What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.
Morpheus, The Matrix
What would you do if you could truly do anything? Imagine a scenario where your potential was only limited by your imagination. With the power to manipulate the world and your place within it, what kind of world would you create?
It’s a startling question, but one that will be familiar to writers throughout history. As storytellers, we constantly create and reshape the worlds that we describe, the only distinction being that we cannot enter those worlds ourselves. We have to be content to be the Gods of our own stories, crafting fate, character, irony and chance to suit our whims and goals.
Imagination is one of those ethereal concepts that is impossible to accurately explain. It seems to defy definition and it is simultaneously the engine with which we defy expectations. Being a fan of both human nature and the nexus of reality and opportunity, I felt like exploring the nature of both.
Let me preface this by saying that it’s gonna look and feel a lot like The Matrix but this concept is a little different. Bear with me. It’s also worth noting that the outer details of this story could be told in a lot of ways. Some stories are driven by character, some by plot. This is an attempt to drive one purely from the philosophical questions it evokes. It’s one of my more unusual premises and plots, to be sure.
We begin in Hollywood. Maggie Jamison, a young Hollywood star, will be our guide for the first act. Amongst a pile of fan-mail, she receives a rather unusual document. It’s a newspaper clipping announcing a marriage between her and a man she’s never met before. The clipping seems to have been copied onto an otherwise unremarkable sheet, the original not being delivered to her. At first, it seems like an overzealous bit of fan mail: a daft attempt at a marriage proposal delivered to a movie star that gets two crazy proposals per week. Over time though, the details of the article (a long story about the supposed relationship and background of the star and this man) spark a certain curiosity to learn about the source.
The clipping describes her suitor as a military hero who had returned home from a tour of duty in a dangerous part of the world and had become an athlete, playing football for the Detroit Lions. A quick search reveals this to be false, but the effort put into it is certainly passionate and genuine. Our star files it away but otherwise takes no action.
Shortly after this, Maggie gets a phone call from an FBI agent. The agent asks her if she’s received a strange article recently and she tells him about the clipping and reads it out to him. The conversation ends shortly thereafter and our star is left wondering if something is amiss.
Two weeks later, a meeting is called to discuss an upcoming project. At the conclusion of the meeting, Maggie is asked to stay for a moment longer. She is escorted into a room with Franklin James, who is famous amongst computer experts, but not widely known to Maggie or the world at large.
Mr. James explains that he runs a computer company that has a highly secret governmental contract. They have created an interface that allows the user to experience an immersive reality. In effect, the system software creates an experience so real that it is essentially indistinguishable from reality.
The technology was developed for the Army to allow soldiers to train in an environment where the details would appear real while the consequences would be non-existent. (i.e. if you die in the sim, you don’t die in real life). As the software became more advanced and capable of running more elaborate and detailed simulations, other applications presented themselves.
Over the past five years seventeen special operations soldiers have been incapacitated during enemy action. Elite soldiers with no immediate or extended families, these men and women served with distinction during secret operations that the public was unaware of. These soldiers sustained wounds that would have rendered them into a comatose or vegetative state. Medically, the soldiers were incapable of surviving without life support. Without a constant medical intervention, they would perish. Seeking to reward our nation’s heroes and having access to a powerful simulation processor, Mr. James offered a long-term service to the Army.
Using the simulation software, modified with an interface that could access other areas of the brain responsible for emotions, the wounded warriors were placed, without their knowledge, into a simulated environment. The virtual world that the soldier inhabited would be continuously updated to allow them to achieve a maximum of happiness. Seventeen different simulations were begun, with no interactions between them, each with a single mind at the core whose desires become reality.
Obviously always getting your way is a recipe for extreme boredom and the software accounts for this paradox by creating challenges and presenting problems that the subject is usually, but not always, capable of overcoming. The setup is grand, but the details are still as lifelike as possible. The goal of the system is to provide a pleasant and painless transition from life to death for as long as the soldier’s life functions can be sustained.
One of the soldiers to undergo this process was the mystery man from the newspaper clipping. His real name is Jackson Turner. Jackson was a combat veteran who had received a traumatic injury that would have prevented him from having a normal life. Upon entering the simulation, he became unaware that the world he perceived was in any way artificial. Instead he quickly was able to achieve many things that he had always consciously or unconsciously desired. He came home to a hero’s welcome from adoring citizens. He tried out for and became a starting player for the Detroit Lions. The simulation software could glean from his synapses the dreams that he had and then present him a world where they were readily achieved.
Maggie is shocked by this news and clearly is confused as to her position within all this. It is explained that the newspaper clipping is just a printout of a virtual image created within the simulation. A screenshot from a very advanced game, one in which Jackson had desired to have a meaningful relationship with a real Hollywood star, just as he’d always dreamed of.
At this point, the confusion Maggie feels becomes even more pronounced. If all this is true, and it appears to be, what are they asking of her. Mr. James explains that the technology is too dangerous to be let out, but, with her being exposed to it and presented with evidence of it, this meeting was called to evaluate the potential risk of her knowing about it.
I’m afraid the holodeck will be society’s last invention.
– Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert)
A technology like the one I describe (which, again, has been very successfully described elsewhere) is more than a game-changer, it’s a game-ender. Articles analyzing the potential for such an invention invariably agree that, if properly executed, there would be no reason to ever cease using the machine. If you are within a world where you can have whatever you want, the act of being removed from it would be horrifying to contemplate. Akin to being awoken from a very pleasant dream or interrupted on a perfect weekend afternoon, but taken to the nth degree. To remove a person from a condition of maximum happiness is an act of maximum cruelty.
This is the reason for absolute secrecy. If the technology existed and was known, it would be nigh-impossible to stop the general public from breaking down the door and demanding to be let in. Any person who fully realized the potential would likely want to, at the very least, sample the technology, and the experience would be more addictive than any drug in the history of mankind.
At this point I have different branching pathways that I can take the story. I freely confess that I am not sure what the best course would be for a tale such as this. The questions that I wish to explore in many cases do not provide readily-available answers and so the central conflict would be between a side which sees this technology as the ultimate evil (the embodiment of sloth and decadence) and a side which sees it as the greatest good (providing a supreme amount of happiness to those who need it).
I feel like a romance provides a certain transcendent background to this. Taking an obvious cue from Inception, can the reality you inhabit (artificial or not) provide you with the maximum of happiness if it’s not the the same one inhabited by your beloved? To put another way, imagine a married couple that each wishes to undergo their own simulations. Placed in separate realities, each might generate a simulation of the other, but if the simulation of their beloved is anything less than 100% accurate (another nigh-impossibility) is the happiness that is created of any real value? For that matter, are emotions generated from a false reality any more or less valid than those created in the real world?
Fiction provides a great proving ground for the testing of hypotheses and answers to theoretical questions. When absolute truth is not attainable (there being no truly correct answers to any of the questions I’ve posed here) the garden of one’s mind becomes the best place to look for answers and more questions. The key is to plant a seed and watch it grow.