David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

The Plot to Understand Second Life

Last night I had the privilege of attending a reading and interview of renowned science fiction author Paul Levinson in support of his book The Plot to Save Socrates. I stayed in my bathrobe the whole time, because the event took place on Second Life.

the-plot-to-save-socrates I had an ulterior motive for attending. I’m in the process of evaluating promotional ideas for my upcoming novel MultiReal, and the idea of doing a book launch on Second Life has cropped up in my discussions more than once. I created a Second Life profile many moons ago, just to poke around and see what the fuss was about. After a few days, I quickly grew bored with the whole thing and uninstalled the software from my PC. But yesterday, in the service of book promotion, I resurrected it and went exploring once again.

And after attending Paul’s Second Life event, I can now officially say I don’t get it.

This was no fault of Paul Levinson’s. I’ve shared a couple of panels at cons with him, and he seems like a friendly, intelligent, and interesting fellow. The reading itself was quite lively, and the book The Plot to Save Socrates sounds like that perfect combination of thought-provoking and nerdy cool. The plot in a nutshell: a grad student in the future decides to travel back in time to save the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates from drinking the hemlock. (Go read more about it on Paul’s website.) The interviewer herself asked pertinent, thoughtful questions.

But the Second Life aspect of the event basically went like this: I logged in and teleported to a virtual auditorium. I sat down in a virtual chair along with about 25-30 other spectators. The virtual Paul Levinson and the virtual moderator sat in virtual chairs on the stage, next to a virtual spinning copy of The Plot to Save Socrates. And then we all just sat there for an hour doing nothing while the two of them had a very interesting chat on audio.

So besides the novelty factor, what does Second Life offer to book promotion that you couldn’t get by holding your reading on, say, FreeConferenceCall.com or WebEx?

I’m not saying that Second Life is a bad place to hold a book event. If you’re the author, you get to see who’s attending the reading. You get a direct conduit to your own personal bookstore, along with all the tracking that entails. You get the potential of interacting with people who live in remote places you’re not likely to ever hit on the real-world book tour. Oh, and it’s free.

But as I sat in front of my computer and watched my avatar watch Paul Levinson’s avatar watching the moderator’s avatar, I tried and failed to figure out what potential Second Life has for literature over the next ten years. It’s kinda neat. It’s kinda fun. Is that it?

I tried to extrapolate, to think big. What if my name was Stephen King or Dan Brown, and someone gave me $500,000 and six months to put on a fabulous Second Life book event? What could I possibly do? Hire Second Life actors to put on a clunky little pantomime while I read? Create big virtual sculptures of the creatures in my book to hang over the stage? I have a difficult time imagining what I could do that wouldn’t just look silly. I suppose in 15 or 20 years when you can see 3D Hollywood-quality monsters zooming around while you read, that will be pretty cool. But Second Life is still a long way off. Right now they’re closer to King’s Quest IV circa 1988 than they are to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.

The problem is that literature is a very one-directional art form that doesn’t translate well into an immersive environment like Second Life. People are always talking about “updating” the reading experience, and so far it’s pretty much all been marketing hokum. Even if we all ditched paper and ink tomorrow and shifted over to Amazon Kindles or some other gee-whiz e-book reader, the basic reading experience wouldn’t change, only the distribution method. You’re still staring at a narrative of sequential words that you read from start to finish. What’s really changed about the narrative experience since the ancient Sumerians sat around the fire to hear The Epic of Gilgamesh? Only three things that I can think of: (1) writing, (2) paper, and (3) hypertext.

You often find people drastically overhyping the potential of new technologies to revolutionize aspects of life that haven’t changed for thousands of years. That’s no surprise; it’s human nature. But it’s surprising to me how much people still fall for this, even after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000-2001.

second-life-sex In addition to checking out an online book event, the other thing I made sure to investigate on Second Life was online sex. I mean, hey, I’m hip! I’m wit’ it! I can get freaky in the Multiverse, yo! So I made sure to check out one of Second Life’s red light districts to catch a glimpse of the future of sex. I saw a group of blocky, King’s Quest IV avatars standing around naked with their blocky, King’s Quest IV naughty bits on display. There were a number of virtual men thrusting blocky, King’s Quest IV penises into blocky, King’s Quest IV vaginas. The result was about as sexy as the X-rated mannequin sex scene in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police.

I tried to figure out how you might do that with the confusing hodgepodge of controls that Second Life gives you, but it seemed like it would take two, or possibly even three or four, hands to do it right. And what’s the point of that? To paraphrase Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski: there may be exciting new developments in online pornography right around the corner, but we still jerk off manually.


(A quick aside: Okay, I can think of one book that would lend itself well to Second Life promotion: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Which, in case you were wondering, is the greatest children’s novel ever written. Somebody needs to build a Second Life realm of The Phantom Tollbooth that allows you to travel to Dictionopolis and Digitopolis in your own little wind-up car. I’m willing to be convinced. Norton Juster, if you’re reading this, I’m waiting for your email.)

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  1. A.R.Yngve on December 11, 2007 at 12:12 pm  Chain link

    The thing about text is that allows us to look just people’s avatars, but parts of their thoughts, fantasies and — dare I say it — souls. Until we get brain-to-brain interfaces, text is the best there is at what it does best.

  2. A.R.Yngve on December 11, 2007 at 12:12 pm  Chain link

    (Minus a few typos, that is. ;-))

  3. King Rat on December 16, 2007 at 2:28 am  Chain link

    Scott Adams promoted his new book Stick to Drawing Comics Monkey-Brain! on Second Life. People got to ask him questions and then have their avatars kick his avatar in the nards.

    The highlight reel can be found on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jh_28EI4sME

  4. David Louis Edelman on December 16, 2007 at 10:24 am  Chain link

    Rat: Well, that’s original, I’ll give him that. But 30 seconds of the highlight reel was about all I could take.

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