Narrative Archaeology: cyberspaces
Defining the cyberspace as an artificial and virtual place where characters can go (and live, meet each other and maybe the inhabitants of that place) only using technological devices our attention will be naturally moved towards the Matrix trilogy (Andy and Larry Wachowski, Matrix, movie, 1999 and further), or towards the Metaverse, where the theory of information meet the memetics (Neal Stephenson, Snowcrash, novel, 1992), or maybe we could recall the early cyberpunk literary movement (William Gibson’s short story Burning Chrome, contains the first occurrence of the term cyberspace with the meaning we use).
But, well, looking back we could see also a sci-fi movie whose protagonist goes in a such place on entertainment (at least at the beginning: Steven Lisberger, Tron, movie, 1982), and looking more back, we can find a novel where the artificial place were built for marketing and political intentions: Daniel F. Galouye, Simulacron 3, novel, 1964.
Don’t you know this astonishing novel? Maybe did you see two adaptations for little and big screen: Rainer W. Fassbinder, Welt am Draht, tv movie, 1973; Joseph Rusnak, The Thirteenth Floor, movie, 1999.
1964 is a quite impressive beginning, if you think that the first DPD-1 was produced in 1959 (the Programmed Data Processor-1 was the original hardware for playing history’s first videogame: Spacewar!, released in 1962): before that years thinking about IT possibilities should be… hard, indeed in the 1953 Philip Kindred Dick’s short story, The Trouble with Bubbles, the universes created in the plastic bubbles named Worldcraft are made by an unexplained futuristic technology (and the creators can’t access these worlds, so, they’re not cyberspace in our definition).
Let’s return to the definition of cyberspace to pass through a sliding door: defining the cyberspace as an artificial and virtual place where characters can go (and live, meet each other and maybe the inhabitants of that place) only using technological devices we could also think to another type of virtual world you can visit and experience: the literature. Opening a book is, from this point of view, something like opening a door. Jasper Fforde wrote in The Well of Lost Plots (novel, 2003):
Books may look like nothing more than words on a page, but they are actually an infinitely complex imaginotransference technology that translates odd, inky squiggles into pictures inside your head.
The idea of entering a book is long-lasting and fruitful, its last products are probably the comic series The Unwritten (Mike Carey, Peter Gross, 2010–2015… maybe this comics owe something to Fables, another comic series whith fables characters in our world) and the fantasy novels on The Magicians (Lev Grossman, 2009), made as TV series by Syfy. In both this examples the protagonists dive in the books using magic: they’re not fitting our definition of cyberspace, where characters can go only using technological devices.
The narrative product which probably exploits at its best this idea is the Saturday Next novel series (The Eyre affaire, Jasper Fforde, 2011 and sequels): all the events revolve around the Prose Portal, a device that allows people to enter works of fiction.
Before miss Saturday, the most important literary tour was the one described in Neverending Story (Die unendliche Geschichte, novel by Michael Ende, 1979), but the mithopoietic journey of Bastian Balthazar Bux into realm of Fantastica began simply reading the book, without an explanation, magical or technological, so we have to ignore this find.
The oldest occurrence of literary cyberspace I could find was made by Harold Shea, who used a system of symbolic logic to project himself into the worlds of Irish and Norse mithology and in Ariosto’s, Coledrige’s and Spenser’s works (Lyon Spague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, 1940–1954, three novels). We could wonder if a system of logic symbolic can be defined as a technological device, or a device tout court, because according to the Oxford Learner Dictionary, a device is:
an object or a piece of equipment that has been designed to do a particular job
This is the main point: if we accept a system of logic symbolic is a technological device (is the writing system a technological device?) the oldest find is the fourties’ one, otherwise we have to postpone the first occurrence of the idea until 2011.