Books about the Metaverse
Science fiction and speculative non-fiction to blow your mind about what the metaverse and the future of humanity may be.
Metaverse Pop Culture Part 1
In the first part of Pop Culture and the Metaverse I will be exploring novels and audiobooks that have influenced how we think about the metaverse.
There are things these books frequently got wrong, and in other cases, things I hope will be proven wrong. Some of these stories are outright dystopian (although that can make for a fun read).
Science fiction inspires awe better than most forms of literature. You’ll find it here in abundance. Even between the worrying dystopian and cyberpunk themes, you’ll find inspiration to get excited about… and some of the megatrends touched upon in these books are already happening in the real world.
Read on to explore how virtual beings, artificial intelligence, high-speed networking, cybernetics, 3D immersive worlds, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and other technologies have been brought to life within stories.
Updated September 28, 2021 to add Rainbows End and a suggestion that you start the Culture Series with the second book, The Player of Games.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
You can’t leave Snow Crash off any list of fiction that involves the metaverse — after all, this is the book that coined the term.
This book follows the adventures of Hiro Protagonist, a pizza “deliverator” — -and elite hacker — as he unravels the mystery of some vicious malware that can infects users of the metaverse, inflicting brain damage in real life.
It has one of the best opening scenes in all of science fiction, and you’ll be hooked within the first few pages. That said, the vision of the metaverse foretold in Snow Crash has evolved since then; rather than the centrally-controlled metaverse, open technologies are enabling a permissionless and decentralized metaverse.
Otherland by Tad Williams
Otherland is an exciting romp through an imaginative metaverse: it takes you to new, frightening and wonderful places as well as the familiar such as “Alice in Wonderland,” Middle Earth, and Jurassic Park. The tale is told across four big books, investigating the plight of children who are being locked-in to these virtual worlds.
Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
Vernor Vinge has written a number of stories that deals with the internet, artificial intelligence, the technological singularity.
A Fire Upon the Deep has a special place in my heart because it tells the mindbending tale of what happens when you change the rules of physics to allow information speeds to increase as you move away from the center of the galaxy (what he called the “Zones of Thought”).
The “Net of a Million Lies” — based on the early internet Usenet message boards — was extremely prescient when you consider the proliferation of misinformation, disinformation, deepfakes and Duning-Kruger in today’s metaverse.
If you’d rather read something that feels a little closer-to-present, then Vinge’s True Names deals with cybercrime within the Other Plane, a sort of virtual-reality based metaverse.
Vinge has thought more about the future of computing than almost everyone, so he gets to be mentioned twice. Set only a few years in the future, Rainbows End envisions a world of pervasive surveillance states and ubiquitous augmented reality (AR).
Daemon by Daniel Suarez
Daniel Suarez is an author with an impressive engineering background, and it shows from his writing.
Daemon deals with the aftermath of the death of the creator of a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) who left behind a network of malevolent artificially-intelligent bots. Worldwide chaos ensues.
It’s written in a future just moments ahead of us, and involves hacking, AI, cryptography, news scraping, remote-control and the human manipulation that could occur if a machine intelligence had access to money and power.
Also: if you’re looking for an audiobook version, the voice acting is outstanding. And don’t miss its sequel, Freedom.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Gibson is the author most responsible for cementing the cyberpunk aesthetic within our culture — and Neuromancer was the story that started it all. Gibbons used the term “cyberspace” to describe his version of the metaverse:
A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.
The book starts with the famous line: “The sky above the port was color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Gibson was writing about a pollution-choked future where the sky would look like static; he was writing about a city in Japan. Anime-inspired Japanese themes continue to persist throughout cyberpunk literature and games; and he wasn’t far-off given the atmospheric calamity over much of Asia today.
Read it to enjoy a compelling story that includes artificial intelligence, hacking, simulated characters, neural uplinks, cybernetic enhancements and all the other material that became foundational for cyberpunk.
Lexicon by Max Barry
Lexicon showcases a secret society of poets who are able to control, manipulate, and change the human mind with a rarefied language system. In a world where words are able to completely change the human mind and instinct, it is interesting to correlate to the impact of AR,VR, and AI on society today.
And so we exchange privacy for intimacy. We gamble with it, hoping that by exposing ourselves, someone will find a way in. This is why the human animal will always be vulnerable: because it wants to be.
Lexicon explores the true human nature, vulnerability, and our desire for privacy. This novel causes you to think about the desires of the human race, and how technology can persuade our intuition.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Ready Player One has a metaverse called the OASIS:
…a place where the limits of reality are your own imagination. You can do anything, go anywhere. Like the Vacation Planet. Surf a 50-foot monster wave in Hawaii, you can ski down the Pyramids, you can climb Mount Everest with Batman.
Cline’s vision for his metaverse is one controlled by a single corporation — even more centralized than the metaverse of Snow Crash. As I’ve written elsewhere, this is the antithesis of the metaverse we ought to hope for. Yet it is still a fun page-turner, and the novel may inspire you with some of the experiences is envisions; and if you’re a nerd like me, you’ll find ample fan service for anyone who enjoys the likes of Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars.
Bobiverse by Dennis Taylor
If you enjoy themes that put space exploration side-by-side with your dose of the metaverse, then Bobiverse does not disappoint. It deals with a future in which a cryogenically-preserved software entrepreneur has his consciousness downloaded into a Von Neumann probe which is used to explore and colonize space. Artificial intelligence, consciousness, VR, simulation and many other topics relevant to the metaverse are key themes. It is a lighthearted yet mindblowing exploration of the future.
This is another book with a superb audiobook edition on Audible.
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
Cyberpunk, sci-fi, detective noir and sexually-charged romance join forces in this dark and violent story. John Woo fans may be reminded of Hard Boiled on occasion.
Altered Carbon takes place centuries from now as humans are exploring the galaxy. Consciousness may be stored within cortical stacks that may be transferred into new bodies (called “sleeves”). VR is pervasive, and the nature of existence and human consciousness are central themes along with crime and conspiracy.
The Unincorporated Man
The Unincorporated Man is another story about a cryogenically-frozen businessman: but in this version, he emerges within a future society that has an entirely new economy built around “incorporating” each human that allows equity ownership by other people. For example, rather than paying for your education — you now exchange some of your personal equity to the university that trains you.
The social currency platforms like Bitclout or Rally.io aren’t too far off from this idea. This book was written before the advent of blockchain technology, yet envisions some of the economic structures that could come about because of them.
VR is also a very important aspect of the history of the world. I’ll leave it to you to read and learn why.
Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow
Eastern Standard Tribe (which you can read for free) is about a future where physical borders have dematerialized and become less important — and where the biological demands of our circadian rhythm make synchronizing our schedules more important. People work and play together according to time zones.
In a world where we collaborate on Zoom, Discord and Slack — and many of us are now building globe-spanning virtual organizations — Doctorow’s book was prescient.
Accelerando by Charlie Stross
In Accelerando, Stross deals with augmented reality (AR), advanced computers, AI, uploading consciousness, ancestor simulations and a zillion other themes that will excite metaverse enthusiasts. There’s also plenty of biotechnology and nanotechnology to keep you fascinated.
Ultimately, it deals with transhumanism. What is next for humanity? I’ve written that the metaprogramming that will occur within the metaverse will lead to new and abundant experiences; I won’t be surprised if some of what Stross foresaw comes about.
The Culture series by Iain Banks
A lot of the cyberpunk and futures I covered above deal with the dystopias that result from economic scarcity. I wanted to end the list of fiction with something that might inspire ideas of how the metaverse can make what was once scarce into something abundant.
Banks writes about a post-scarcity society called the Culture. The first novel in the series is Consider Phlebas, but my suggestion is that you start with the second book — where he really refined his writing craft — which is The Player of Games. You’ll encounter ultra-powerful artificial intelligences that work for the betterment of the species that make up the collective utopia. Later novels including Surface Detail grapple with simulated reality and virtual afterlife.
As we consider the future the metaverse might enable, perhaps it isn’t too far-fetched to spend some of our imaginative currency thinking about abundance rather than fear.
Is the Metaverse the start of the Simulation?
Last but not least, I’ll end with non-fiction — although it may read like speculative science fiction.
What do you think? Is it just metaverses all the way down?
If you’re ready to move from science fiction to the reality of the metaverse we’re building, here are some other articles you’ll enjoy:
Curious about the word “metaverse” and the etymology behind it? Read more about its definition, history and etymology.
Read about how open technologies are enabling a permissionless and decentralized metaverse (unlike that of Snow Crash or Ready Player One).
Flip through my “Building the Metaverse Megadeck” to pick up ideas about the megatrends, industries and experiences of the metaverse.
9 Megatrends Shaping the Metaverse covers some of the global social and technological trends that are influencing the metaverse — including a few that were predicted decades ago in science fiction.
Why an Abundance Mindset is an essay by Peter Diamandis about why we should be filled with more hope than worry.
Did I miss something?
Looking for your favorite book about the Metaverse, and it’s not on this list? Tweet me and if I hear enough, I’ll add it! (and probably read it!)
This article was created in collaboration with Erin McCarrie.