Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Choose Your Own Adventure

I haven’t gotten all the way through Snow Crash yet, but there were two things that struck me immediately when I began reading. One was the fact that I was being hit by a deluge of exposition – every acronym and aspect of industry and moment of technology (many which, in hindsight, I could understand without the assistance) got its moment of explanation. The second observation was that this amount of exposition didn’t inhibit my experience of the world of the book at all. In fact, it enhanced it. Though I was occasionally taken out for a moment to think, well, that was a lot of explanation, I was wholly engaged in the world that I was learning about in minute detail. I guess part of the reason I appreciated this level of detail is that, in my observation of the science fiction literature of the course, it often takes a while as a reader to get your bearings in a new world. Often I’ve spent a decent amount of a book’s opening passages overwhelmed by words and ideas I couldn’t quite get a hold on until pages later. This makes sense for stories about exploring the unknown or coming into contact with something alien. But since Snow Crash revolves around a world where nothing exists unless it is specifically coded, even a new explorer like me would have to be pretty well-acquainted with the world around her. The book uses words instead of code to build the Metaverse for readers, a decision which also makes sense in context, since words and code become so inherently linked later in the story.

My ability to build a world through written descriptions in the novel helped me to better understand the complicated questions posed by “A Rape in Cyberspace,” published just a year after Snow Crash. When I started the article, not paying attention to its date of publication, I imagined the rape taking place in an environment more like the Sims or I guess Second Life, full of visual representation of everything that had occurred. When I realized LamdaMOO was based instead on written descriptions of actions and characteristics, I was still disturbed by what happened there but initially had trouble understanding what it would be like to experience it. But the creation of the Metaverse for me as a passive observer in Snow Crash changed my perception. It was easy to become absorbed even if I was just passing through the world without changing anything in it. Looking back at the emotional impact of violent rape within Body Surfing, I shouldn't have been surprised that narration could be so affecting. If it has an emotional impact on people who participate by reading, it has an even greater impact on those building the story and casting themselves as characters within it.

I’m tempted to say that stories are becoming more interactive, and on some levels that's obviously true. The internet allows people from across the globe to build stories and worlds together, increasing everyone’s personal stake in the narrative because they built it. Any violation against a character is also a violation against a sort of unwritten contract that people will respect the process of crafting a narrative together. But part of the reason the process commands so much respect is because it isn't new technology at all. In light of Snow Crash’s fascination with the ancient, I'd rather connect our modern means of storytelling to the ones used before books were published or even written. Oral tradition allowed stories to continuously change and develop over time, with different people contributing and helping to build the world together. Thinking in the terms of colonialism we discussed from the beginning of this class, I think it would be a mistake to label our new ways of storytelling progress so much as a return to the way we’ve always told stories. Perhaps they are more powerful because we’re more fully engaged in our own version of the Metaverse, but I think stories can have a profound emotional effect any time we place ourselves in them, by relating to characters, becoming characters, or helping to construct the world of the story itself.


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