The metaverse is everywhere. But once upon a time, it existed only in the imaginations of a few visionary science fiction writers, who created a new subgenre. Cyberpunk has been described by writer Bruce Sterling as a dystopian "combination of lowlife and high tech."
Here, we’ll take a look at five of our favorite cyberpunk novels that predicted the metaverse, the Internet, the World Wide Web, virtual reality, and even cryptocurrency.
William Gibson is known for several prophetic novels centering on immersive virtual reality. Neuromancer was his 1984 debut, the first novel of his Sprawl trilogy. He revisits the theme in his following Bridge trilogy, particularly Idoru (1996).
The story follows has-been hacker and hustler Henry Case, a denizen of dystopian Chiba City, Japan. He’s unable to “jack in” to The Matrix, an advanced database metaverse, because his central nervous system was crippled as punishment for stealing. Hired for one last job, he comes up against the powerful artificial intelligence Wintermute, which is attempting to merge with its sibling, Neuromancer to form a super-intelligence.
Published just three years after Microsoft’s initial DOS release, Neuromancer envisions a world connected through a proto-Worldwide Web global computer network, which he first called “cyberspace, a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions.”
In his afterword to the 2000 reissue, fellow author Jack Womack suggested that Gibson's vision may have influenced the way the Internet developed.
Any list of Metaverse novels must include Neal Stephenson’s prophetic 1992 novel, Snow Crash. It was originally intended as a graphic novel for the Apple Macintosh, which sometimes displayed a screenful of random “snow” if an application crashed.
Hiro Protagonist is an elite hacker and pizza “deliverator” who spends most of his time in “The Metaverse,” a term Stephenson coined. It’s a virtual planet circumnavigated by The Street, 65,536 miles long. Anyone wanting to develop virtual land along it needs approval from the Global Multimedia Protocol Group that created it.
Hiro, who also earns money by contributing information to a worldwide database called The Library, tracks the source of mysterious, vicious malware that infects Metaverse avatars and causes serious brain damage to their real-life owners
Stephenson remains passionate on the topic, launching LAMINA1, a Layer 1 blockchain project aimed at empowering an open metaverse.
City of Golden Shadow
Published in 1996, City of Golden Shadow is the first in Tad Williams’ four-book Otherland series. Most of the story takes place in the late 21st century, where virtual reality interfaces are widely available throughout society. The internet has been replaced by "the Net," a vast network of online VR environments.
The novel tells the story of a private metaverse, Otherland, that was commissioned by The Grail Brotherhood, a nefarious group comprising the world’s richest people. Hackers attempt to locate the City of Golden Shadow, in order to stop the Brotherhood’s plans.
The Three-Body Problem
This 2008 novel by Chinese writer Liu Cixin forms Part One of his sweeping Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. The Three-Body Problem revolves around the planet Trisolaris, which orbits chaotically around a three-star system (the title refers to the three-body problem in orbital mechanics.
A critical plot component is an unnamed metaverse game that requires wearing a haptic V-suit for total sensory immersion. Players become virtual Trisolaris visitors, often appearing as historic scientific thinkers, trying to understand and predict the wildly varying climate of a world gripped by the gravity of three suns.
An American television series based on the books was commissioned by Netflix. The earliest possible release date is late 2022.
Ready Player One
Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut novel, Ready Player One, is set in a dystopian 2045. Teenage orphan Wade Watts explores a worldwide metaverse called the OASIS, a vast world of multiple planets where the only limits of reality are one’s own imagination. As with Snow Crash, Cline’s metaverse is controlled by a centralized corporation, Gregarious Games.
When the OASIS creator dies, a pre-recorded message left by his avatar announces a game. The winner of each of three “impossible” challenges will receive a golden key, which together will unlock an Easter egg that bestows ownership of the very lucrative game.
A film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg was released in 2018.
Honorable mention: Heavy Weather
It’s difficult today to imagine a real metaverse without cryptocurrency, a technological development most cyberpunk writers missed. But Heavy Weather, a 1994 novel by Bruce Sterling about storm chasers, includes an eerily prophetic passage about an “instantaneous electric currency unbacked by any government, untraceable, completely anonymous, [and] global in reach.”
Science fiction is often a nursery of new technologies, even if they sometimes get the details wrong. These classic novels pointed the way to the metaverse; it’s interesting to ponder which of their newer ideas will one day become reality.
Thanks for checking out our list of novels that predicted the metaverse! If this topic interests you, why not check out our article about metaverse real estate, or our list of top metaverse tokens?
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