Michael SalerMay 12, 2014
Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality
University Press 2012
In As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford, 2012), historian Michael Saler explores the precursors of the current proliferation of digital virtual worlds. Saler challenges Max Weber's analysis of modernity as the disenchanting of the world, and demonstrates that modernity is deeply "enchanted by reason." Saler demonstrates this argument by examining a new phenomenon: adult engagement with and immersion in fictional worlds. He argues that from the 1880s, a growing number of individuals both in Britain and in the US were enticed by fictional characters such as Sherlock Holmes to "communally and persistently" inhabit worlds of the imagination. Readers were drawn in particular to a new literary genre "The New Romanticism" that rose in Britain in the 1880s. The genre combined the objective style of realism with the fantastic content of romance. Novels such as "Drakula" and "Treasure Island" made the fantastic seem plausible through the use of scientific detail and the inclusion of maps, photographs and footnotes. Victorian readers had acquired a sophistication that enabled them to immerse themselves in the fiction while keeping an ironic distance from it. Their delight was derived from their awareness to the fabrication rather than from being deluded by it. In addition to a theoretical framework, Saler provides an in-depth and enjoyable exploration of the work of authors that dominated the genre, and of the communities they inspired. Three chapters explain contemporary fascination with the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R Tolkien. The chapters also elaborate the important role of readers in sustaining their success. As such they provide an important contribution to the history of fan culture. Finally, Saler offers a defense against labeling the engagement with imaginary and virtual worlds as escapism. He argues that imagined worlds should be valued as safe havens to reflect on the 'real' world and consider social and cultural change. A space to practice empathy and tolerance that teaches us to think of the world not in "just so" terms but through the more forgiving "as if" perspective. Imagined and virtual worlds are a reminder that the 'real world' too is a social construct that can and should be questioned.