What are the best stories/novels about virtual reality?
January 12, 2018 1:07 AM   Subscribe

Looking for anything from any time period, although I guess they weren't writing about virtual reality in 1890. I'm looking for stuff that really works in terms of style and idea.

posted by angrycat to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Brainstorm (1983).
posted by jbenben at 1:11 AM on January 12

Snow Crash from 92, origin of the Metaverse.
posted by mannequito at 1:24 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
posted by cocoagirl at 1:27 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Phillip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
posted by thelonius at 2:29 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.
posted by jmsta at 2:33 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]

Ted Chiang's novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects is more about AI but it has a lot to say about virtual reality and online spaces as well. It's typically thoughtful & unsettling.

Virtual reality is part of an important thread in Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City but it's not the main subject of the book.

Nthing Palmer Eldritch & Snow Crash. William Gibson's Neuromancer is another classic -- it's trippy though dated. My favorite of Gibson's on this topic, by far, is Idoru.
posted by miles per flower at 3:25 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Scalzi's Lock In has a prominent virtual reality element.
posted by foxfirefey at 3:35 AM on January 12

Otherland by Tad Williams.
posted by tomboko at 3:46 AM on January 12

For a weird take that isn’t quite what VR normally means, check out Planiverse, a kind of an updat/response to Flatland where they use a sort of internet to talk to a real 2D alien world. Written by a computer scientist in 1984, same year as neuromancer.

But first read Snow Crash and Neuromancer, those are required reading for anyone who wants a background in the fiction of VR.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:48 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Solitaire, Kelley Eskridge — Virtual reality with an accelerated sense of time, used as a prison.
Trouble and Her Friends, Melissa Scott — Cyberpunk noir with queer female protagonist.
posted by fifthpocket at 6:58 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Virtual reality is one of the major themes of Richard Powers' amazing Plowing the Dark.
posted by vers at 7:51 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Vernor Vinge's True Names is a classic. (And you can find many hundreds of pages of scholarship on its relationship to the real world if you're into that sort of thing.) Rainbows End, a more recent novel by the same author, is also worth a look.
posted by eotvos at 9:12 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed the first two books of the Rise of Resurgence series.
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 9:14 AM on January 12

Matt Ruff's Set this House in Order is set in a virtual reality start-up.
posted by Ballad of Peckham Rye at 9:18 AM on January 12

John D. MacDonald's Spectator Sport is a creepy short story from the 50s -- time-traveler from the (then) present travels to the future and can't get anyone to pay attention to him; when he freaks out to attract attention, local authorities figure out he's unhappy, and give him what everyone wants, a permanent installation in a VR entertainment pod.
posted by LizardBreath at 10:16 AM on January 12

Oh, come to think, not 1890, but 1909, and not exactly virtual reality, but pretty close. E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops? A civilization of people living almost entirely motionless in separated rooms, occupying themselves with what seems to be basically the Internet but almost never physically interacting with other people?
posted by LizardBreath at 10:31 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]

Essential reading, LizardBreath, but I think the Machine is the Internet and a Siri-esque AI, not virtual reality.

William Gibson's Neuromancer Trilogy. He invented the term, cyberspace.
posted by Rash at 11:14 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

I'm going to put out a suggestion from left field, and recommend a novella-length story from the back of an old tabletop RPG sourcebook. FASA's Virtual Realities from the first edition of the Shadowrun roleplaying game is a very gripping story about VR told in the second person, even if you're not familiar with that game's setting. Cliffs Notes summary: Shadowrun was doing 21st Century orks & magic almost 3 decades before Netflix's Bright, but that fact has minimal impact on this particular story.

At one point in the late 90s I remember reading in Entertainment Weekly that the story had been optioned by Hollywood, but that report may or may not have been accurate. What I do know is that the name of Shadowrun's global Virtual Reality is "the Matrix" and the first Matrix movie shares some crucial plot elements with this story. If there was an adaptation though, it was a quite loose one, enough that they might as well be separate works that coincidentally share a term that's not infrequently used across VR fiction.

(Also, if you do search out this sourcebook, make sure it's the one with a gold title and an angel on the cover. The purple book, Virtual Realities 2.0, is from the second edition of the game and lacks a novella taking up half the book's pagecount.)
posted by radwolf76 at 12:24 PM on January 12

Tron (1982) - original trailer
posted by Rash at 12:58 PM on January 12

Greg Egan's Permutation City (1994) may fit the bill, depending on what aspects of virtual reality you're interested in. Its virtual realities are inhabited by uploaded consciousnesses, though, not meat-people with goggles.
posted by mumkin at 4:04 PM on January 12

Tea from an Empty Cup
posted by clew at 12:10 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]

Thanks everybody! I look forward to reading these recommendations
posted by angrycat at 1:31 PM on January 13

People have already mentioned William Gibson above, but, yeah, pretty much everything of his that's set in a highly technological future is fundamentally VR-intensive (VR doesn't feature at all in, say, Pattern Recognition, which has more of a present-day vibe, but both the Sprawl and Bridge trilogies have much of their plot going on within virtual worlds, or virtual representations of networks).

An interesting diversion from VR appears in Gibson's The Peripheral: people wear responsive systems which provide sensations and respond to their movement not to experience an artificial world, but to experience the real world in a different (synthetic) body. These same systems are used to allow people from alternative timelines to "visit" --- and since the synthetic-body technology doesn't exist in their world, they experience it as if it were an advanced VR.
posted by jackbishop at 1:51 PM on January 16

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