Unnameable space

Josephine Wilson

Sue Thomas
Hello World: travels in virtuality
Raw Nerve Books, University of York, UK 2004

Hello World is a small book. It easily fits into my bag, so I take it with me on the train. The size of the book, I decide, meshes with the tone—personal and poetic.

Hello World opens with the first person narrator engaged in an intimate act of looking out her bedroom window at 1am, “…as the moon bleeds whiteness across the grass.” Soon after describing the scene at the window, the narrator draws an analogy. The stillness of the night can be like the stillness online: “It is the charm of midnight, the intimacy of the unconscious to sit here knowing how many sleeping things are close by yet hidden from my view and to be aware that such quiet does not signal solitude, as it might in the daylight, but means simply that this part of the work is in suspension.” Perhaps the experience is “hypnogogic”, she concludes, perhaps online we are midway between sleeping and waking. Perhaps it is a form of daydreaming.

I look out the window at a man with a 3-legged dog. I read on. The narrator abandons her house to traverse the nearby fields, and then, feeling the need for company, turns to home and logs on to LambdaMOO. I decide that there is another way of thinking about the intimate scale of this book (bag-sized, if not pocket-sized). Hello World is a user’s manual and a short, very personal history of the internet (for instructions on how to MOO see page 24.)

By largely eschewing the language of academia, Sue Thomas demonstrates that she has no desire to fuel such flagging oppositions as those between body and machine, or subjective knowledge and technophilic expertise. Or indeed, between the intimacy of print-based reading and the online experience. Thomas, however, recognises the specificity of the internet, and the book is at its most intriguing when striving for a metaphoric language adequate to the net, only to admit that we cannot yet (ever?) settle on any one way of thinking about this space: “So many of us are trying to capture electracy, but it will not allow itself to be held. Write, paint, sing, dance…yet still it slips from our grasp, shimmering away to that bright intangible boundary marking the edges of the screen…we are sensing a world which cannot yet be expressed.”

While toying with the ineffable, Sue Thomas grounds her book in an accessible ‘how to’ language. Thomas will be familiar to many readers as the founder of trAce Online Writing Centre (trace.ntu.ac.uk/) and as a maverick community builder. Part history of cyberspace, part travelogue, part autobiography, Hello World tracks the author’s peripatetic journeys into MOOs and MUDs, all the while exploring the metaphoric potential of the computer’s interface language. Short epigrammatic sections are interspersed with a record of her travels over the years across Australia, England and America. Thomas is a vivid writer whose narrative follows surprising trajectories and establishes marvellous connections. Encounters with highways and railways are occasions to draw the reader into a dialogue with the idea of place. After a frightening trip across the mountains by car, Thomas arrives in LA. She writes: “Have I spent too long online that I’ve forgotten to anticipate fear? The terror I experienced was a brutal reminder that I am more than a mechanism for remembering and imagining, and that part of me is a finite body that can malfunction, fall off the sides of mountains and get damaged. I’m shaken up, and frankly rather embarrassed. I just don’t seem to be able to stop trying to drag virtuality into the real. I’ve failed so far, but I’m certain that I can find a reconciliation, some way to live in both places, some state of mind which allows me fluidity. I’m determined to keep looking.”

Hello World is underscored by the desire for travel and connectivity. The book is a testament to the writer’s enthusiasm for the internet and the potential offered by constructing online identities, and to the creativity and community that she has found through her personal odyssey in virtuality:

As for me I set out alone and discovered myself. Imagine a born sailor who has never seen the sea. Imagine how it must feel to at last encounter it, to find this awareness which has simmered inside all their lives without ever having a name! So it is with me. I found virtuality and it was an ocean flooding the horizon and waiting to be explored.

But this is not a solipsistic inquiry. The potential contradictions of the online world are beautifully staged in the diary of Thomas’s arrival by train into Kalgoorlie from the Nullabor: “I had been roughly bumped from the deep mediation of the desert to the harsh reality of profit and exploitation. Just hours earlier I had seen virtuality at its highest level as a sublime experience. Could I really continue to ignore it at its lowest? After all, there are plenty of Golden Miles in cyberspace, and millions of Hay Streets, not to mention the spam which speaks to even deeper needs than sex and money.”

This is occasion for Thomas to revisit her early explorations at LambdaMOO, and undertake a self-conscious analysis of the erotic intensity of her experiences. She concludes that the early days of the MOO were not really about sex or desire; rather there was a kind of “reaching out” for closeness and intimacy. “For many of us, cyberspace opened our imaginative worlds for the first time since childhood, and it was a huge, intense and crazy shock…we began to activate and explore dormant parts of our deepest selves. For some it was very traumatic. For many it was utterly life-changing…transsexuals lived online for a while and then came out IRL. Gays, lesbians and bisexuals began with tentative cybersex and graduated to the Real Thing for the first time…women discovered that they did, after all, possess sexual desire…men discovered that they were, after all, deeply romantic. And innumerable people fell in love…even if it was only for a week or two.”

As an online writing community, trAce has embraced both the specific poetics of online hypertext and enabled print-based fiction and poetry writers to engage in dialogue and critique each other’s work. In Hello World, Thomas offers a way of being in the world that refuses hierarchies and primacies and offers us a model of an engaged and creative practice that is both virtual and real.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 33

© Josephine Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2004
Close

Join our e-dition list

Sign up for free online e-ditions offering occasional reviews and commentary and curated selections from and response to the RealTime archive 1994-2017.