Feel This Book

by Jessie Roberts

Researchers at MIT have developed a wearable reading device called Sensory Fiction:

Sensory Fiction was inspired by two sci-fi visions of what media in the future will look like. The first is Neil Stephenson’s steampunk classic, The Diamond Age, a novel that features interactive books with built in AIs. (The book that is often seen as the fictional inspiration for many of today’s technologies, like the iPad and Siri.) The other is The Girl Who Was Plugged In, a 1974 novella by James Tiptree, Jr. about a future in which the desperate are allowed to pay to take over the bodies of attractive human vessels.

“You feel this story in your gut,” Hope says about The Girl Who Was Plugged In. “It is an amazing example of the power of fiction to make us feel and empathize with a protagonist. Because our imaginations and emotions were so strongly moved by this story, we wondered how we could heighten the experience.”

Kathleen Volk Miller shudders:

As the protagonist’s emotional or physical state changes, so does the reader’s, via ambient light, slight vibrations, and, get this: localized temperature fluctuations and constricting airbags that actually change the reader’s heart rate. The emotional response I’m getting right now, without wearing the device, is: fear. The device has airbags?

Let’s discuss the obvious. For instance: if a book is well-written, we don’t need a “shiver simulator.” I mean, no one told me to be sad when Anna threw herself in front of a train. Can a device make my heart feel scooped out like so many books have through the years (most recently, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped)? … I am no Luddite, but I see the very reason we go to books —to get lost in an different world, to empathize with an other, to escape — might get lost if our emotions and even our physical reactions are forced. Rather than transport us to another world, these reading augmenters force us into someone else’s perception of another world.

In January, Alison Flood remarked on how the concept resonated with other writers:

The Arthur C Clarke award-winning science fiction novelist Chris Beckett wrote about a similar invention in his novel Marcher, although his “sensory” experience comes in the form of a video game:

In the spare bedroom on the first floor a group of young men were gathered around a TV. They were all plugged into a device called a dreamer, very popular in that world, though unknown in this, and were playing the classic dreamer game called Ripper Killer. They had on 3D goggles and wore things called moodpads on their heads which gave low-voltage jolts to the hypothalamus in order to induce elation, longing or (as was famously the case with Ripper Killer) terror.

Adam Roberts, another prize-winning science fiction writer, found the idea of “sensory” fiction “amazing”, but also “infantalising, like reverting to those sorts of books we buy for toddlers that have buttons in them to generate relevant sound-effects”.