Love the trap you’re in
When I was thirteen, my favorite novel was Edmund Cooper’s The Overman Culture. I still own more copies of this novel than any other, and rank it as one of the most important books I’ve ever read. But I wish I could rip the last thirty or so pages out of every copy.
The Overman Culture spoke to the solipsist in me. All kids, I think, go through this solipsist phase. It’s implanted in us from birth. We all grow up in a little fantasy bubble manufactured by our parents or guardians. Here, shielded from the nightmares of outside reality, we’re kept nurtured and secure.
As we grow, we’re fed various comforting stories that either amuse us, teach us the morality of the society we happen to inhabit, or stop us from learning too much too soon. Our world is one of bright cartoons and colorful toys, where Santa Claus rewards the worthy, where reproduction is achieved by storks, and where nobody ever dies.
Growing up, becoming mature, turning into an adult, is a process of slowly shrugging off these comforting stories in order to confront the truth: that in fact we’re all scrabbling for survival on a small radioactive ball beside a fickle sun in a hostile galaxy.
Most of the people on our planet never do confront this truth. They’d rather continue to wrap comforting stories around themselves than think about the lousy reality of a world that cares nothing for them. They spend their entire lives in a little fantasy bubble that makes them feel safe and special. They refuse even to believe in death.
This isn’t wrong, as far as it goes. It’s our life, and we each have to deal with it in our own way. But when you subscribe to a story you make yourself vulnerable. You put yourself in the clutches of other people. And I don’t think anybody who is born free should purposefully turn themselves into a slave.
This is the fallacy at the heart of Yann Martel’s religious apologist novel Life Of Pi. Martel declares that imaginative lies are preferable to lousy truths. According to him, it’s better to be caged in a zoo than free in the wild. He means that it’s better to clothe yourself in a comforting story about god than stand naked to the horror of the universe.
Incredibly, some people — including a President of the United States! — seem to think that this is proof god exists.
In philosopher’s terms, we all occupy a ‘pocket universe’: a small, self-contained reality whose inhabitants know nothing of the outside. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, the only glimpses of the outside world available to the imprisoned humans are shadows dancing on a wall.
Back in the days before mass communication, before railways and telephones, most people lived in a small area. A village community, a town, an island. They might never leave it their entire lives. They might know very little about the greater world. Most of them were chained to the place they were born by servitude to someone more powerful than themselves: a landowner, a father or husband, a priest.
Then came the age of exploration, emancipation and the freedom to travel, the growth of the inclusive state, the rise of personal ambition, and the explosion of technology that made everything possible.
For many of us — the lucky minority, at least — we can now do what we like, go where we like, and think what we like. But we never quite gave up the idea that we might be living in a pocket universe.
The trouble is that, according to science, no matter how our world expands (and, as we understand it now, it’s huge), we’re still prisoners.
And when you realize that, even the cosmos seems constricting.
Fiction loves the idea of a pocket universe. You can tell big stories on a small stage. The smaller your stage, the bigger your stories seem.
On the surface, Romeo And Juliet is just a doomed love story between two teenagers. But actually it’s a pocket universe, and those two teenagers represent the human dreams and emotions swept up and cast aside by a war involving thousands or millions of people.
On the surface, Robinson Crusoe is a shipwreck adventure with a cast of just two characters. But actually it’s a pocket universe dealing with questions of Western colonialism and superiority, religious and sexual repression, capitalism versus egalitarianism, and much more.
In order to know there even is a pocket universe, the characters have to step outside it, purposefully or by accident.
The phrase used to describe this is ‘conceptual breakthrough.’ That’s the moment when the savages realize they’re actually living inside a multi-generational spaceship in Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop. That’s when Neo finds out he’s been trapped in a virtual reality construct in The Matrix, or Truman Burbank discovers his whole life is just a television spectacle in The Truman Show.
That’s when, in The Overman Culture, the lead character Michael Faraday follows the path of the Thames through London and discovers it’s all one giant, endless loop.
There are a huge number of books, movies and TV series about simulated reality, and they go back a surprisingly long way. Arguably, they go back to the time when the first Neanderthal leaned to the second Neanderthal over the fire and grunted, “Maybe we’re all just dreaming this.”
At best, these books, movies, TV series and fireside chats may make us look around us with new eyes. And I applaud anything that makes you wonder what’s outside the door of your cage. Humanity progresses at the hands of free thinkers, of all kinds, looking beyond the stories they’ve been told to try to figure out the truth for themselves.
But the problem with almost all of these tales is that they end with a nuts-and-bolt rationale for the simulation. Neo is being kept docile to be used as a battery (no, don’t laugh, it’s true). Truman is in a vast TV studio. The savages are in a spaceship.
And Michael Faraday — well, you’d have to read The Overman Culture to find that out for yourself.
Even in a truly mind-bending version of the tale, such as Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, there’s a rational explanation awaiting the protagonists once they’ve suffered and striven long enough and hard enough to achieve it.
Audiences like these kinds of endings. They make us feel safe. But the really powerful tales never have a simple nuts-and-bolts answer. And that’s why, as a teenager, I loved The Overman Culture enough to hate it. I didn’t want the answer it gave me. I wanted no answer at all.
I wanted to leave Michael Faraday groping for truths he would never find. Because when I examined the bars of my own cell, I discovered that’s exactly the trap I’m in.