Book Review: "As If" by Michael Saler

I don't normally go in for cultural studies. But every once in awhile, there's a piece that comes up with concepts that tightly and elegantly express thoughts that many are feeling but cannot put to words. Saler's As If is such a book. He addresses himself to "the literary prehistory of virtual reality," drawing connections between the works of Conan Doyle, Lovecraft, and Tolkien and our current exodus into computer-generated fantasy spaces. We have all known that there is a kinship between the 1930s dame obsessed with Holmes and the 2010 gamer obsessed with Onyxia, but it has never been delineated so clearly. Among the concepts Saler uses to make the connection is "animistic reason," a version of rationality that insists on the internal coherence of the fantastic. Animistic reason is the sensibility that delivers the feeling of confirmation and extra horror we feel when Lovecraft's demons turn out to be not spiritual beings but rather scientifically-confirmable alien species. It also produces the "aha" when we trace the Shire calendar to our own and discover that the Ring was destroyed on March 25. Animistic reason tells us that these worlds are fantastic, yet genuine; impossible, yet possible. It produces sensations similar to those of a mathematician who proves something outlandish, or the young theoretical physicist when he first grasps relativity. "Time does not flow the same for everyone? Impossible! Yet not only possible, but necessary!" Saler's book brings many other interesting insights to the table and, rather unusually for a cultural studies book, is a gentle read. I recommend it to you!