Virtual Literature: Speculations and Reflections

by Andrew Crumey

Talk given at Glasgow University conference, "Being Religious: Cross-Currents in Phenomenology, Technology, Science and Religious Studies", May 2004


Italo Calvino, in his novel If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, reminds us at one point of the Latin origin of the word "speculate". It is related to speculum, a mirror. To speculate is to reflect. In speculation and reflection, we have two metaphors for mental activity, both involving mirrors. Calvino's remark comes at a point in his novel when he appears uncertain how to proceed with his story, which actually consists of the beginnings of lots of separate stories. Speculation and reflection are activities we consider to be largely passive, taking place outside the flow of time. This might remind us of Proust, who said that the value of metaphor, as a fictional device, is that it removes narrative from the contingencies of time. Metaphors, to a writer, are a way of upsetting the flow, making the reader slow down or stop altogether in order to see things from a new angle.

Calvino's metaphorical digression lets the reader - and also perhaps the writer - draw breath before carrying on with the tale. This is the value of metaphor in fiction. In life, however, metaphor can be more treacherous. If we confuse metaphor with fact, our speculations and reflections can easily lead us into a hall of mirrors - a place that looks infinite, but is in reality a rather fancy cupboard.

When I learned physics, at school and at university, I was taught a piece of terminology that goes back to the eighteenth century if not earlier. When you look in a flat mirror, what you see is called a "virtual" image. When you look through the lens of a camera, on the other hand, what you see is called a "real" image.

There is a simple way of distinguishing between the two. A real image is one that can be projected onto a screen. A virtual image cannot be projected. You can try this for yourself using a convex lens such as a magnifying glass. Hold it up near a bright window, and an image of the window - turned upside down - can be focussed onto a piece of paper.

You can't do this with a mirror - unless the mirror is a curved and magnifying, of the kind supposedly used by Archimedes to focus the sun's rays on enemy ships, and which is nowadays used in things such as the Hubble Space Telescope. These mirrors create real images that you can project onto a screen, just like a lens.

The image we see in a flat mirror is virtual and can't be projected. This is easily explained by tracing the paths of light rays, but its effect is that we feel as if the image exists beyond the mirror - in fact, as far beyond the mirror as we are in front of it.

In the nineteenth century, mirrors served as a kind of mathematical metaphor in a variety of situations. For example, in the theory of electricity, it was found that certain problems could be nicely solved by temporarily supposing real charged particles to have imaginary mirror images that would make the problem conveninetly symmetrical. These "virtual" charges could simply be removed at the end.

In the twentieth century, virtual particles moved from metaphor to accepted fact, when it became apparent that empty space has certain physical properties that could be attributed to the existence of particles that are otherwise unobserved. Since the 1930s, and the work of Paul Dirac and others, physicists have routinely spoken of such virtual particles as an essential feature of their work.

With the advent of computer science after the Second World War, the traditional terminology of physics was readily absorbed into the new discipline. For example, information theorists adopted the term "entropy", developed in nineteenth century thermodynamics. Similarly, the word "virtual" slipped in readily as a term denoting something not considered physically real, but nevertheless having properties somehow akin to those of a real thing.

This is how we came to have the phrase "virtual reality". It's not a rigidly defined term in the sense of the "real" and "virtual" images of optics; but it is not hard to see that the true archetype of virtual reality is a plane mirror. What Alice sees in the looking glass is a virtual world in the most literal sense.

Martin Gardner's annotated edition of Through The Looking-Glass quotes a passage from the earlier novel Phantastes by the Scottish writer George MacDonald:

What a strange thing a mirror is! And what a wondrous affinity exists between it and a man's imagination! For this room of mine, as I behold it in the glass, is the same and yet not the same. It is not the mere representation of the room I live in, but it looks just as if I were reading about it in a story I like. All its commonness has disappeared. The mirror has lifted it out of the region of fact into the realms of art... I should like to live in that room if I could only get into it.

Mirrors show the world reflected yet transformed, and it is this transformation that is magical. In his narrative reflections, MacDonald finds that looking at his room feels like reading about it. Fiction, we are always led to believe, is a mirror of reality - but the most crucial quality, the one that lifts us from fact into art, is the quality of transformation.

Lewis Carroll, according to another of Gardner's notes, initially started out with chess as the basis of his story, and added the mirror motif only later, perhaps prompted by a conversation with a young girl cousin, when he gave her an orange and asked her which hand she was holding it in. She said right, and he then asked her to look at herself in a mirror and tell him in which hand the reflected girl held an orange - it was of course her left. The girl was delighted by this, and said, "If I was on the other side of the glass, wouldn't the orange still be in my right hand?", which Carroll said was the best answer he'd ever heard.

Lewis Carroll began thinking about life on the other side of the mirror, and in his metaphorical treatment, reversal was the essential quality of transformation. His looking-glass world is a place of inversion: not only of space but of time, and also - most importantly - of sense and nonsense. Turning the world upside down is an enduring aim of literature - in Rabelais and Cervantes we see inversions of the social order, the interchange of madness and sanity, the foolishness of scholars and the wisdom of fools. This inverting tendency of literature has been called carnivalesque; we could equally see it as the most natural way in which literature mirrors the world, just as George MacDonald saw an actual reflection of his own room and felt it to be a work of art.

If literature presents us, like a mirror, with a virtual reality, then we see that the most essential aesthetic feature of this virtual world is precisely the way in which it differs from the real one. The transformations of literature are so familiar through long tradition, that often we don't notice them. To give a trivial example - in any written text we might find something like "It was raining, said John."

This is a form of English that exists solely in the written-down world. In ordinary speech, nobody inverts verb and subject, but in written English, we take the inversion of "It was raining, said John" completely for granted, simply because we've read it so many times.

The transformations enacted by even the most ostensibly "realist" fiction go far deeper. EM Forster observed that people in novels have an unusually large amount of sex, and we could add that they also experience lots of coincidences, epiphanies and conclusions, not to mention the degree to which some elderly ladies find themselves invited to solve baffling crimes.

Among novelists, there are those who want the mirror of fiction to be as flat, polished and unobtrusive as possible, and there are others who want to highlight the mirrored nature of their virtual world. Lewis Carroll was evidently of the latter type, and Through The Looking Glass ultimately presents itself as a dream, which is the other great metaphor for fiction, and the one most frequently used to excuse fantasy stories before the growth of modern science fiction. The mirroring of dream and reality is something that Pascal commented on. We spend half our life asleep, he said (he was evidently a good sleeper), and when we dream, we think we are awake. When we are awake, how can we be sure we aren't asleep? He says in the Pensees:

Who can doubt that, if we dreamed in the company of others and our dreams happened to agree... and if we were alone when awake, we should think things had been turned upside-down?... If we dreamed the same thing every night, it would affect us as much as the objects we see every day... But because dreams are all different... what we see in them affects us much less... For life is a dream, but somewhat less changeable.

For Pascal, existence is provisional and uncertain, prompting him to ask "What is self?" He says:

If someone loves me for my judgement or my memory, do they love me? Me, myself? No, for I could lose these qualities without losing my self. Where then is this self, if it is neither in the body nor the soul?
He concludes that what we call "self" is merely a collection of "borrowed qualities". What distinguishes reality from dream is that reality possesses the qualitites of continuity and logical consistency. Take those away, and reality would become dreamlike. On the other hand, make the dream world consistent, and what you get is some kind of virtual reality.

Literature has always been considered as being on one level a kind of dream or vision - a product of muse, inspiration or subconscious that has the potency of a vivid hallucination. Yet at the same time we require literature to have the continuity and consistency of the real world. This is the sense in which literature becomes a virtual reality, both real and not real. This duality - or downright contradiction - has been relished by writers down the ages.

When computer scientists coined the term "virtual reality", they too were consciously creating an apparent contradiction in terms, since in physics the words "real" and "virtual" had hitherto possessed complementary meanings, corresponding to the different images produced by a flat mirror or a curved one, or else to particles that were either observable or fictitious. In that respect, "virtual reality" is a bit like speaking of "positive negativity" or "acute obtuseness".

The same frisson of paradox is evident in countless literary examples where writers highlight the fictional nature of their own creations through self reference. Characters encounter themselves in fictional form, like a person startled by their own reflection. For instance, there is a scene in Don Quixote when the hero enters a printing shop in Barcelona, pulls a page from the press, and finds it to be "The Adventures of Don Quixote", which he dismisses as wholly false. Elsewhere, Sancho Panza discusses various contradictions that arose in the book's previous volume, attributing them to the author's haste.

The idea that we might all be characters in a story is a natural one for any writer. Shakespeare reckoned all the world's a stage, and in Hamlet we have a play-within-the-play.

The ironic possibilities of self-reference were particularly relished in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Mozart's Don Giovanni listens to a band playing popular numbers, including one from The Marriage Of Figaro.

This recursive questioning of reality feeds naturally into the doppelganger genre, highly popular during the Romantic period. An example is Hogg's Confessions Of A Justified Sinner. Equally remarkable is ETA Hoffmann's The Life And Opinions Of Tomcat Murr, published two years earlier in 1822.

Its hero, Johannes Kreisler, is a musician. He has a pet cat called Murr, who breaks into Kreisler's library, finds the book Kreisler is writing - actually a third-person biography of Kreisler - writes his own autobiography on the blank sides of the pages and jumbles the whole lot up. The book we read thus consists of two stories, Kreisler's and Murr's, intercutting randomly, and telling events from two contradictory perspectives (and also in opposite order, so that the book ultimately loops round).

On more than one occasion, Kreisler sees his own doppleganger in the form of his reflection. The most startling instance occurs when he is out walking at night, going to the home of his friend Master Abraham:

Not far from the door, in the full beam of the light, Kreisler saw his likeness, his own Self walking beside him. Seized by the deepest horror, he burst into the cottage and sank into an armchair, breathless and pale as death...

Master Abraham sees him, and explains what is going on:

Master Abraham stepped outside the door, and immediately there was another Master Abraham standing beside him in the lamplight. Kreisler observed the effect of a concealed concave mirror.

Kreisler is very much taken up with the nature of his own "self" - it was, after all, a Romantic obsession. Philosophers of the time, such as Fichte and Schopenhauer, were developing an idealist philosophy in which human consciousness and perception were paramount. In Britain, with its empiricist tradition, this lost its appeal once the first Romantic generation had died off - Ruskin, in his remarks on what he called the "pathetic fallacy", explicitly denounced mystical notions - attractive to Coleridge - of objects not being there unless somebody looked at them. But in the German-speaking world, idealism passed through Schopenhauer and Nietzsche into mass consciousness (German soldiers in the trenches of World War I were given free copies of Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra). Hence it passed into the minds of people like Erwin Schrodinger and Werner Heisenberg, and into quantum theory. Attempting to explain the physical meaning of his uncertainty principle, Heisenberg once quoted Fichte's notion of reality being a selection out of infinite possibilities.

This highlights a distinction between the "hard" aspects of science (things like mathematical laws and quantifiable predictions), and the "weak" aspects - interpretation and terminology - which are matters of tradition and culture. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche contributed to an interest among European intellectuals in Eastern thought, and this fed into the way that Niels Bohr and others tried to interpret quantum theory. People nowadays highlight parallels between quantum theory and Buddhism, for example, overlooking the fact that these parallels were built in from the start, in the way physicists attempted to interpret their own mathematics. If there is any kind of "quantum world-view', it is one that has been shaped by an historical process.

When we consider questions of self, existence and reality in the light of contemporary physics and technology, we need to be aware of the same continuity. Technology offers new ways of addressing old concerns.

Think for example of the film The Matrix. The scenario is that humans have become enslaved to a society of robots. Humans are kept in a coma, their brains hooked up to a computer simulation that makes them think they are living normally.

The philosophical premise is exactly the one pondered by Pascal. How can these dreaming humans ever know that they are dreaming, since the simulation they are plugged into is a logically consistent one. The film answers this by making the dream inconsistent, and thus becomes a straightforward adventure yarn, but the captivating aspect of The Matrix is its explicit premise of a double world: the same thing we find in ETA Hoffmann or Lewis Carroll, or in Quixote reading his own adventures, or indeed in Proust, when he describes his novel In Search Of Lost Time as being about "a person called I who is not necessarily myself".

My own novels have been described as postmodernist. They typically have multiple storylines, using self reference in a way that heightens their fictionality. One of my novels, Pfitz, is about an eighteenth century virtual city, created on paper, that acquires a life of its own. The lost encyclopaedia of an alternative universe features in my novel Mr Mee, and in my new novel Mobius Dick I imagine two parallel realities that become entangled thanks to a quantum computer gone haywire.

There is certainly a postmodernist style in literature, and its techniques are exemplified in the sort of writers I have already mentioned - Cervantes, Hoffmann, Lewis Carroll, Proust - not to mention Sterne, Diderot, Carlyle and many others. It is the style that seeks to make the mirror of fiction visible in its own right.

Postmodernist philosophy adds an extra layer to this, making a claim which I think could be summarised as saying that the world itself is a narrative in the postmodernist style. When Quixote reads his own adventures, this somehow reflects an aspect not only of the virtual reality Quixote inhabits, but of our own reality, which is itself revealed as virtual.

I don't share this view. A correct intepretation of Cervantes' scene is that Quixote is a fictional character - the incident in the printing shop in Barcelona is Cervantes' jibe at a rival author who brought out a pirated Quixote story before Cervantes could publish his own second volume of the knight's adventures.

I believe that reality exists, just as Samuel Johnson did when he kicked a stone by way of proof. To those who say that science is some kind of cultural myth, I offer the response made by David Hume, when he invited anyone sceptical of the law of gravity to step out of a third floor window and gain personal experience of its validity.

Even so, this still leaves plenty of room for doubt as to the nature of reality, and quantum physics has contributed much to this debate. The parallel realities of my novel Mobius Dick are inspired by an idea put forward by Hugh Everett in 1957, which has come to be known as the many-worlds intepretation of quantum mechanics.

The idea could be summed up in a remark by Stephen Hawking. In his book "The Universe In A Nutshell", he says that it is a scientific fact that there exists a universe in which Belize won every gold medal at the Olympic Games. Most physicists would find his use of the word ‘fact" here highly contentious, but many do consider it plausible that such alternative universes exist, in an ensemble sometimes called "the multiverse".

The ancestor of this idea is Leibniz's multiplicity of possible worlds, combined with considerations of probability theory. Voltaire's Candide is the best known literary commentary on Leibniz's view, but another is Borges's story The Garden Of Forking Paths, written a decade before Hugh Everett's work.

More recently, the physicist David Deutsch has used Everett's many-worlds interpretation as a way of understanding quantum computation - his book The Fabric Of Reality presents this in some detail. In a quantum computer (an as-yet hypothetical machine), the basic units of information would not be switches corresponding to 0s or 1s, but particles that can be 0,1 or both at once. The superposition of two contradictory states is one of the great mysteries of quantum mechanics, highlighted by Schrodinger in his paradox about a cat that is simultaneously alive and dead, thanks to its fate being linked to that of an elementary particle. This superposition lies at the heart of quantum computation.

Another example concerns mirrors. Light is nowadays believed to consist of particles called photons, and when a photon hits a piece of glass, it has the option of being either reflected or transmitted. Which it chooses amounts, it seems, to pure chance, the odds being governed by the composition of the glass. It's possible to make the glass sufficiently reflective for the odds to be exactly fifty-fifty - the material is then called a half-silvered mirror, and whether or not a photon of light is reflected or transmitted is like the tossing of a coin. Half the photons get through, and half are reflected.

Half-silvered mirrors are used to split beams of light in two. The beams are reunited by means of ordinary mirrors, and they are found to interfere, meaning that the wavecrests of one beam cancel the troughs of the other. The remarkable thing is that even when single photons are fired at the half-silvered mirror, the same result occurs. A single photon appears able to take both paths through space, though any attempt to decide which path the photon has taken destroys the interference effect.

These schizophrenic photons are the real-world versions of Schrodinger's cat. The debatable issue is whether their behaviour could ever be scaled up to the size of a cat. So far, atoms and small molecules are the largest things on which the trick has been done.

To people such as David Deutsch, photon schizophrenia bears witness to the multiplicity of our universe. Photons take every possible route to their destination, in a multitude of parallel universes.

In Mobius Dick, I imagine that quantum computers have been constructed, and are being used to drive a new communications network. The inadvertent effect is that parallel realities become entangled. In one universe, a man who has lost his memory writes a book about a physicist. In another universe, a physicist writes a book about a man who has lost his memory. Like Kreisler and Murr, each belongs to the other's story: they are on opposite sides of a mirror, but there is no way of telling which is real and which is virtual.

The image that first inspired my novel was Escher's print of two hands drawing one another. My book is a philosophical adventure in the same paradoxical spirit. Like all adventures, its primary purpose is to entertain. And like all novels, it must be understood ironically.


©Andrew Crumey