It’s not as though Tron (1982) invented virtual reality or cyberspace — the idea of humans entering into an immersive computer generated environment was around way before Flynn and his cohorts ran the grid in their light cycles. Philip K. Dick had something like it in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep with the Empathy Machine and even Doctor Who had VR in the 1976 episode “The Deadly Assassin,” where the good Doctor enters the Time Lords’ ultimate computer — called the Matrix (look it up) — to do battle in a virtual world controlled by his arch-nemesis The Master.
What Tron did was bring the idea of virtual reality much closer to the popular conscience, making the thought of going into the computer seem plausible. Tron was initially only mildly successful, but — unlike Disney’s previous attempt at sci-fi, The Black Hole — quickly developed a cult following. There’s no way of telling exactly the effect the movie had on the the burgeoning cyberpunk literary movement that blossomed in the 1980s, but there can be little doubt that everyone in the sci-fi sub-genre saw the movie or at least played the video games based on it.
With yesterday’s release of the sequel Tron: Legacy on a variety of digital media, we also finally get the original movie back, absent from our shelves for many years. The rumor goes that Disney didn’t want to re-release it in advance of the sequel because they were worried kids would be turned off by the primitive special effects of the original and it would hurt Legacy at the box-office. Whatever. I know my son (who saw the sequel with me) and I can’t wait to see both of them (yes, I liked Tron: Legacy, despite its shortcomings).
Tron may not have invented virtual reality, but I remember being thrilled as a young teen in the early 1980s by the concept of being digital that it presented. It was those ideas of becoming one with the machine that I sought out in the books I read after that.
For your consideration — five of the top cyberpunk books that feature virtual reality. Tron may or may not have inspired the authors to write them, but I know the movie inspired me to read them.
Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)
Style of VR: Jack your skull straight into cyberspace.
First book of The Sprawl Trilogy (3 novels and one book of short stories), Neuromancer is possibly the most important work in the Cyberpunk cannon. Based in an eroded American future, it is the story of Case — a burned out cyberjockey, and Molly, a bad-ass cybernetically enhanced bodyguard/assassin/courier as they disinterestedly try to save the world from a megalomaniacal AI computer in cyberspace. The computer wins. But that’s actually a good thing.
Hardwired by Walter Jon Williams (1986)
Style of VR: Better driving through plugging your eyes directly into the vehicle.
Imagine a world where the whole Red State/Blue State thing is not just a political division in North America, but the governmental break down. Yes, Walter Jon Williams shows us a future where there is no US any more, and everywhere is a no fly zone. To run supplies (and bootleg) across the “heartland,” smugglers resort to jacking straight into their vehicles and becoming one with their cars.
Ghost in The Shell by Masamune Shirow (1989)
Style of VR: Everyone is just a node in the net now.
[Read the rest of Jason Cranford Teague’s excellent article, published on Wednesday, and please leave any comments you may have on the original.]