“From Imaginary to Virtual Worlds”: An Interview with Historian Michael Saler (Part One)

This is the third in a series of interviews I am conducting with key contemporary thinkers writing about the concept of world-building. Previous instalments in this series featured Mark J. P. Wolfe (Building Imaginary Worlds) and an exchange between Ian Condry (The Soul of Anime) and Marc Steinberg (Anime’s Media Mix). More to Come.

I am embarrassed to say that my copy of Michael Saler’s book, As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (2012) sat on my book shelf for several years before I got past the cover and the table of contents. What a foolish mistake that was! I’ve found the book to be an invaluable reference point for many discussions I have been having since I really dug deep into this book last summer. At first glance, the book would seem to be a series of case studies looking at early 20th century authors, especially those associated with what we would today call genre fiction, and their readers. His central figures are Arthur Conan Doyle, J.R.R. Tolkien, and H.P. Lovecraft. This alone would make the book of interest to me and many of you who read this blog, especially given the continued influence of these three key popular writers on our culture. Each not only produced compelling fictional characters and worlds, but also thought deeply about their craft and especially the ways that popular arts might enhance the life of the imagination.

Saler sees these writers as emblematic of a larger shift in the “structure of feelings” within modern culture, identifying the kinds of change in mind-set which needed to take place before adult readers would actively engage in these richly detailed depictions of worlds which exist only in our imaginations. He asks us to think about the “As If” status of these works, which often demand a sense of ironic spectatorship and an openness to play and performance. It is this new kind of cultural relationship between readers and these imagined worlds which paved the way for the emergence of modern fan culture, and this rich cultural and social history takes us along the path by which many of the kinds of speculation, appropriation, and affective investment we associate with today’s fans first emerged.

Beyond this, he’s interested in the ways that these writers went beyond words on the page to engage with a range of other media production practices in order to deepen the reader’s sense of  immersion. This process of documentation and authentication has strong parallels with the tactics and techniques being explored in contemporary forms of transmedia storytelling, which has similarly placed the act of world-building at the center of the storyteller’s craft.

I am hoping that showcasing this remarkable work via my blog can help call it to the attention of those of us who work on contemporary media and do not yet know how urgently we need to learn what Saler has to tell us about the origins of these practices in the late 19th and early 20th century. Since I rediscovered the book some months ago, I have been shoving it at my students and urging them to read it closely, so let me use this interview to introduce you to a book you need to not only have on your library shelf but to engage with actively. In this three part exchange, Saler explains the changes enabled our modern sense of imaginative play with literary texts.


A key subtitle in your introduction describes a movement “from imaginary to virtual worlds.” Can you define the key terms here and explain why and how this shift has occurred from your perspective? For example, you have a somewhat broader conception of a virtual world than what surfaces most often in discussions of new media and so it seems important to be clear about your terms from the start.

Because I was examining changing orientations to fictional world building from the eighteenth century to the present, I tried to distinguish among three different terms: “imagined world,” “imaginary world,” and “virtual world.” Fiction has always provided “imagined worlds,” but in late nineteenth century Europe and North America we start to see a new form of literary fantasy that established the template for “imaginary worlds” today, many of which have become “virtual worlds.”

These imaginary worlds differed from earlier imagined worlds in two ways. First, they were influenced by literary realism, with its emphasis on highly detailed, empirically “objective” accounts of reality. Realist writers rejected romanticism, which in turn provoked others to resurrect literary romance in the late nineteenth century. The authors of what became known as the “New Romance” objected to the content of literary realism – its disillusioned focus on contemporary social issues – but were indebted to the realists for their style.

The numerous imaginary worlds of the 1880s and 1890s were far more empirically detailed and logically cohesive than their predecessors, adapting the outlook of scientific naturalism in their descriptions of marvelous locales, characters and plots. Contemporaries noted that the New Romance could be distinguished by its combination of the fantastic narratives of earlier gothic and romantic authors with the stylistic objectivity of the realists. (For this reason, I don’t think “late Gothic” is a good term for works such as She or Dracula; “gothic” was not often used by contemporaries to refer to these works, whereas they did invoke the “New Romance.” When we use “late Gothic” to discuss many of the fantastic works of the fin de siècle, we risk losing sight of their distinctive attributes.)

Innovation in printing technologies, such as half-tone lithography, enabled writers of the New Romance to “document” their imaginary worlds with photographs, and they used many other corroborating “paratexts” as well (footnotes, charts, glossaries, chronologies, etc.) Of course, maps and footnotes had been used occasionally by earlier writers – one thinks of the map in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), or the footnotes employed by Sir Walter Scott in his historical romances a century later – but the authors of the New Romance often went out of their way to substantiate their imaginary worlds by including as many of these “paratexts” as possible, outdoing the literary realists at their own game.

H. Rider Haggard’s She (1886), for example, is full of documentary illustrations, including photographs of the potsherd that the protagonists use to discover the lost world of Kor, reproductions of its multilingual inscriptions, corroborating footnotes, and so on. As If surveys many other imaginary worlds of the New Romance that provided the reader with similar evidentiary material. These were truly “spectacular texts”; their attempts to reconcile fantasy with scientific objectivity not only distinguished the New Romance from the earlier gothic, romantic, and sensationalist fictions, but also provided the model for subsequent SF and Fantasy imaginary worlds.

In addition to being indebted to realism, the imaginary worlds of the New Romance were also beholden to another literary mode of the time, aestheticism. The aesthetes emphasized the autonomy of their fictional worlds, promoting the idea of “art for art’s sake.” Similarly, writers of the New Romance created autonomous imaginary worlds divorced from the social, moral, and utilitarian impulses of Victorian literature.

Tolkien called these imaginary worlds “secondary worlds,” emphasizing their distinction from the lived reality of the “primary world.” He thought that this characteristic typified fairy tales and other works of fantasy, but the sharp distinction between primary and secondary Worlds was actually historically specific, originating in the late nineteenth century: William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End (1896), for example, was one of the first fantasy worlds that took place in an entirely invented locale. Tolkien was sensitive to the autonomy of Secondary Worlds because he too was attracted to aestheticism, as were many other creators of imaginary worlds in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – including Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, E. R. Eddison, and H. P. Lovecraft.

So currents of both realism and aestheticism distinguished the “imaginary worlds” of the late-nineteenth century New Romance from earlier “imagined worlds.” The characteristics of these imaginary worlds – a reconciliation of reason and the imagination; a wealth of paratexts; an emphasis on autonomy or “the world for the world’s sake” – also typify many of today’s imaginary milieus of science fiction and fantasy.

These early imaginary worlds also engendered novel forms of social media that anticipated our current ways of inhabiting secondary worlds and relating them to the primary world. Venues devoted to imaginary worlds, such as letters pages in fiction magazines, fanzines, clubs, and conventions, emerged between the 1890s and the 1930s, allowing fans to “live” in these worlds for prolonged periods of time, often in the company of other fans. This was a new practice; while vogues for imaginary characters and worlds had occurred before (one thinks of the enthusiasm for Richardson’s Pamela, Goethe’s Werther, and Dickens’ Little Nell), they were brief and did not involve the prolonged and communal habitation of the imaginary worlds.

The latter practice transformed literary imaginary worlds into “virtual worlds” that transcended any particular reader, author, or text. Middle-earth, for example, began as a literary imaginary world, and subsequently assumed a life of its own through the ongoing and communal efforts of its fans. They explored and elaborated it, transforming it into a virtual world that could be experienced in an immersive and participatory manner.


You are tackling the development of fantasy literature and fandom from the perspective of a historian. What does your discipline bring to the table that might be different from forms of fan studies that come from media studies or literature scholars?


Conceptions of the “imagination, “reality,” “fantasy,” “fiction,” etc. are all historical; they change over time and across cultures. Imagined worlds have existed since antiquity, but the ways in which they have been understood and used vary tremendously. (For example, Paul Veyne’s Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? demonstrated how the ancient Greeks’ ideas about “myth” and “truth” were sharply different from our own.) Imagined worlds of all sorts must be understood contextually if we are to grasp their cultural appeals, social functions, and potential benefits and dangers.

In As If, I wanted to explore several historical changes in the conception of imagined/imaginary worlds. Why was there a remarkable expansion of imaginary worlds in Europe and North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Why was this period the first in Western culture in which adults began to live in these fictional worlds communally, persistently, and self-reflexively, ironically “believing” and disbelieving in the fiction at the same time? What were the links between these phenomena and increased references to the “virtual” and the “vicarious”? It became clear that the fin de siècle is critical to our understanding of virtual reality today, because this period witnessed a concerted and self-aware embrace of the imagination, virtuality and artifice.

Indeed, the practice of turning imaginary worlds into virtual worlds began with Sherlock Holmes, the first “virtual reality” character in Western literature. As I mentioned, while there were brief vogues for other fictional characters before, nothing compared to the Holmes phenomenon, in which adults no less than children pretended that his world was real, inhabiting it in a communal fashion for prolonged periods of time.

Holmes fandom was the template for subsequent fan subcultures dedicated to fictional worlds and characters. By exploring the literary prehistory of virtual reality, I hoped to highlight some of the benefits and pitfalls of our current obsession with imaginary world and fictional characters. While the technologies involved in virtual reality today are more sophisticated than in the past, in important respects our approach to virtual worlds echoes the methods that began to be forged in the late nineteenth century.


Michael Saler is Professor in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. He received his BA from Brandeis University and a joint Ph.D. in History and Humanities from Stanford University. He is the author of As If: Modern Enchantment and The Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford University Press, 2012), The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: ‘Medieval Modernism’ and the London Underground (Oxford University Press, 1999); co-editor, with Joshua Landy, of The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age  (Stanford University Press, 2009), and editor, The Fin-De-Siecle World  (Routledge, forthcoming).