When you think of the future do you imagine flying cars, gleaming skyscrapers, and technological marvels? If you’re under the age of 50, probably not. The way things are going, William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy is starting to look more and more like prophecy than the speculative fiction it was meant as. Virtual Reality is becoming a more and more accessible and immersive escape from a world wracked with violence, inequality, pollution, and apathy to all of the above. Video billboards interact with viewers, self driving vehicles are showing up more and more often, and all of it is set to a retro inspired synthpop playlist that we can sink into with a few quick finger taps on the super computers in our pockets.
The world Gibson gave us with his three short stories, "Johnny Mnemonic", "New Rose Hotel", and "Burning Chrome" and their accompanying novels, Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) is a near future where world governments have been replaced by Mega Corporate Empires. Cyberspace cowboys (Hackers) are celebrities of the underground who take on The Man. Cybernetics are common and expected. A world where assassins troll your local bar looking for work. The last world war and resource scarcity has left people clamoring into the major cities, and all the land in between is a garbage wasteland either uninhabitable by anyone sane, or rapidly being reclaimed by the wilderness.
The largest of these major cities is where the series gets its name. “The Sprawl” alternately referred to as “Bama” or “The Boston/Atlanta Metropolitan Axis.” It’s basically the next eventual evolution of our modern day Northeast megalopolis, safely situated below a series of temperature and light controlling domes. The repair of which has gone so neglected that they rarely control either. The Sprawl is an awful place. Average people who live there do all they can to escape their daily lives, and those escapes usually take the form of hard drugs, or the latest in virtual reality entertainment.
SimStims are the movies of the future. Jack in, and suddenly you see through the eyes, and live the pre-scripted life of your favorite celebrities. You feel the fineness of their fabrics. Taste the decadence of their food. When they fuck, you fuck. Sex or gender go unregarded as you slip into the skin of SimStim super stars like Tally Isham or Angie Mitchell, gazing through their perfect blue Zeiss Ikons. You can ride their mega yachts, date their supermodel boyfriends, or race across the desert in an experimental super jet, all from the comfort of your favorite chair. All you need is to do enough work to keep your rent and bills paid, because everything else can be bought as a Stim. In some rare cases, if you know the right back alley equipment dealer, maybe you can SimStim someone you know.
This world feels hauntingly close. Most of us won’t be assassins, or cyberspace cowboys. But, the little people of that world. The urban refugees, living in cramped, over flowing apartment buildings, working so they can buy their next escape from a world where they’ll never not be in debt. That one feels real. All too real. The people who do designer drugs, and steal from each other to finance their habit. The flashy, neon, targeted advertising. It is all on the way.
Oculus Rift kicked down the doors of what we thought was possible in Virtual Reality, and in only a hand full of years the technology has taken massive leaps. The Void VR has given us full scale virtual reality experiences that one can walk through, feel, and touch anything they see. You feel the wind on a rooftop, the heat from a lava field, and the impact of a laser blast on your armor. Other companies are working on a method of triggering your olfactory sense in time with your experiences so you’ll be able to really smell the sea air as you sit on the veranda of your Mediterranean mansion.
None of these things are, of course, cheap right now, but technology’s constant evolution and cost shifts means that anything less than the cutting edge will become affordable in no time at all. And in a generation of profound student loan debt, where people are entering the work world shackled by sometimes $100,000 before they’ve even found their first job, that kind of escape will be vastly cheaper than an actual physical vacation.
Gibson had us pegged. The future is dirty, and unless something drastic changes, Filthy, Strung Out, and Pissed Off will become the new normal.