Books: Please be my Virtual Valentine...

... but what happens when the passionate cybersex turns sour? Peter Jukes joins the community of online swingers who composed a dark romance in the digital domain
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My Tiny Life

by Julian Dibbell

Fourth Estate, pounds 16.99, 336pp

THE INTERNET is pure sex. Forget its notoriety for pornography; something much more interactive is happening. Probably the most prolific parts of the Web are its chat networks, in which strangers exchange small talk and then engage in more intimate contact: cybersex and online assignations.

The erotic potential of the Internet probably exceeds its commercial potential. Now used by women almost as much as men, it offers a dark space of disguises and metamorphoses, where meaningful glances are raised, where couples court and couple. The Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie You've Got Mail celebrates this journey from retail to romance. And Julian Dibbell's book shows how cyberspace became a clearing-house for desire.

Ostensibly a history of a pioneering online community, is Dibbell's novelised account of his own passionate obsession with virtual worlds, and its real-life repercussions with his partner. Her rival was LambdaMOO, a tiny virtual universe, carved out of text and computer code on a server in Palo Alto. Once opened to the Internet, hundreds of strangers started pouring in through its portals.

It is hard to describe this tiny text-based universe in linear prose. By typing in commands you can move through descriptions of objects, rooms, streets - anything that can be constructed in words. Sometimes, these are animated in programmed subroutines, so that asking for a cappuccino can launch a mini prose-poem about its taste and effect. As you enter the author's own Garden of Forking Paths, a programme uses the I Ching to determine each direction. Most importantly, you can encounter other personas, such as exu, Niacin or Horton Who: characters who seem equally at home discussing Baudrillard as they are with computer code.

Though a species of journalism, this account of a factitious universe begins to feel like a picaresque novel by Rabelais, rewritten by Pynchon and Tolkien. Unlike a novel, however, this fiction is a collective edifice, built by hundreds of individuals in a city of words.

Sex is a vital ingredient. The book opens with an account of a celebrated case of virtual rape, when the persona of "Doctor Bungle" used a voodoo doll to force other citizens to violate themselves in several graphic ways. His "crime" took place just after the historic decision of the Wizards (lead programmers) to drop their priestly powers. Instead of an elite laying down the law, the community had to decide democratically if Bungle had committed a crime that merited being "toaded": having his identity erased, the virtual equivalent of capital punishment.

This opening essay has all the hallmarks of becoming a classic for anyone interested in this new terrain of virtual exploitation. Starting from Foucault's assertion that sex is as much an exchange of signs as of bodily fluids, Dibbell proceeds to demolish the concept of "free speech" as a defence of pornography or libel. In this empire of signs, words are indistinguishable from actions.

The rest of the book examines other elements of "tiny life". Dibbell's explores TinyGeography and has a foray into TinyGender with the adoption of a female persona, Samantha. As for TinySex, Dibbell holds back on his own long cybersex session with "S*" until well towards the end.

One of the problems of turning a parallel and interactive world into a linear book is that the feeling of total immersion is lost. On line, you don't know where the next line is coming from: it emerges, letter by letter, with the hot press of speech. In cold text, the idiosyncrasies of the characters can seem false, and Dibbell's languorous style does not quite prevent some of their concerns seeming overwrought.

But he has a trick up his sleeve. While the VR world is described like a realistic novel, he renders RL (real life) in the same format as an online game. The staccato result is unexpectedly compelling, particularly when he describes his own inability to "commit" to his partner, Jessica, and she counters his virtual infidelities with real ones of her own. The quality of the writing is so potent at times, it makes you long for a proper novel by Dibbell.

contains many thoughtful connections between virtual reality and its prototypes in maps or games. A beautiful passage compares the fictional quality of the digital domain with the equally fictional notion of borders. Birds or grasses might not recognise these arbitrary squiggles on the map, but human culture does, and it goes on to reshape reality along its own lines.

Which brings us back to sex - perhaps the most contested borderline between biology and culture. Dibbell shows how they are hard to separate. His remote infidelity only serves to make him more aware of the preciousness of his partner. He chooses atoms over bytes, RL over VR, but the distinction is not always so simple to make.

William Gibson wrote the first novels about cyberspace over a decade ago; Dibbell's non-fiction book is the first novel by cyberspace. It certainly won't be the last. What new genres this electrification of the word will engender is, thanks to Dibbell, clearer to see: they will be recapitulations of old genres.

places cybersex in a continuum of erotic symbolism, going back through the epistolary novel at least as far as La Roman de la Rose. It shows how virtual desire is another variant of the convention of courtly love, with passion clinging to, but also trying to supersede, the insufficiency of words and images.