to dance, and now I’m taking on Virtual Reality. Not in a big way, yet. But in an effort to get VR’s polygontastic feet back on the ground for even just a picosecond, I have been interviewing people about “The Other VR” for an article. This was one of the lengthiest and most interesting responses I’ve had back, so rather than keep it to myself, I thought I’d share it here. The interviewee is Anna Smith Spark, author of forthcoming novel The Court of Broken Knives.


What are some of the non-digital immersive things (books, films, theatre, legends, hallucinations, meditations, hypnosis etc etc) that have had a compelling effect on you?

Books I find utterly immersive – the text builds the world in my mind very clearly. I lose the sense of being apart from the world it’s evoking. I find books far more immersive than films or theatre (or indeed video games, although I haven’t played these for a long time). I also find role playing games such as D&D completely immersive: I played D&D obsessively for several years, and the world of the game seemed far more real and important to me than many aspects of my ‘real’ life.This might seem counter-intuitive – both role-playing and reading are purely mental activities grounded in the imagination, with little or no visual or audio stimulus (let alone touch or smell, which I know VR people are looking at) to enhance the experience of an alternate reality. But I think this is, in fact, a key part of why reading and role-playing are more immersive.

Film, theatre and video games have the famous ‘fourth wall’. We are aware that we are watching something being played out for us. No matter how big the screen, how brilliant the picture quality, there cannot but be a perceptual gap between the viewer and the world being viewed. And the idea of ‘viewer’ is key. Watching something, listening to something, is a passive experience. You are being subjected to this thing, you are external to it, it has an objective external reality. When reading or role-playing, there is no objective reality. The mind has to create everything, there can only be the subjective experience of being fully immersed in the world.

To use the example of a character’s facial features: in film/theatre/computer games, characters are presented to you. When reading or role-playing, the character might be described, but has to be imagined. The mind has to work harder, to create something. Viewing is an act of consumption, reading is an act of creation. There is no barrier, no objective reality. The world is you.

It might be objected that one’s emotional response to film is generally more intense than one’s response to a book. Even a fairly mediocre horror film can be literally ‘unwatchable’, but a horror book can only rarely achieve this. A film will reduce an audience to tears or leave them roaring with laughter; again, a book won’t usually have such a marked effect. I think, however, that this is a product of the less immersive qualities of film and theatre. When watching a film, you are powerless, experiencing an objective external world and responding to it. You are thus acted on. When reading, you are creating.  Watching horror, the monster is external to you.  Reading horror, the monster is you. This is less emotionally affecting: you’d be frightened of yourself, weeping with self-pity, laughing at your own joke.

You can find a character in a film sexually arousing. But you can never be haunted by them in the same way as you can with a character in a book.

Is there something about the fantasy genre that makes it *particularly* involving to the reader, in terms of these ‘virtual realities’.

Fantasy is absolutely and totally about virtual reality. Otherwise, fantasy novels would simply be thrillers with stupid character names.To be serious, fantasy is for me grounded in creating another world and evoking that world. I include historical novels here, too, as the central pleasure of a historical novel is similarly the experience of a different world to one’s own. Reviewers and writers talk about ‘character driven’ fantasy novels, but I actually find this unconvincing; the character seems central, but only because the world they inhabit is immersive enough for them to seem real. A guy with a magic sword who’s told by a wizard that his destiny is to kill the Evil One? That’s absolutely stupid, except that the world that’s created is powerful enough as an immersive experience that suddenly it… isn’t. Fantasy is exploring other possibilities, other ways of being, of transcending the limitations of our drab lives (historical novels, ditto. No one would read a realist novel about the fourteenth century equivalent of a junior manager at a local accountancy firm, some bloke who herded cows, got married, had children, herded more cows, died.) The core of fantasy is in providing a basis for the reader to create a different world for themselves.

I think that’s also why fantasy fans can get so passionate about ‘their’ particular series of books. I’ve seen arguments between, say, Marazan Book of the Fallen and A Song of Ice and Fire fans get really heated and unpleasant, people finding it impossible to cope with the idea that someone else is criticising the books they love. Because it’s not about the books at all, it’s about the subjective reality the reader has created, the world they’ve created for themselves using the books as a platform. If someone says ‘I think Steve Erikson’s not as good as George R R Martin’, what they’re actually saying to a huge Erikson fan is ‘your personal alternate reality, the world you have created, the world your mind lives in, isn’t good. You aren’t good.’ That hurts.

What are some of the techniques you use in your writing to make things feel more ‘real’, shine brighter, or linger longer in the reader’s world?

Thinking as both a reader and a writer, I think the key to a more immersive, real virtual world is not to build it completely perfect. Not to explain. Not to have it all worked out. ‘Real’ reality isn’t explained. Most things in reality we don’t understand, we just take them for granted. I have no real idea, for example, how it works that I’m typing this and when I press send you’ll virtually instantly read it on another screen miles away. I have a vague idea, but nothing more. It’s beyond my comprehension. Most people don’t understand the ‘reasons’ behind their cultural traditions, why we have Christmas trees, why we tie horseshoes to a wedding car, why supermarkets all assume we eat a leg of lamb if we’re having an Easter Sunday family lunch.  Most people don’t have a particularly clear grasp of history and geography. A convincing created world will have gaps, won’t explain everything. Most things, in our world or any other, have no real reason. They just sort of happened and we’re stuck with them like that.

A particular thing I dislike is the idea of a ‘magic system’. Anthropologists and some fantasy writers share this obsessive need to try to place a profound logical overlay on religion and magic, to make it explicable, to be able to draw up little charts illustrating how it works, in the same way as one might draw up charts of Latin verb types. It looks neat. But, outside the lab, religion and magic don’t actually work like that. The human mind doesn’t work like that. Human cultures and belief systems are chaotic, contradictory, bizarre, weird accumulations of things from different places and times, things half-remembered, half-forgotten, re-interpreted, completely and blatantly faked. As is the human mind.

And if you explain too much, the reader’s ability to create is lost. The reader loses agency. They cease to create. Thus the immersion effect is lost. You’re no longer giving the reader a basis to create their own subjective reality. The book becomes the film. The monster ceases to be you.

Anna Smith Spark’s novel The Court of Broken Knives will be published in summer 2017 by HarperVoyager (UK) and Orbit (US). It is the first volume in the major new epic fantasy series Empires of Dust.
Twitter: @queenofgrimdark

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