Science fiction and the multiverse

If the current trends of growth in ‘synthtic worlds’ such as Second Life and the multitude of MMORPGs continue, there will be a whole lot of new realities for people to explore from the comfort of their own armchairs. What future will science fiction have in an ever-expanding multiverse?

I’m thinking out loud here, to be honest. I’m writing an essay for Futurismic on synthetic worlds, and there are some tangents kicking around that I want to work out. I figured that VCTB would be a good place to discuss the future of science fictional works (and stories in general) in relation to readily-accessible alternate realities.

In my case, I read sf for its ability to take me to different realities, whether plausible or wildly speculative or even fantastic – I assume that a similar escapism motivates a lot of other readers. What I’m wondering is whether science fiction books and movies will survive the availablity of prebuilt and (most importantly) fully realised realities. Will people still want to read and imagine a different world when they could put on a headset and participate in one instead?

Obviously, only time will tell. But the story-telling and story-listening impulse is as old as humanity itself, and shows no sign of going away. The only difference would seem to be that people are coming to expect a level of participation in the stories they consume – indeed, it is becoming more and more possible to help ‘write’ a story by playing an MMORPG. When you and a group of fellow adventurers wander off into the mountains to steal the troll’s loot, you’re playing a role in a narrative that is not totally predetermined – your actions can change the way the story runs. This is why paper-and-dice RPGs became so popular. It’s nice to feel you’re in control of the story to some extent.
But that narrative is taking place within the wider narrative of the virtual world in which it is set. It is to be assumed that there will be some prepared background history for that world, so that there are organisations and factions to join, antipathies and vendettas to persecute, and so on. The world must be set up with opportunities for conflict. The ‘big picture’ is a story too – built upon by a mosaic of smaller sub-stories, but essentially independent of them to a certain degree.

So perhaps this is where the fiction-writing impulse will end up being deployed. Today’s novelists and script-writers may be replaced by world-builders. An idea that would nowadays become a book might instead be used as the framework for a new gamespace; film-makers would employ their visionary ideas in the service of creating a ‘film’ that will be viewed from within by the bit-part actors (and possibly from without as well; there is already a television channel in Asia that broadcasts footage of battles and conflicts that occur in virtual worlds). There will be no lack of need for the storyteller, but the way their stories are delivered may well change.

We tell stories to fill in vacuums of ideas, and to explain the otherwise inexplicable – that is what myths and legends are for. Even a virtual world designed to be free of backstory would end up creating its own through the collaboration of its participants. For example, imagine an sf RPG set on a world where there are no pre-existing organisations institutions, because the players have only just arrived at it as colonists. Almost immediately there will be people wondering why that world was chosen to be colonised, how the colonists were selected, what’s happening at the colonists’ planet of origin and so on. Stories are how we place ourselves in the world – the same will apply in virtual worlds, I think. Possibly even more so.

So, good news and bad for the science fiction world. The novel and the short story in written form may be, in the long run, destined for obsolescence and kitschness. But the ideas and tropes that we know and love are bound to more than stay alive. I think they will thrive, in fact, as will those of the fantasy genre. To be honest, I think the only genre that will suffer will be that of ‘literary’ fiction, which already falls foul of a reading public that demands more than detailed and beautifully crafted depictions of real people in the real world. The ‘real world’ is getting to be a stale story – it needs something added to it (be it sex, violence, big-money shopping, cunning criminal conspiracies, aliens, wizards, scramble-suits or anything else) to get people interested enough to invest a great deal of time and attention to it.

The grass is always greener in a world other than your own, to put it another way. Even a world like Second Life that has no grand narrative structure provides the freedom to its users to create their own stories, and from all the reports I’ve read, there aren’t many places in SL where the conventions of reality are held in particularly great esteem. Humans love to imagine different worlds, whether the difference be large (faster than light travel) or small (the opportunity to be someone or something that reality cannot or will not permit). The multiverse is providing an outlet for this impulse to run wild.

The question is, in a multiverse where everyone gets to be a storyteller, will the best be drowned out by the average and unskilled, or will the cream rise to the surface?

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