The Evolution of Virtual Realities in Cyberpunk and the Real World

Ready Player One OASIS art Wade Parzival virtual reality VR cyberpunk

Since its inception in the early 1980s, cyberpunk has established two distinct kinds of worlds. There’s the post-industrial dystopian cityscape, like modern Japan on crack but shaded with enough darkness to be appropriately noir-y; and there’s cyberspace, the virtual world running parallel (or sometimes perpendicular) to the real one. With corrupt corporations calling the shots, it makes sense that the punks would retreat into the digital space, an idealized version of their downtrodden daily lives malleable enough that they can create their own private universe. When you can look whatever way you want and challenge the laws of physics, why would you want to return to the real world?

When a cyberpunk novel was published says a lot about the virtual reality it depicts; while VRs share certain key elements, what they mean to their characters and their particular world is very dependent on the larger context. Looking at 10 books spanning 33 years, let’s examine the evolution of VR in cyberpunk: there’s a lot of change between Vernor Vinge and John Scalzi, as VR morphs from liminal space to its own plane of existence—entertaining, torturing, and elevating its users along the way.

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