An interview with Dalian Hansen, Second Life’s first in-world novelist

Dalian Hansen isn’t real in the way that you or I are real, but he’s at least as real as the person who created him as his Second Life persona chooses him to be. Dalian is about to become the first Second Life avatar to publish a book in which the majority of the plot takes place in Linden Labs’ notorious virtual world.

Dalian Hansen, Second Life author

He’s not the first novelist in SL, nor is the book the first to deal with the concept of the metaverse, nor is it the first book to appear in full in SL – but the combination of the three is a first, as far as I can tell.

As the book inherently has a science fictional theme at its heart, not to mention being written by someone who is a virtual extension of a real person in a way that would have been unimaginable outside of science fiction less than a decade ago, I figured I’d like to chase him down and ask him some questions about the project.

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PR: So, tell me a little about yourself – what do you do in SL, and in RL* (if you don’t mind talking about both)?

DH: “Dalian Hansen is an Avatar that exits in Second Life. Among his many virtual projects as a computer generated simulation, Dalian is the Creative Director for Tretiak Media LLC (a SL Development firm which owns the SLQuery.com data engine service), Architect for such in-world clients as IBM and ABN-AMRO, and former Creative Director of the popular monthly Second Life magazine, SLBusiness.

His Anima connects to the virtual world from Manchuria, China. This meat version of Dalian’s digital persona is recognized as an internationally award winning Creative Director and photographer. He is also one of the first foreigners to host a Chinese network news program in China.”

PR: Have you always been a fan of science fiction novels?

DH: “I was always a fan of science fiction stories, but as a kid I didn’t read many books. So TV, movies, and comics were my primary exposure to the genre. As my tastes matured, I found novels and my imagination to be more entertaining.”

PR: Any favourite authors or books?

DH: “I like the classic Science Fiction books from Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert and Philip K. Dick. These guys understood the science of the fiction, and its social effect. They built a world around the technology and made it believable. I would say that Dean R. Koontz remains a big influence on me. I have read over 40 of his books that go back to the beginning of his career, when he wrote pure science fiction.”

PR: Have you always wanted to be writer?

DH: “My written work has been published for years in some form, I just never made a living from it. As a kid, I had all these visual ideas but lacked the talent to express them with my hands by freehand drawing. So I turned to writing as a way to paint pictures with words. It also meant I was not dependant on anyone to create my vision.

As I got older, the computer was a big liberation for me. It was a tool that allowed me to finally express these ideas in pictures. As a result, I eventually became a Creative Director for major advertising agencies and made TV commercials and such for international clients. I still enjoy writing, but being a visual artist puts food on the table. Plus, writing takes a great deal of time and emotional commitment. It is like a relationship because it consumes the mind and requires a constant focus, at least for me.”

PR: Tell me why you’ve chosen to write directly about Second Life – a personal fascination, or marketing decision?

DH: “I wanted tell a story where Second Life was more than just an environment, it would be like a character. There have been many guide books about Second Life and short stories about virtual avatar adventures. But this is my attempt to bring the idea into mainstream fiction.

I took well documented points in Second Life history and combined them with real people and fictional characters to invent a mythical story and secret world. After all, reading a book is still the ultimate virtual reality for the human imagination, and establishing this lets Second Life exist in your mind and not just the computer. So I wanted to offer a fun story connected to Second Life in the spirit of old dimestore pulp fiction novels.

“Anima” is just the beginning of a bigger saga I would like to tell. I really don’t care about fame or profit from this or future books. It was just something I wanted to do. I set my mind to it and the accomplishment is its own reward. I don’t expect or care if the novel is a success. And even if it is an utter failure, I’d rather accept that than the regret of not trying.

After all, not very much in science fiction is completely unique or original. But many stories can evolve a popular theme into something fresh and entertaining. That is all I have tried to do and never intended to deliver a groundbreaking epic.”

PR: Do you see there being a long-term future for the written word as entertainment? And if so, do virtual worlds have a part to play in it?

DH: “Human history has been documented by the stories we tell. Whether by campfire in a cave or on a computer terminal connected by the world wide web. People have told stories long before the written word was invented, which basically turned spoken sounds into pictures. The written word is just a medium. It is our nature to tell stories, and the environment only changes how this is done or what we use to do it.

Printed books created an explosion of information in their day. The Internet has created another such revolution. Technology will always provide different opportunities, but I think the purpose remains the same. Whether a story is written, painted, acted, or virtually simulated, the method is meant to communicate. The written word has been a useful tool, and it stands to reason that it will continue to have a relationship and place even in the virtual age.”

PR: According to the synopsis I read, your novel deals with SL as being a very serious and very real part of the protagonist’s life – can you tell me how you see the penetration of synthetic worlds into meatspace going in the next decade?

DH: “No one could have guessed the effect of the Internet on world cultures. It is easy to draw parallels about the direction of the metaverse, but there are many side effects that cannot be predicted. For example, velcro was invented for the space missions. The internet was invented to protect American military computers from a nuclear attack. I think the bigger effect of the future metaverse is in these side effects. Sure, it will be a simulated world where we can interact. But with the freedom it offers, economic opportunities, and technology it inspires, these other effects will be more far reaching. The influences and habits of the Internet are now far more powerful than the tool itself.”

[* Note for meatspacers – RL is Second Life slang for ‘real life’.]

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I think the real take-away for me here is that someone so obviously deeply involved with the metaverse believes there’s a valid future for the written word as entertainment – an interesting contrast to the ironically technophobic Old Guard of the genre.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding with any book is in the reading. But Hansen seems to be able to talk the author talk pretty well, even if he doesn’t seem to bothered about the project being a commercial success, so I’ll be trying to fit it into my reading schedule at some point soon – I’m curious to see what he’s come up with.

A final morsel to chew over – if it’s possible for a virtual avatar to publish and promote a book, how will this affect the gender and cultural biases that currently plague genre fiction? Will initialising and anglicising names go out, in favour of writing under an entire assumed persona – one that isn’t necessarily even human in form, let alone gendered or coloured?

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