There are many invented scenes, places, characters, and events I love in my friend and colleague’s novella Annabel Scheme, but my favorite invention is probably the fictional MMORPG “World of Jesus.” An online VR game set in Palestine at the time of Christ.
Here’s why I’m writing about it. Read Write Web has a short write-up of virtual ancient worlds, mostly created by libraries, museums, and universities:
When the first immersive 3D games came out, I asked a programmer if he knew of anyone who had used that technology to create a Virtual Ancient Rome or Virtual Ancient Athens. I loved the idea of walking around in a place whose current face was changed out of all recognition from its golden age. He shook his head. Creating virtual worlds was way too time consuming and required too much specialist knowledge and so was too expensive. A virtual Rome wouldn’t create the profit that Doom did.
Fast forward a decade and the programming necessary becomes easier to do and the number of people who know how to do it have increased substantially. The costs involved in creating a virtual world have decreased at the same time that academic and scholarly institutions have become much more willing to invest in it.
There are terrific settings here: Rome, Athens, Tenochtitlan, and Beijing’s Forbidden City. But — and I think this is surprising — no Jerusalem. No World of Jesus.
For those who haven’t read the book, on its face, the game’s name sounds like a clever zinger, like something that would be the punchline to a joke on Futurama or at a relatively hip Bible Camp. But what I think Annabel Scheme does particularly well is pushing past surface details and cute references to dwell within its two worlds, the technological and the spiritual, taking both of them seriously. I can’t think of any better manifestation of that than “World of Jesus.” The character who plays the game believes in this world and his place in it: his religious faith and his technological faith are one and the same, turning a mechanical ritual into treasures in heaven. And so we believe in it, because it’s a reflexive, self-allegorizing move too: for the reader, the fictional San Francisco of Scheme and Hu is just as much a virtual world, with its own enticements, traps, rules and ways to break them, as “World of Jesus” is for them. Dreams within dreams, virtualized virtuality.
It helps that Robin brings some of his most evocative and affecting writing in this chapter, too, as his AI narrator Hu becomes “embodied” for the first time in the world of the game:
The first thing I noticed was the light.
My eyes opened in a small, simple house with wooden shutters, and the light was peeking in through the cracks, picking up motes of dust in the air. I’d never seen anything like it. Are there motes in the real world? Scheme’s earrings didn’t show motes.
In World of Jesus, you could choose between looking over your character’s shoulder or through its eyes. I saw myself from behind, then spun around: I’d chosen the girl in silk.
Then I switched to see through my own eyes. All I ever did was look over Scheme’s shoulder. I wanted a new perspective.
The door opened automatically. Outside, the sun beamed in blue-gold through a scrim of tall cedars and fell in wide bars on a dusty, stone-paved street. Everything looked… mildly medieval. I had a feeling that this Jerusalem was not historically accurate.
I lifted my eyes to the sky, and it felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. It was probably just my eight processors all seizing up at once; I wasn’t built for this. Grail servers are optimized to process gobs of text, not 3D graphics, so the carefully-crafted World of Jesus was a new exertion.
I didn’t care. That sky. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. White curls and wisps dotted the glowing blue bowl. I couldn’t do anything except stand and stare.
A voice crackled: “Hu, is that you?”
I turned. It was a woman in a simple gray tunic, with red hair just like Scheme’s.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said—and realized that I spoke like everyone else.
Let me tell you something: I think that if a game company were to make it, and do it well, “World of Jesus” would be a smash hit. If you wanted to get your Warcraft on, you could play as a centurion and slash-and-hack Persian armies and crucify dissidents. Or you could be a Jewish rebel fighting to overthrow the Romans. Maybe you’re a female disciple, fighting to retain women’s leadership roles after Christ’s death. Or you’re a regular person: a tax collector, a fisherman, a falafel merchant. An online RPG that doesn’t necessarily have to be about how many people you can kill. (See: “A four-year-old plays Grand Theft Auto.”)
Many faiths, many ages, many games within games. Or if you wanted to play in story mode: what a story!
One of my favorite moments in Annabel Scheme is the party thrown by a mysterious musician known as “The Beekeeper”:
If you had electronic eyes and night vision—I had both—you would have seen slips of paper passing from person to person. On each slip was a phone number. Each one was different, and there were a dozen circulating in the crowd. Each wandered and blinked like a firefly as kids used their phones, torch-like, to illuminate the number, then passed it on. Here and there, then everywhere, they were dialing numbers, switching their phones to speaker-mode and pushing them up into the air like trophies.
The buzzing was coming from the phones. It was a low, rhythmic drone. At first you couldn’t hear much, but apparently, if you put enough phones on speaker all at once, it starts to get loud.
So that was the trick: There were no speakers because the crowd was the speaker. The bees did not sound so far-off now.
Scheme clenched her teeth. “This is hurting my face.”
Suddenly it stopped. The graveyard fell silent. It was a field of pale arms thrust to the sky, swaying like seaweed. Kids were bouncing silently on the balls of their feet. Waiting.
Then there was a count-off, a tat tat tat tat and then the music started and it was everywhere, megawatts of power flowing out of every palm and pocket. There was no focal point, so bodies were pointed in every direction, ricocheting and chain-reacting. Kids were losing it, jumping up and down, colliding and cuddling in the dark grass.
The music had a clear beat, but it was warped and scratchy, like someone was tuning a giant radio. Snatches of singing would ring out for a moment, then decohere. There was a trumpet that pealed from somewhere very far away…
The music was coming together as kids followed their ears. If your phone was buzzing with bass, you joined the bunched-up sub-woofer section. If it was sending high notes sizzling into the air, you joined the line that snaked around the crowd’s perimeter. The music worked its pattern on the crowd. It was both amazingly high-tech and totally pagan.
The first question I had after reading this was — I wonder if Robin knows about Zaireeka, the Parking Lot Experiments, or the other stuff that The Flaming Lips tried in the late 1990s?
I still don’t know. But I was reminded of that perplexity today reading this interview with Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson that’s all about the amazingly high-tech and totally pagan crap that the Lips tried before exploding with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. Complete with YouTube videos, several of which were new to me.
If you were taken with either (Scheme or the Lips), try both.
I’ve written here before about the great humanist printer Aldus Manutius — see here and here. Clay Shirky is into Manutius too — both of those posts trace back to CS. But this post on book publishing and this one on digitization convinced me that everyone needs to know this story, because we need heroes like Manutius today.
This is from Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading (one of my favorite books ever):
In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, and many of the Greek scholars who had established schools on the shores of the Bosphorus left for Italy. Venice became the new centre of classical learning. Some forty years later the Italian humanist Aldus Manutius, who had instructed such brilliant students as Pico della Mirandola in Latin and Greek, finding it difficult to teach without scholarly editions of the classics in practical formats, decided to take up Gutenberg’s craft and established a printing-house of his own where he would be able to produce exactly the kind of books he needed for his courses. Aldus chose to establish his press in Venice in order to take advantage of the presence of the displaced Eastern scholars, and probably employed as correctors and compositors other exiles, Cretan refugees who had formerly been scribes.
In 1494 Aldus began his ambitious publishing program, which was to produce some of the most beautiful volumes in the history of printing: first in Greek — Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato, Thucydides — and then in Latin — Virgil, Horace, Ovid. In Aldus’s view, these illustrious authors were to be read “without intermediaries” — in the original tongue, and mostly without annotations or glosses — and to make it possible for readers to “converse freely with the glorious dead” he published grammar books and dictionaries alongside the classical texts.
Not only did he seek the services of local experts , he also invited eminent humanists from all over Europe — including such luminaries as Erasmus of Rotterdam — to stay with him in Venice. Once a day these scholars would meet in Aldus’s house to discuss what titles would be printed and what manuscripts would be used as reliable sources, sifting through the collections of classics established in the previous centuries. “Where medieval humanists accumulated,” noted the historian Anthony Grafton, “Renaissance ones discriminated.”
Aldus discriminated with an unerring eye. To the list of classical writers he added the works of the great Italian poets, Dante and Petrarch among others.
Aldus didn’t just pick great texts (and great people to edit them) — he made great books, introducing several important innovations.
As private libraries grew, readers began to find large volumes not only difficult to handle and uncomfortable to carry, but inconvenient to store. In 1501, confident in the success of his first editions, Aldus responded to readers’ demands and brought out a series of pocket-sized books in octavo — half the size of quarto — elegantly printed and meticulously edited.
To keep down the production cost she decided to print a thousand copies at a time, and to use the page more economically he employed a newly designed type , “italic”, created by the Bolognese punch-cutter Francesco Griffo, who also cut the first roman type in which the capitals were shorter than the ascending (full– height) letters of the lowercase to ensure a better-balanced line. The result was a book that appeared much plainer than the ornate manuscript editions popular throughout the Middle Ages, a volume of elegant sobriety.
What counted above all, for the owner of an Aldine pocket-book, was the text , clearly and eruditely printed — not a preciously decorated object. Griffo’s italic type (first used in a woodcut illustrating a collection of letters of Saint Catherine of Siena, printed in 1500) gracefully drew the reader’s attention to the delicate relationship between letters; according to the modern English critic Sir Francis Meynell, italics slowed down the reader’s eye, “increasing his capacity to absorb the beauty of the text.”
I love that italic type is above all a technology — operating both on the eye (to increase attention) and the page, to decrease the total size of the text and allow more words to be printed on fewer sheets of paper. That in turn allows all of the dimensions to be reduced, saving money and making the books easier to use.
Like all technologies, though, the printed octavo volume in italic type has definite social preconditions AND consequences:
Since these books were cheaper than manuscripts, especially illuminated ones, and since an identical replacement could be purchased if a copy was lost or damaged, they became, in the eyes of the new readers, less symbols of wealth than of intellectual aristocracy, and essential tools for study.
Booksellers and stationers had produced, both in the days of ancient Rome and in the early Middle Ages, books as merchandise to be traded, but the cost and pace of their production weighed upon the readers with a sense of privilege in owning something unique . After Gutenberg, for the first time in history, hundreds of readers possessed identical copies of the same book, and (until a reader gave a volume private markings and a personal history) the book read by someone in Madrid was the same book read by someone in Montpellier.
So successful was Aldus’s enterprise that his editions were soon being imitated throughout Europe: in France by Gryphius in Lyons, as well as Colines and Robert Estienne in Paris, and in The Netherlands by Plantin in Antwerp and Elzevir in Leiden, The Hague, Utrecht and Amsterdam. When Aldus died in 1515, the humanists who attended his funeral erected all around his coffin, like erudite sentinels , the books he had so lovingly chosen to print.
I’m not going to make this a splashy, OH-MY-GOD-CLICK-THIS-NOW post because you’re going to be hearing a lot about it over the course of the next two months. No, like seriously: a lot.
But, building on the terrific experiences of Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store and New Liberal Arts, I’m writing a book! And I’m using Kickstarter as the funding and community platform to do it.
A special Snarkmarket note: I’m as interested in the new process as I am in the new economics. How do you balance behind-the-scenes updates with secrets and surprises? What’s a tempo that’s engaging but not annoying? How do you effectively solicit ideas? (For some reason—I don’t know why I’m so sure of this—I am just 100% certain that a crucial idea, the key to some puzzle, is going to come from my backers.)
There’s a video intro, so come take a peek.