Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Estranging Reality to Realize the Strange

When both watching EXistenZ and reading Snow Crash (although I’ll focus on the former here, since I’ve not quite completed the latter), I was struck not so much by the creation of such involved virtual worlds as I was the utter strangeness of the “real” worlds. For example, when I first began Snow Crash, I was convinced that I was reading a story about the day to day life of a modern-day pizza delivery boy whose devotion to virtual reality games had driven him to suffer a psychotic break. Once I realized that this explanation wasn’t sufficient—that Hiro was indeed living in a hyper-commercialized version our (very near) future in which pizza companies are run like the mafia and racism has become acceptable and commonplace again—I began to suspect that, in fact, the entire world I was reading about was virtual. After this flailing attempt to ground myself during the exposition, the transition to the metaverse was actually quite calming—finally, a version of reality that I knew wasn’t reality! Not only that, but, compared to “reality”, I found the metaverse to, surprisingly, be comfortingly close to my own perception of reality, or at least what I would expect a virtual version of my own to resemble, with its social hubs and motley collection of avatars.

The “reality” of EXistenZ (and here I’m referring to the world we think is real for most of the film) is similarly disturbing, with its grotesque emphasis on organic-looking technology, not to mention the thickly layered-on, unnatural accents and over-the-top dialogue. This confusion only got worse near the end, when EXistenZ and “reality” started to “bleed together”, making it impossible to distinguish between the two. Even the very end, which presents the most believable world (with technology that actually looks like technology, not perverted body parts, and legitimate accents), the eerie symmetry between situation and dialogue between that “reality” and the first “reality” casts everything into doubt. When Allegra describes EXistenZ as “a game everybody’s already playing”, she’s more right than she knows. Like in Snow Crash, the world that we know is virtual becomes, somehow, the most “real” option, both because of its sheer, dirty grit (real animals instead of technologies that seem to mimic their form but have no explained source) and because we know on which side of reality we— and the characters— stand.

As we saw in “A Rape in Cyberspace”, even lines of text on a screen can create a startling illusion of reality for those invested in the community. Once you add in a second degree of separation, though (reading a book or watching a movie), more drastic action is needed to force the reader or watcher to understand the level of involvement and devotion the characters feel to their virtual realities or games. By making the virtual space the ironically more concrete, understandable option while twisting the “real world” until it’s scarcely recognizable (or until it can’t be sorted into “real” or “virtual”), Stephenson and Cronenberg do a 180 on our perception of reality and, in doing so, draw us more fully into their characters’ lives.


Post a Comment