Virtual Reality has become an increasingly frequent trope in science fiction. While the genre came into its own in the 1980’s and 1990’s with the introduction of noir world of Cyberpunk., depictions of Virtual Reality in fiction go back further than this. A short story in 1935 by Stanley G. Weinbaum showcased the first recognisable VR technology. In 1961 Stanislaw Lem told the story of a scientist who creates simulated people living in a virtual world. In 1984 William Gibson put virtual reality on the sci-fi map with the first fully realised vision of our virtual reality future. From there depictions of the technology flourished to the point where it is almost taken for granted that in the future we will be able to enjoy fully realistic virtual experiences. Here you can see some of the best of VR fiction, with our top ten virtual reality novels.
#1 Ready Player One – Ernest Cline
The debut novel by Ernest Cline depicts the dystopian world of 2044 where teenager Wade Watts escapes reality in the VR world of OASIS. The virtual world’s designer James Halliday has set a prize of immeasurable value for anyone who unravel the riddles and challenges he has left behind. Soon Wade is competing against thousands of OASIS players in a ruthless competition to find the prize.
#2 Neuromancer – William Gibson
Neuromancer is the penultimate Cyberpunk novel. It is the first of Gibson sprawl trilogy featuring Henry Case a computer hacker. Case is hired by the criminal Armitage to help an AI merge with its twin. In the process it will be able to take control of the global virtual reality network called The Matrix.
#3 Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson
Stephenson’s classic VR novel explores the idea that in the VR world we can be someone completely different to the real world. In Snow Crash Hiro Protagonist is a pizza delivery man, in the VR world of the Metaverse is he a warrior. When a deadly computer virus starts taking out hackers, Hiro is pitted in a battle against a villain who could destroy the virtual world.
#4 Vurt – Jeff Noon
Set in Manchester, England the novel presents a world where everybody has become hooked on hallucinogenic drugs called Vurts. Delivered via feathers these Vurts take the user in a virtual world. The world that Noon creates is fantastical, rather than realistic, but it delivers an entertaining and innovative story.
#5 Erebos – Ursula Poznanski
Erebos is about a video game controlled by an artificial intelligence. The game makes the players interact in the real world in ways which are increasingly dangerous. The protagonist of the novel is Nick Dunmore a high school joke who is determined to play and win the mysterious new game that has become so popular.
#6 City of Golden Shadows – Tad William
The City of Golden Shadows is the first in Tad Williams Otherland series. The novel begins when protagonist Renee Sulaweyo’s brother, Stephen returns for the virtual reality world of “the Net” and seems to be changed. His next trip to the Net puts Stephen into a coma. Renie discovers that her brother is not the only one who has fallen victim. Renie finds out that other children have suffered similar fates. This sets Renie off to retrace Stephens tracks.
#7 Heir Apparent – Vivian Vanda Velda
Heir Apparent is a young adult novel which tells the story of a girl, Giannine, who becomes trapped inside of the virtual reality game. In this virtual medieval world the heroine plays the character of Janine de St Jehan, the illidemiate child of King Cynric. Before dying Cynric has declared his daughter the heir to his throne.
#8 Rainbows End – Vernor Vinge
In Rainbow’s End augmented reality has become a dominant technology. AR now overlays the real world almost everywhere. This augmented reality world is delivered through the combination of smart contact lenses and clothing which can recognise gestures. The protagonist of the novel Robert Gu is learning to adapt to this new world after being treated for Alzheimer’s disease. While rebuilding relationships with this estranged family, Robert becomes part of a plot involving mind control technology and a superhuman intelligence.
#9 Pygmalion’s Spectacles – Stanley G.Weinbaum
This short story published in 1935 is likely the first fully realised vision of virtual reality in fiction. In this story the protagonist Dan Burke is given a pair of goggles by a professor, Albert Ludwig, which enable the user to partake in a virtual “movie” like world.
#10 The Hacker and the Ants – Rudy Rucker
Jerzy Rugby works in a virtual office to create an intelligent robot. When a computer virus composed of ants takes over the net, Rugby is the person blamed. It looks like he is the fall game for a massive cyber conspiracy and if he wants to clear his name he will need to find out who is behind it. To do so, Rugby needs to dive into the virtual world to discover the answers.