Virtual Worlds in Novels, Movies, and TV

second life class meeting

Now that we’ve had our class meetings in Second Life, this would be a good time to talk about virtual worlds in novels, movies, and TV (‘cuz that’s how I roll). Long post after the cut.


Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash

When Second Life first hit the scene, it wasn’t uncommon to hear people compare it with the Metaverse from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash. In the book, we’re introduced to the Metaverse through Hiro Protagonist (best character name, ever), who lives in a self-storage unit. Early in the novel, we see Hiro in the unit with his roommate, but it’s quickly explained that: ”[…] 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.” In the Metaverse, Hiro has clout and influence, whereas in the “real world,” he’s just been fired from his job as a pizza delivery guy. This speaks to the idea of virtual worlds being a more appealing place to be than reality. In the end, however, it ends up being an interplay between the two, as actions in both worlds have consequences and reciprocal impact. A thing to note about Snow Crash is that it’s satire that takes on a lot of the conventions of the cyberpunk subgenre. It’s also really funny.

Vernor Vinge’s True Names

Vernor Vinge’s 1981 novella True Names features an immersive, virtual world accessed through networked computers. The title refers to the concept in stories of magic that knowing someone’s true name gives you power over that person. Participants in online communities in the story take on identities that draw on fantasy characters and situations (and evoke the MMOs that would come later). They use handles, as revealing their legal names makes them vulnerable to government prosecution for illegal activities. It’s an entertaining story, and it’s very much worth reading for the influence it continues to have. In 2001, an anthology was published that reprinted True Names and collected non-fiction essays about its influence.

Pat Cadigan’s Synners

synners cover

If there were any justice in the world, Pat Cadigan’s influence would be as quickly and widely acknowledged as that of her contemporaries William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Bruce Sterling when it comes to cyberpunk visions of the future (People were buzzing about Gibson’s influence on Inception, for example, but they also should have been talking about Cadigan’s Mindplayers). Cadigan’s writing is truly interesting and deft. It’s also a lot of fun with a great punk rock sensibility. The punk in cyberpunk is a reference to punk rock culture, but Cadigan’s the one who consistently features music in her work. In her 1991 novel, Synners, the music is front-and-center, as the virtual world technology of the story centers around immersive music videos. From a synopsis: “The world she describes is at once familiar and utterly strange. It is populated with addicts of all kinds. Their drug of choice is a synthetic experience so actual as to be indistinguishable from reality. These synthetic experiences are then transformed into a package that can be sold to unwary or addicted consumers.”

Kelley Eskridge’s Solitaire

Originally published in 2002, Kelley Eskridge’s Solitaire is the story of a woman who is falsely convicted of a horrible crime. She is offered a shorter prison sentence if she’s willing to help pilot a new virtual prison that effectively leaves her alone in a room for subjective years while spanning only months in reality. It’s a horrifying scenario and a different take on a virtual world than the sprawling interpersonal networks we’ve come to expect. It’s also a really good novel. A new edition of Solitaire has recently been published by Small Beer Press (one of my favorite small presses).


As for movies, I mentioned eXistenZ in a post on video game movies, but there are two other movies from 1999 that we should also talk about. The first is The Thirteenth Floor; the second is a little movie you may have heard of called The Matrix.

The Thirteenth Floor

Based on the novel Simulacron-3 (which I haven’t read), The Thirteenth Floor is a murder mystery/thriller that’s focused around a company developing VR technology. While it wasn’t a box office success, it’s notable because it deals with the idea of  meta-simulations.

The Matrix

Of the three major VR films of 1999, The Matrix was by far the most successful with audiences. You’ve probably seen it, but just in case, it’s a take on the idea of the “real world” actually being a simulation. One of the main ideas of the film was that those who knew that the Matrix was a simulated world could change the way they interacted with that world.

The Matrix Online

I should probably also mention The Matrix Online MMO. There were several video games based on the Matrix franchise including Enter the Matrix (which I’ll talk about when I get around to a post about transmedia storytelling) and The Path of Neo. While the other games were developed for consoles & intended for one or two players, The Matrix Online was an MMORPG that took place in the world of the movie. There were a lot of issues with the game including a disastrous ownership change that ended up making it relatively short-lived. But those who really got into it were fiercely loyal and spent a lot of time immersed in that world. A lot of the features of the game are familiar to anyone who’s done any MMO gaming. Rather than guilds, players joined factions aligned with either the humans, the machines, or The Merovingian (who was introduced in the second Matrix film). There were story missions to complete, but players could also grind for items and to level up. Much of the appeal of the game was the sandbox aspect. It was fun to run around the Matrix with your friends, especially if you knew Kung-Fu. Here’s a screenshot from when I used to play:

A screencap from the Matrix Online


Harsh Realm

1999 also saw the premiere of Harsh Realm, a short-lived (as in 9 episodes) TV series overseen by Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files. It was based on a comic book, which was the source of controversy when Carter listed himself as series creator. Harsh Realm takes place in a virtual world that started out as a military training simulation but was taken over by rogue general. The show is the story of the soldier tasked with ousting the general and returning control of the system to the military–from within the system.

This is by no means comprehensive. Virtual worlds have been heavily explored in fiction and on screen. What are your favorites?

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Maria Kramer
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 15:09:37

    Neat post, Candra!

    I’d like to add YA novels Epic and Saga by Conor Kostick to the list of books. In Epic a WoW-like game has become the arbiter of wealth, power and prestige in the “real world” as well as the game world. Rebellious teen Erik shakes up the status quo with his unique approach to the game. Saga channels The Matrix by focusing on a virtual world so realistic that residents believe it’s real.


  2. Craig Belpedio
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 00:30:16

    I have to ask: Where’s Tron? The original Tron basically pioneered virtual world movies (not to mention the extensive use of computer graphics in movies). And it wasn’t half-bad for a CGI Disney movie from the 80s.

    Also, I played Enter The Matrix and Path of Neo. Path of Neo was a lot of fun even though there was a lot added to Neo’s plotline that wasn’t shown in the movies (or mentioned at all), not to mention (*SPOILER*) the massive change of the ending. But I enjoyed having Neo’s powers and being able to stop bullets.

    Enter the Matrix was a lot of fun, too, except for the crappy AI (had problems with the driving AI, it was atrocious). I did like the way the plot of the 2nd movie was split (sort of) between the movie and the game. Seeing another group at work and dealing with characters in the Matrix was a lot of fun.

    I never got to play The Matrix Online, but I always wanted to. It looked like fun and I was curious about the plot (I heard tell of people believing Neo was still alive).


    • Candra K. Gill
      Apr 06, 2011 @ 00:43:56

      I didn’t mention Tron again because I covered it in the video game movies post. I’m trying not to repeat.

      I have a copy of Path of Neo somewhere but haven’t played it yet. Interesting to know that it adds a lot to Neo’s story.

      If I recall correctly, there was something about people believing Neo was alive in MxO, but my faction was Merovingian. The human factions were more concerned about Neo rumors 😉


      • Craig Belpedio
        Apr 06, 2011 @ 11:51:18

        My bad! I forgot you had mentioned it earlier.

        I was always ticked MS discontinued the XBox 360’s backwards compatability program and PoN wasn’t one of the games added. I want to go and play it again but hauling out my old XBox is a bit of a pain.

  3. Ossian
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 16:12:24

    There was the American version of the TV series “Life on Mars” — I never saw the end of the original English version.

    In it, a cop has an accident, finds himself thrown back in time. He learns he’s in a coma in the present, but at the end wakes up from a cryogenic sleep on a mission to Mars. The whole series was a virtual world that had gone buggy.

    Episode 28 of “Stargate Atlantis” involves an ancient ship the Aurora, whose crew is in suspended animation while they interact in a virtual world. McKay and Shepherd enter and leave, fighting a Wraith who is also in there, disguised as what McKay calls a “hot – very hot! – woman.”

    There was also a “Stargate SG-1” episode “The Gamekeeper” in which some aliens lived in a virtual world because they (falsely) believed their planet was unlivable.


    • Candra K. Gill
      Apr 09, 2011 @ 22:15:20

      I’ve seen the Life on Mars and SGA episodes. I could never get into SG1, but I may have to check out “The Gamekeeper”.

      Have you seen any of the UK Life on Mars? I much prefer it to the US version (which ends *very* differently).


  4. celestial elf
    May 05, 2011 @ 05:49:27

    Some great Books in your list,
    thought you might like my SnowCrash machinima film

    best wishes
    elf ~


  5. Robin Turner
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 08:20:24

    I assume Gibson isn’t here because he’s in another post, and maybe you covered eXistenZ elsewhere too.

    For TV, there’s an episode of CSI:NY that takes place in part in Second Life. I also hear there’s a very old Dr. Who episode that has a virtual world and was the first case of the word “matrix” used for such, but I haven’t been able to dig it out, so don’t quote me!

    P.S. I stumbled on this blog while googling for virtual worlds in film – nice course! We seem fated to meet in every virtual platform in existence.


    • Candra K. Gill
      Oct 31, 2011 @ 08:41:56

      Hey, Robin. Yes, Gibson and eXistenZ are both covered elsewhere. And yes, we do seem fated to repeatedly cross paths. Maybe one day it’ll actually be in person 🙂


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