Elon Musk caused a stir last week by suggesting ours is not the real world, but sci-fi writers have been speculating about this for at least 70 years
The world turned turned upside down … a still from the movie Inception. Photograph: Warner Brose/Allstar
“There’s a one in billions chance that this is base reality,” announced Elon Musk at the Code conference last week in California. The billionaire entrepreneur behind Tesla, SpaceX and PayPal stoked new fire under one of pop philosophy’s most debated questions: are we all living in a computer simulation?
While the idea of living in a computer simulation is fun to consider, the consequences of such a reality are quite frightening. If belief in a creator god lets humans off the hook for our destiny, or if belief in a mechanical universe drops us into nihilistic despair, what might believing that we are all sims in a video game do? The possibilities are both wondrous and horrifying.
Sci-fi writers have been imagining life inside computers for decades. Robert Heinlein’s They (1941) and Ray Bradbury’s The Veldt (1951) both toyed with simulated realities long before the computer technologies we take for granted today existed. A decade later saw Daniel F Galouye’s Simulacron-3 (1964), one of the first literary explorations of lifelike virtual reality. The story of a computer simulation so detailed its inhabitants believe it is real, the novel later inspired the cult movie Thirteenth Floor.
The Girl Who Was Plugged In (1974) reads almost like a factual account of life in 2016. Alice Sheldon, writing as James Tiptree Jnr, wove a terrifying tale of corporate society, celebrity culture and marketing as mind control, all driven by the power those who shape reality hold over those who merely inhabit it.
William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, beginning with Neuromancer (1984), features “simstim” entertainment and a virtual reality where the dead can be summoned back to life. The novels kickstarted the cyberpunk movement, with its fascination for directly connecting the human brain to technology, or “jacking-in”.
But the early master of simulated reality stories was, without doubt, Philip K Dick. In short stories such as The Electric Ant, and novels such as Ubik (1969) and his masterpiece VALIS (1981), the sci-fi master dived through the twisted philosophical consequences of not accepting reality as entirely real.
In many books that came after Dick – Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Tad Williams’s Otherworld, Jeff Noon’s Vurt, Iain M Banks’s Culture novels – simulated realties and the consequences of computer technology dominate the discussion.
These ideas born from sci-fi novels spread to movies – from Tron (1982) to The Matrix (1999) to Inception (2010) – and brought speculation about the nature of reality into mainstream entertainment. But audiences packed into today’s multiplex cinemas are far from the first to question our reality.
At the height of the 60s counterculture, philosopher and writer Alan Watts found fame by popularising eastern thought among western audiences, cracking open our everyday view of reality. If Watts could respond to Elon Musk he might well say: “Base reality? Really Elon, how quaint!” In Watts’s philosophy there is no base reality to simulate: his trippy argument was that all reality is a simulation within a simulation. The only reality we can ever experience is created by our own perceptions, thoughts and stories.
But why are we so fascinated by stories that question reality? Is it pure entertainment, or a deeper quest for truth? It’s one thing to believe reality is a video game if, like Elon Musk, you get to make up the rules, but quite another if you’re only a sim! Maybe our whole reality is running on a server in the basement of some geek’s parent’s bungalow – or, as is rather more likely, we just like the idea that it is. Whatever reality we’re in, sci-fi writers will be speculating about it forever.
Please respond to the following:
- Answer the question provided in the last paragraph: Why are we so fascinated with stories that question reality (like Inception, Ready Player One, or Harry Potter)? Provide details that answer why you think this.