Plowing The Dark, by Richard Powers, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux (ISBN 0374234612)

Sometimes it is not the techie journalist or even populariser of science that really evokes the heart of a particular technology. Sometimes it takes a novelist to capture something about what is going on. William Gibson captured the heart of networks with his “cyberspace” in the 1980s, Neil Stephenson did the same for avatars in the 1990s and now another American has pulled us up sharp with his exploration of virtual reality.

This is not the virtual reality (VR) of computer games or even computer aided design. In Powers’ story the artists, programmers and social scientists are creating a VR engine to model economies, culture and power in 3D, interactive environments.

But what distinguishes Powers’ story and makes it relevant for anyone developing virtual spaces (such as text-based computer noticeboards; virtual meeting rooms; or artificially intelligent environments) is that he complicates the whole business by telling a parallel story.

The geeks slave away for a multinational computer giant in California in the late-1980s. They switch between recreating Van Gogh’s bedroom and watching the European revolutions. On the other side of the world, a US hostage lies chained to a radiator in a dark room trying to remember the real world.

Powers runs the two stories in parallel and forces his reader to reassess how we understand space and interaction, how we relate to the real and how culture and media redraw those powerful relations.

By setting his story in the near past, Powers does not allow us the simple escape of positioning his tale as sci-fi. This is a book about a technology ready to offer a new interface to the networks that have dominated our view of technology and media for the past few years. And it is one that anyone looking at developing or depending on a virtually real environment for their business may find challenging and not a little disturbing.