Having been working in research (first as a PhD student, now as a post-doctoral fellow) since September 2009, it is high time I should start getting an online slot to talk about my work. More is coming about this, including links to my online articles and PDF versions when copyright allows.
Let me start this blog by talking about my current projects a little. I’ve been fascinated by imaginary worlds for a long time. World-building is an extremely important part of the work of contemporary speculative fiction writers. M. John Harrison has famously lashed out at this trend, attributing it to a tendency of the geek community to focus all their attention on meaningless details while forgetting the more important meanings of literature. Needless to say, I respectfully disagree with this view.
Even a critic with a traditional conception of literature as a top-down process (the author creates, the audience passively receives) can find arguments in favour of world-building. A competent author does not have to conveive their world as an accumulation of encyclopaedic minutiae. Instead, details can be meaningful, and add their own symbolic charge to a story or novel. Easier said than done, of course, but couldn’t the same be said of all writing?
But this is not the only reason why imaginary universes interest me. The other is that, more than the construction of one mind, they are a great playground where whole communities can appear and evolve. From fandoms to the communities of immersive virtual spaces (be they guilds or factions in MMORPGs, or roleplay communities on Second Life and other immersive platforms), they dilute the traditional conception of authorship into a network of collaborative constructions. Communities do not simply inhabit worlds; they build them as well.
And this is fascinating, not only for aesthetic reasons (although I do enjoy a bit of virtual tourism in some of the most beautiful cities of Second Life), but because of what can happen in those shared universes. Our relationship to fiction is incredibly complicated. The questions of immersion, enjoyment and belief reach much farther than the traditional question, ‘Is this well-written or not?’ Understanding those phenomena is a powerful goal in itself; but investigating their possible applications is just as compelling. Therapeutic applications have already been outlined; I’m also extremely interested in the potential of virtual worlds for simulating hypothetical real-life situations without the constraints of a lab, or for finding new ways to teach and learn (obviously, it’s hard to forget my other identity as a teacher; one of the things I’d love to do is find out what people can learn from virtual worlds, and how to help them do it). To realise those ambitions, however, virtual universes and communities have to be better understood first.
Hopefully I will find a little time to write more about all of this!