Stand-in Line

Pop culture borrows from religion without knowing it.  Or maybe it’s just that religion has become so irrelevant that people no longer care.  Whichever may be the case, those who contribute to pop culture have a rich treasury from which to take withdrawals.  This occurred to me while waiting for a bus into New York.  Many people don’t want to stand in line (who does, really?).  In the Park-n-Ride subculture, you may leave an avatar in your place.  It’s probably not called an avatar, but since there’s nobody here to ask, I’m going to use the pop culture name.  You put your bag on the pavement, marking your place and then go sit in your car.  Since I’m going to be sitting in a big car for the next two hours, I prefer to stand outside.

The idea of an avatar is mediated to most people through either computer language or the movie.  I first encountered the term in the former sense in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.  I was an internet neophyte and had trouble conceiving a virtual world in those days.  Some time later came the latter.  James Cameron’s film embodied the idea—linked through software, the tired hardware of physical bodies could be given new life.  In some senses it was an even better life.  Now everyone knows what an avatar is.  Perhaps except that the idea is native to Hinduism.

Hinduism was never an organized, intentional religion such as Christianity.  It is rather a wide array of traditional beliefs that, in the light of missionary activity, had to be given a name.  There are many gods in Hinduism, and when a deity descends to earth s/he appears in a form recognizable to humans—an avatar.  Not being an Indologist, my understanding of the concept is very basic, but it’s enough to know that this religious idea found a role in pop culture first through computer representations of human beings.  We had flattered ourselves with being gods, since we had created a virtual world.  A world we couldn’t physically enter.  Avatars were, therefore, how we wanted others to experience us.  Snow Crash is peopled with all kinds of representations.  The internet today, nearly 30 years on, has many more.  After all, there are many gods.

I glance at my watch.  The bus should be here any minute now.  When it enters the lot I’ll see the deities behind these canvas and leather avatars.  They’ll be less impressive than I’ve imagined them, I’m sure.  And although we’ve created virtual reality, I still have to get on a physical bus to go to virtual work.

Animal Ways

nightofanimalsNoah’s Ark has a way of showing up in many literary forms. Familiar to many from Genesis, it actually predates the Good Book by hundreds of years. On the backside, it keeps recurring in literature as diverse as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love, and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It also shows up in Bill Broun’s debut novel Night of the Animals. Set in a future that’s becoming present faster than Broun likely anticipated, the story revolves around an addict who hears animal voices. The story stubbornly refuses to let you get any grip on a slippery reality, so the reader’s left guessing even at the end. In the 2050s Britain is under a fascist regime that seeks to keep the wealthy happy and everyone else servile. (Keep reminding yourself this was written before 11/9.)

Cuthbert, the protagonist, believes the animals—most of which are extinct in the wild—are calling him to release them from the London zoo. As an addict his perception of reality is constantly in question. His sense of mission, however, is not. One of the stranger elements in the tale (and that’s saying something!) is the revival of Heaven’s Gate. This cult, instead of wiping itself out, has gone international. The approach of a comet sets the Neuters (as they’re called) on a mission to wipe out earth’s remaining animals. Many of them are in the London zoo, which brings Heaven’s Gate into direct conflict with Cuthbert, who is busy trying to release as many talking animals as possible. London literally becomes a zoo and Heaven’s Gate openly attempts a coup.

All of this sounds wild and fantasy-prone, but like 1984, fiction sometimes peers deeper into reality than science. Is it science fiction? It’s set in the future, but it’s difficult to say. What has all this to do with Noah’s Ark? The novel itself draws the parallel—the zoo that preserves the last of their kind is, by default, an ark. The Ark. Floating on a world-ocean of irrational turmoil where might (read wealth) makes right after all. Religious imagery interlards the story. Cuthbert becomes St. Cuthbert. His possible granddaughter (the reader is never sure) manifests as the Christ of the Otters. There’s even a kind of Second Coming. This is a novel that feels like altered reality. That illusion is given the lie when you close the book and turn on the news.

Virtually Divine

So I decided to try virtual reality for a while. I have been reading about the influence technology has on religion, so I thought a trip to Wikitude would be instructive. Now I don’t want to sling lingo like I’m some sort of real techie, but Wikitude is an app that shows the artificial worlds of virtual reality in your immediate environment. Many of us live our day-to-day lives without realizing that we are surrounded by powerful, invisible beings who can only be seen through electronic eyes. We have given our physical world an imaginary overlay that may turn out to be more real than reality itself. So I clicked on Wikitude and took a peek around my office on Third Avenue. Wikitude shows those things that I would have called “dialogue boxes” as a kid, but that now stand in for overlays against any mapped reality. In Manhattan there are many, many of them. I clicked on the one nearest my finger. It read, “A monster is destroying the city.” Like it read my mind.

In some ways I never got over the naïve realism I grew up believing. I first read about avatars in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Back then the idea of virtual worlds was still pretty new, and although Norman Spinrad and William Gibson had played with the idea earlier, the Snow Crash version is what stayed in my head. Avatars, I knew from my research on ancient religions, came from very early Indian belief. In what we now casually call “Hinduism,” some believed that gods came down and walked among us as avatars. Christians would later call this “incarnation.” In virtual reality, we are the gods and we descend into the world of human making as embodied electronic versions of ourselves. The idea, however, goes back to one of the most ancient religions in the world.

I’m not sure I feel safe in this virtual world I’ve discovered. I was relieved when I clicked on Wikitude the next day to find the menacing monster nowhere in sight. But is it really gone? The physical world has no shortage of ways to frighten the very sensibilities out of us. Many of them go by the name of religion. In this world, I can’t just click off the screen and be safe. It used to be that our simple, domed world had a divine bowl above it with a loving, if often very stern, parent watching over us. Now we have become that god, creating monsters and worlds to house them. Maybe that is the best answer to theodicy yet. When we create virtual worlds, we always include evil in the picture. Perhaps it has always been thus with the gods.

Reality or not?