Monday, February 26, 2007

Jack Kirby: Soothsayer

A little over a week ago, I started playing "Second Life." If you haven't played it, it's essentially an online 'game' with no real restrictions or rules or even an ultimate goal. You log in and interact with other people in any way that you want -- or don't interact with them at all and simply explore their world. You can earn (and spend) money within the world, but you don't need to. You can adopt an avatar and persona that allow you to role-play almost anything, or simply go in as yourself. It struck me as a fascinating way to examine online social networking, which still has me somewhat perplexed.

In the week that I've been playing (under the anagramatic pseudonym 'Feldane Klees' if you want to look me up) I've found a warehouse of free creations for my character (everything from clothing to weapons to vehicles to buildings), a central meeting place for Star Trek fans, and the recreation of an Old West town. The warehouse is literally filled with virtual crates of merchandise which characters can freely copy as often as they wish. Starfleet Command is built after the designs seen in the various Star Trek shows, even appropriating many of the ambient noises for sliding doors and turbo-lifts. Similarly, Dodge City looks like it a stereotypical town from the Old West, but directions are given upon entering that inhabitants are required to play their parts in a true role-playing fashion -- whereas Starfleet Command seemed more like it just held the visual and audio trappings of the Trek universe while still holding to contemporary social conventions.

After puttering around for a week or so, an interesting phenomena about Second Life occurred to me. Since the entire world is founded in bytes, there are a number of "advantages" to it over the real world. First, objects are copyable and transferable at no cost. If I have my own hoverbike, I can duplicate it and pass it along to a friend for free. Second, many physcial laws do not apply. Any character can fly as easily as walk; falling off a skyscraper will result in no damage; you can 'hang' objects in mid-air. Third, since objects are virtual, I can carry an infinite array of them with me at all times. I don't need a dwelling to store and protect my holdings; I can create and recreate them at will ad naseum. Fourth, when you create your online character, you are not limited by reality. You can get yourself into great shape with a few button clicks; you can walk around in a Kool-Aid Man costume without sweating buckets. You can present yourself in any way you like. There are other pluses as well, but these strike me as note-worthy.

(This WILL evenutally circle are back to comic books. Stay with me.)

Now, armed with these "main" benefits, why wouldn't you want to live in this world? Within Second Life, you can be and do whatever you want. There's almost nothing in the way of consequences. There's almost nothing in the way of limitations. You can be a rock star or an exotic dancer or a pirate or an alien or... You can build the house of your dreams and never have to worry about upkeep or maintenance.

It got me to thinking how this type of thing could be considered your "opiate for the masses." If your life is dull and drab for whatever reason(s), you can step into your Second Life persona and do something more exciting or invigorating. You can be more attractive, more wealthy, more powerful... at essentially zero cost. (A Second Life account is free, so your only cost would be a computer to run the base program -- which anyone interested in Second Life probably already has.) I can easily see why that would be insanely enticing. It's virtual reality almost to the point of total immersion.

So that got me thinking about when the concept of "virtual reality" was created. It became popular in science fiction in the mid-1990s with Star Trek and Lawnmower Man. The movie The Matrix took the concept even further. But, in doing a little research, the term "virtual reality" was first coined in 1982 by Dan Brodes in his novel The Judas Mandala.

"That's odd," I thought. "I'm sure the concept must have been around before then."

Doing a little more digging, it was indeed around in various forms before then. Ray Bradbury wrote about the concept in The Illustrated Man back in 1951, and a real world VR prototype environment called "Sensorama" was built in 1962 by Morton Heilig. Science fact obviously follows science fiction, and it wasn't until the late 1970s and early 1980s that virtual realities started creeping their way into popular fiction, and it didn't take a real hold until William Gibson's widely-acclaimed Neuromancer came out in 1984. We're still not to that level, obviously, but Second Life certainly sparks some interesting comparisons.

Now (and here's where I get around to talking about comics!) what struck me was an issue of Jack Kirby's 2001 I read recently. In #5, a character by the name of Harvey Norton is introduced. He lives in New York City circa 2040, and spends what free time he has in a simulatron run by Comicsville, Inc. playing the character of White Zero. Harvey essentially is living his second life as a superhero because his day job is quite dreadful and even his trips to the artificially created beach do not fill him with any joy. He has a small apartment and no real social life to speak of. But in the realm of Comicsville, Inc., he is a hero bar none -- truely a super man capable and worthy of saving the city from disaster on a regular basis.

2001 #5 came out in early 1977, so it's clear that Jack didn't pioneer the notion of a virtual reality; it had been around in various forms for over two decades. But, in what I've found so far, Jack's the first person to take the idea of a virtual reality to a commercial leisure activity. Jack -- again, insofar as I've been able to determine -- is the first one to forsee the culture we would actually start to inhabit and how the technology would be used to enhance our sense of escapism. Did anyone happen to catch Opus this Sunday?
Berkley Breathed's coming from a different perspective, obviously, but he's touching on the same notion. That we're living drab, colorless, lifeless lives and are constantly reaching out to find a second life that's more active and engaging. Breathed's living in that world, though; he's commenting on what's happening now. Jack was commenting on what's happening now, 30 years before it happened.

I think that's where some of Jack's storytelling power came from. He could see where the planet was going and extrapolate, logically, how we might be interacting with it. Sure, he put his own flourishes in place that are perhaps off-the-mark scientifically, but good fiction comes from, I think, showing us how we interact with the world, regardless of what that world is. That's where Jack was going; he just beat us there by a couple of decades.

5 comments:

plok said...

WHITE ZERO!

From the moment you said "virtual reality", I was hoping this is what you were building up to. A great Kirby story, that wouldn't be at all out of place in an old SF/mystery mag...which is really what 2001 was, and the late Seventies Cap, too, and Captain Victory for that matter, and all that stuff, eh? Brilliant. As to the VR angle, I must conclude that there was already a certain amount of "public-domain-ness" to the idea, even then, because in fact I easily guessed at the ending...add to that: the moral conclusion was hardly unfamiliar, from SF movies at the time, books, etc...but I'll tell you what, the White Zero story had a certain mental stickiness to it that those other versions of the same idea lacked. It grabbed me; I still reference it today. I think it was that I identified with White Zero very powerfully, much more powerfully than I did with, for example, Dave Bowman. Or even Logan from Logan's Run. Or Peter Fonda in "Futureworld".

Terrific stuff! As you point out, it was the idea of virtual recreation that Jack nailed, and made more focussed and immediate than any of these other versions of the idea that were floating around. He put the idea in better shape, basically -- drew in the connecting lines. Well, no doubt he saw it and jumped on it, just to do that!

Thought-balloons had a lot to do with the identification factor there, I believe. Also: I used White Zero in my "Kirby A-Z" post some time ago, but now that I think of it I called him "White Ring", and made the rhyme go with the word "hero"...

Ah, well. Memory knocking on the door, and no one answered.

A great series!

Sean Kleefeld said...

That's exactly what I'm talking about! Jack was a very powerful storyteller, in part, because you could connect with his characters. Sure, there was power and action and characters leaping off the page but, at the end of the day, if you can't connect with the protagonist(s) on some emotional level, then the story fails.

Look at some of Jack's big characters: the Thing, the Hulk, Silver Surfer, Kamandi, Orion, Mr. Miracle... The list goes on and on. And while there was a lot to his character designs -- his visuals -- the ones that stay with us are the ones we identified with. We could FEEL what it must be like for Ben Grimm to become an outcast called the Thing. We could FEEL what it was like for rage to consume us as it did Bruce Banner. We could FEEL... Well, you get the idea.

For as wonderful as the cinematography and messages are in any Stanley Kubrik film, one of his faults -- as I see it -- was that I could never identify with his characters. Why should I care whether Dave Bowman is able to disconnect HAL? Why should I care whether Alex deLarge overcomes his brainwashing? Why should I care if Lionel Mandrake gets off the base in one piece?

Jack, though, he made me care. A lot of science fiction focuses on the science end of things -- wouldn't it be cool if we had hovercars? Or teleporters? Or rocket pants? I can't care about that. Not really. Neat ideas, but they're just things. The science fiction aspects of Jack's stories were fluff, used only to dress up what I do care about: the human condition.

RAB said...

I love me some White Zero as well. But just for the historical record:

OMAC issue #3 (cover dated January 1975, which means it was created sometime in 1974) opens with the hero wearing virtual reality goggles.

And a few years earlier there was this...

Sean Kleefeld said...

Thanks for the info, RAB! I don't have those issues, but from what I've read, they don't really use VR in the "consumer leisure" way that we see in 2001. Am I correct on that?

Besides, even if they do, it's still Kirby ahead of his time... it's just 35 years instead of 30! :)

RAB said...

I've sent you scans of the relevant OMAC pages to assist your research.

The JO sequence is not so "consumer oriented" in that the Solar-Phone device is the invention of the Hairies and not available to the general public...but their psychedelic light show effect is also clearly recreational in nature.