Hi, I’m Elora. I’m here because I love science fiction, and I think some of you do too. Science fiction has been a force in popular culture for long enough now that it is hard to get a grasp on what it really is. Is it an art style? A world-building aesthetic? A joke? A part of literature? A film genre?
I like to think of science fiction as a series of questions we ask ourselves in order to determine humanity’s place in the universe. Do we have the power to create life? Are we alone as sentient beings in our universe? Can time be changed once it has already passed? How far can we reach out into the stars? What is the boundary of human development?
Perhaps, in this way, science fiction is a branch of philosophy. It’s a very funny branch, though. In SF, we have some established, and very odd ways of representing our questions. Artificial intelligence. Alien invasions. Time travel. Space travel. Metahumans.
That’s what this column is about. Every month, I’m going to bring up a science fiction trope, like the ones above, and dig into the questions that lie behind it, and examples of the answers different writers of the genre have come up with. This month, I’m going to start with something very near and dear to my heart.
Virtual reality is becoming more and more a part of our reality everyday. Whether it be the Oculus Rift headset, or the augmented reality in apps like Snapchat and Pokemon GO, VR is breaking free from the realm of science fiction and into the realm of daily life. Thankfully, we haven’t come to the level of The Matrix yet … I don’t think.
The science fiction trope I’d like to discuss today is one or two steps above something you can buy on Amazon Prime or the app store right now. In fact, The Matrix is a good way of explaining what I’m talking about — even if I don’t believe the movie is the best portrayal of the concept. It’s the kind of simulation or illusion that is so realistic that the people experiencing it don’t even realize that the world around them isn’t real.
Take, for example, the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Inner Light”. A program is beamed into Captain Picard’s head that plants him in the middle of an alien civilization, and an alien life. It is so realistic that he begins to believe the life he is living is his own. In the end, however, it is all an elaborate dream- the dying message of a culture he never met.
Another good example is the episode of Stargate:SG-1 called “The Gamekeeper”. While the members of SG-1 realize at first that the playback of their most painful moments cannot be real, there is a mind-bending moment later on, where they return to their base, only to discover that they are still in the “game”.
Why does this kind of crazy computer simulation keep cropping up in our favorite stories and shows? What idea are writers trying to get at through the use of virtual reality in science fiction? What is this about?
I think philosopher Rene Descartes brought these kind of questions into the popular imagination when he started to doubt everything that he knew- as recorded in his Meditations. If his senses could be deceived by things like mirages, optical illusions, dreams, and illnesses, how could he know that anything was real at all? How could he know that his room was real? Or the chair he was sitting on? Or his memories? How could he even know if he himself was real?
Descartes famously came to the conclusion that because he was thinking, he had to exist, and built back the rest of his beliefs from there. His initial skepticism, though, is carried on by science fiction writers to this day. The more powerful our technological methods of projection become, the more we have to question the reality of our memories and experiences.
Could my bedroom really be a high-tech illusion produced by a supercomputer? Is my body somewhere far away, hooked up to wires and machinery? Am I typing this post right now with my actual fingers, or virtual ones? Are you reading this with your actual eyes, or with the eyes of your imagination?
It’s hard to tell, isn’t it.