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

As I was reading your discussion of this process of providing “proof” for imaginative narratives, I could not help but think of the roles being performed by contemporary transmedia extensions. For example, see the case that Campfire constructed around the launch of Game of Thrones — (http://campfirenyc.com/work/projects/game-of-thrones/) or these videos relased this summer in relation to Pacific Rim (http://sheridantransmedia2013.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/pacific-rim-viral-site/) and the next Planet of the Apes movie (http://www.firstshowing.net/2013/dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-kicks-off-viral-simian-flu-website/).  To what degree are these very contemporary practices a continuation of the techniques that you suggest emerged around the New Romance?


These transmedia extensions are all ways to heighten the immersive reality of imaginary worlds by appeals to our senses and to our reason. (Modernity requires fantasy to be rational at some level; many seek enchantments that don’t reject reason but augment it.) Such practices transform imaginary worlds into virtual worlds that can then inform our thinking about the real world because we have assimilated them corporeally, emotionally, and philosophically.

Why do so many fans collect replicas, first editions, autographs, or other palpable material relating to the imaginary worlds they love? In effect, these are secular reliquaries; they put fans in contact with the intangible mana or charisma of the imaginary world, just as symbols of a favorite sports team, or even a favorite nation, provide many with a sense of identity.

The advantage that imaginary worlds have over some of these other forms of affiliation is that they are explicitly marked as imaginary. European soccer fans can be violent, their conflicts often linked to national identities, but I have yet to see Middle-earth fans get into physical blows with Golden Compass fans. The “virtually real” nature of so many secondary worlds is undercut by acknowledging that they are provisional constructions, and that habit of mind that can be usefully applied to other beliefs we hold in the primary world. Living an “as if” life does not preclude political, spiritual, or ethical commitments, but it does temper arrogance while opening us to a multitude of worlds we might not have considered otherwise.


Some recent writing, yours among them, have linked the concept of imaginary worlds with Tolkien’s notion of Sub-creation, which seems to limit the model to talking about worlds that are largely if not entirely the work of the imagination. Yet, Dudley Andrews has discussed the concept in relation to “Dickens’ London,” you discuss here Doyle’s London, and I’ve made the case for Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Each represent an artist’s particular inflections of real cities, but developed in sufficient imaginative detail as to constitute an immersive environment with a character uniquely its own.  What is the case for or against these environments being regarded as “virtual” in the ways you are using the term?

I think all of these “realist” worlds are clearly marked as fictional, and thus can be thought of as “secondary worlds” distinct from the primary world. They too can become “virtual” through social media that permits their audiences to inhabit them communally, for prolonged periods.

In the late nineteenth century, the imaginary worlds that became virtual through reader participation were primarily works of fantasy, because readers were explicitly seeking an escape from literary realism: they wanted new forms of enchantment that were compatible with modern reason but did not replicate the status quo. Thomas Hardy’s “Wessex” was an imaginary world, complete with a detailed map, but contemporary readers who wanted to immerse themselves for prolonged periods in an imaginary milieu turned to Haggard, Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and other writers of the fantastic, where they could gratify their sense of wonder as well as their reason. (Sherlock Holmes’s “London” is a fantasy world, because it contains Sherlock Holmes, a fantastic character – among others!)

Many middle-class readers and critics, though, thought that this form of immersion in fantasy was irresponsible and regressive. Today’s readers and critics are less likely to dismiss “escapism” in such terms; even those who don’t like fantasy find themselves immersed in the imaginary worlds of Jane Austen and James Joyce, both of which are now virtual with their own fan bases, dedicated social media spaces and, in the case of “Bloomsday,” cosplay every year.


I was struck by Edmund Wilson’s critique of Lovecraft’s realm as “a sort of boy’s game.” First, in what sense are these worlds “games,” that is sets of activities in which readers can participate alongside writers? And if they are games in that sense, then, where do the rules of these games come from? and Second, were the kinds of collective activities you describe emerging around these stories always heavily gendered as masculine which would seem to be part of the implication of calling them “boy’s games”? And finally, there’s implications here of “infantilism” or “latency,” charges that have long been associated with fandom. In your research, was fandom always associated with arrested development?


Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne thought of their imaginary worlds as games, and established rules for them that were taken up by the New Romance and the later marketing genres of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. (When Hugo Gernsback established Amazing Stories in 1926 – thereby inaugurating the marketing genre of “science fiction” – he constantly cited as his predecessors Poe and Verne, as well as H.G. Wells, and reprinted many of their works.)

Poe argued that imaginary worlds ought to be constructed as meticulously as any hoax, which has become one of the tacit rules for modern imaginary worlds. Verne acknowledged his debt to Poe on this score, continuing the imaginary world Poe created in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1844) in his An Antarctic Mystery (1897).

The notion of including multiple paratexts became firmly established with the New Romance beginning in the 1880s, and the implicit rules for the fannish habitation and extension of imaginary worlds derived from Sherlock Holmes fandom beginning in the 1890s. (Indeed, they called their prolonged and immersive explorations of Conan Doyle’s world the “Great Game.”) Holmes’s fans were the first to write “scholarly” essays about his world as if it were real, and pastiches that augmented the world, making it a living, “virtual” creation.

By the 1930s, these and related rules of the imaginary-world game had become widespread – even science fiction pulp magazines were peppered with paratexts, including learned footnotes in Amazing Stories and Robert Heinlein’s famous “Future History” chart published in Astounding.

Dorothy Sayers wrote a marvelous essay about the Great Game (the term is hers), but on the whole Sherlockian play was masculine, especially in the United States, echoing the homosocial world that Conan Doyle created. (The American Baker Street Irregulars refused to invest women in the society until the 1990s, although there were “scion” societies that did welcome them.) Similarly, science fiction fandom for much of the twentieth century was largely male, and this was true for other subcultures dedicated to comics, horror films, and so on.

There was somewhat more gender parity in the imaginary worlds purveyed by radio in the interwar period. “Little Orphan Annie,” “Captain Midnight,” “Buck Rogers,” “Jack Armstrong,” and other children’s programming provided significant agency for boys and girls in their plot lines and premium campaigns, largely for commercial reasons. Gender hierarchies and imbalances persisted, but at least these worlds were not exclusively male preserves.

The charge of “infantilism” was certainly applied by elites to fans of mass culture for much of the twentieth century. But this charge has a longer history in Western culture. It has usually been associated with any extended immersion in the imagination, which historically has been defined as subordinate to reason and associated with subaltern groups: women, workers, children, so-called “primitives.”

The late-eighteenth century romantics challenged this binary opposition between reason and imagination, and mid-nineteenth century children’s literature also welcomed rather than feared imaginative play. By the late nineteenth century the imagination was being defined by psychologists, philosophers, critics and others as being complementary to reason.

The suspicion of the imagination by elites may have been more prevalent in Protestant than Catholic countries (certainly it was prevalent in Britain and North America, whereas late nineteenth and twentieth century France was practically ground zero for the new celebration of the imagination). Nevertheless, it has continued to play a large role in the negative reception of fantasy, and fandom, until very recently.

Your discussion of Lovecraft suggests that fans from the start saw fantasy, science fiction, and horror as points of entry into conversations about race, ethnicity, and immigration and that readers and writers were often blind to their prejudices even as they celebrated forms of exploration that went beyond the margins of current public sentiment. Much of what you share there could have come from more recent debates amongst fans about the role which race play in contemporary speculative fiction. Can you share more of these debates and their impact on mid-century readers?


 I’m a bit disheartened about the way some of the current debates about race and speculative fiction online have used Lovecraft as a convenient punching bag and go no further. It’s easy to do that – no one can deny that he was a virulent racist for most of his life.

But history shows that he, and other fans, were debating issues of race, imperialism, sexism, and other issues since the onset of public spheres of the imagination. Rather than excoriate figures from the past because their views don’t accord with ours, itself an ahistorical practice, it might be better to examine the conditions that enabled these views to flourish, and to explore how such views were challenged and at times changed by diversely constituted public spheres of the imagination.

In other words, the prehistory of our current use of imaginary worlds and virtual realities has much to say about how we might promote pluralism and an acceptance of difference. To dismiss Lovecraft as simply a “racist” without acknowledging how far he had changed – and the reasons for this change – is to abandon the resources that history gives us for negotiating the present.

I find his story, and that of Tolkien (who did question some of his earlier, unexamined views about race, religion, and the nation) to be hopeful examples about how imaginary worlds can be used as well as enjoyed. Their case-histories provide instructive instances of how imaginary worlds are not simply escapist but inform the real world in many ways, for good and for ill. (This is not to say that all online discussions have been like this. Elizabeth Bear’s contribution to a public sphere of the imagination, Tor.com, is a reminder of how imaginary worlds can be good to think with about the primary world: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2009/12/why-we-still-write-lovecraft-pastiche.)

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).