by Ken Sanes
Science fiction stories consistently reveal that we experience simulation as something that invites us to regress into a realm of fantasy and symbiotic comfort, and that we experience technologies that wait on us similarly as inviting us to regress into symbiosis and passivity. It often shows us individuals and societies that have fallen back into addiction to simulation and technology, and thus can't move forward into adulthood and a state of progress. In these works, simulation represents night dreams, daydreams and fantasy and, along with technology, it represents a comforting and infantilizing parent (more often a mother) who encourages the characters to remain as children. Stories about characters who break free from addiction to, and immersion in, simulation and technology thus also tell, often disguised, stories about the child's effort to grow into adulthood and resist the allure of regression. They are about the effort by individuals and the human race to progress to a new level.
In the last few decades, the world's technologically advanced societies have started to learn how to manipulate the elements of life, the physical world and the mind. They have peered out into the universe and into the fabric of matter, overcome distance with air and space travel and mass communications, extended the life span, begun replacing parts of the body, built enormous artificial environments and created what may be the forerunners of thinking machines. By now, there cant be any doubt but that these societies are trying to develop the ability to reshape and control the environment, and win humanity's age-old battle with nature.
Even as this revolution is taking place, a second change is occurring that, together with the first, that defines much of contemporary civilization. Unable yet to achieve the degree of power they want over nature, the same societies are learning how to create simulations of reality that are open to all the control they would like to have over the world. Television, movies, movie rides, computer games, virtual realities, theme parks, and similar inventions are providing us with lifelike fictions in which the world already seems to have been refashioned in our own image.
Science fiction provides an essential insight into these changes, because its authors have extrapolated from current trends and consulted a well of knowledge we all share of how humanity would like to use these new technologies. In particular, the original television series, Star Trek, which was the creation of Gene Roddenberry, provides a key to understanding these changes by depicting one possible future the present is heading toward. Star Trek is what the literary critic Northrop Frye would call an encyclopedic form. It drew together the essential ideas of science fiction and used them to create a coherent mythology that expressed our own, largely unspoken, understanding of what we are doing. In dramatic and narrative form, it offers us our own vision of the ethically correct and incorrect pathways that lie ahead as technology allows us to conquer both the natural world and worlds of illusion. In particular, it focuses much of its attention on the way technology and other advances can tempt us to misuse our power, before our wisdom has had a chance to catch up, and can tempt us to seek out false paradises, as an escape from the inevitable difficulties of life.
The original Star Trek portrays the universe as a ladder of progress, peopled by beings at various stages of evolution from primitive and industrial societies to futuristic societys and to advanced beings that have transcended the physical world and are able to manipulate nature for their own ends. The focus is on a heroic and ethical humanity of the near future, at the center of a Federation of Planets that is exploring the galaxy and pitting itself against the limits of the physical world, in order to grow and make its way up the ladder of evolution. This path of development is embodied in the hero of the series, Captain James T. Kirk; in his ship, the Enterprise, and its mission to explore new worlds, contact other forms of life and create a zone of civilization, rather than engaging in conquest or war, all of which incorporates popular images of America as an explorer of unknown territory, creator of technology, builder of a world civilization, and defender of human rights.
On its journey, the Enterprise encounters beings and civilizations at other stages, that can be read as symbolizing both the alternative futures open to humanity and the challenges that could spur human development. One alternative is the dark side of the first, the unscrupulous and violent races and beings the Enterprise engages in battle, that misuse technology and act without regard for the injury they cause to others. It is epitomized by the technologically sophisticated but barbaric Klingons, who, like the Mongols and like Soviets during the Cold War, on which they are modeled, have spread out to plunder and create an empire. It is also epitomized by the Romulans, another militaristic, Romanlike, race.
Throughout the series, advanced technological societies, such as that embodied in the Federation and the Klingons, are shown having developed a limited ability to manipulate the physical world. The Enterprise can almost instantly transport individuals between locations, for example, which gives its crew the appearance of gods or magicians to less advanced peoples. Similarly, with the depiction of cloaking devices, which make ships invisible, we also see technological society making use of advanced forms of illusion, in this case to create a stealth simulation that creates the illusion something isnt there. The creators of Star Trek didn't give the Enterprise a cloaking device, of course, since it is on a mission of peace that boldly and openly goes out into the universe.
On its travels, the Enterprise encounters beings and planets that symbolize what will happen if the human race gains control over illusions and the physical universe before it grows beyond its own violence, narcissism and desire for power. Here are all kinds of men and beings, some incorporeal, some still a part of the physical world, with seemingly magical abilities to invent lifelike scenes and situations, and to create and destroy physical environments, make objects appear and disappear on command, immobilize a starship in space, and create lifelike illusions. But they misuse their powers, by mistreating and entrapping others, and by allowing themselves to be corrupted by power.
One such race they encounter is the Talosians, an effete and dying race that destroyed the surface of the planet Talos IV and retreated underground, where it compensated for its confinement by developing minds that can create perfectly realistic illusions in themselves and others. The Talosians entrap the original commander of the Enterprise, Captain Pike, in imitation realities, inducing pleasure and pain, in an attempt to entice and threaten him into becoming breeding stock for a slave population that will reclaim the surface. They are no longer able to do it themselves. Absorbed by illusion, they have lost the ability to act in the world and, as a character explains, "just sit living and reliving other lives left behind in the thought records."
Here, two dangers are portrayed. Simulation can corrupt its users, in this case creating addiction, and it can allow its users to misuse their power, entrapping others in imitation realities. As in many other Star Trek depictions, we are given reason to believe that the Talosians represent one possible future for humanity. The Talosians themselves, with their oversized craniums and small, frail bodies, are a popular symbol for the human race in the future. And the Talosians addiction to illusion is an obvious reference to the form of simulation addiction that was, and still is, most common in America, namely, addiction to television. Glued to internal television, the Talosians are lost to reality.
The episode is thus a warning to humanity that it may develop simulation technology, become addicted to its own illusions and the powers these bequeath, and cease to develop as a race. As Pike finds himself in various illusions created by the Talosians, he experiences these various temptations and dangers, which will be experienced by humanity as it develops the ability to satisfy its desires in illusory form and inflict painful simulations on others. He appears to fight a battle; he suffers from burning flames; enjoys a pastoral paradise and cavorts with fellow criminals at a feast, as they offer him an opportunity to indulge the dark side of his nature.
"Suppose you had all of space to choose from," one of these simulated companions asks him, posing a question that is really being directed by the series to its audience.
"Wouldn't you say," interrupts another, "that it is worth a man's soul?"
Pike answers in the negative, of course, because he embodies a heroic humanity that refuses to be corrupted by the power of illusion.
The Talosians were introduced in the pilot episode titled "The Cage. In a later, two-part episode that incorporated "The Cage," Star Trek demonstrates that a limited good can come out of simulation, for those already lost to the world. Pike, now profoundly disabled as a result of an accident, is allowed to return to Talos IV, to live out the end of his life with the crippled race, which, in its new role as benevolent, rather than malevolent, simulator, will provide him the illusion of health and vigor. But for the rest of humanity and the Federation, the temptations of Talos IV are off limits -- contact with the planet is the only crime punishable by death, so as to protect others from being corrupted by illusion.
In another episode, another good is revealed: the use of simulation for recreation, as the crew of the Enterprise finds itself on a planet that was used as a resort, by a dead race, in which ones fantasies come to life, in the form of realistic facsimiles. But once again we are shown potential dangers -- that we may confuse our simulations for something real and that we may lose control of our simulations by accident and they may turn on us and put us in danger.
But these depictions are of beings that are still well within our own circle of existence. In addition, Star Trek depicts beings that have advanced beyond the limits of corporeal existence. In essence, they represent our hope that technology will allow us to escape the limits of the physical world. But here, more explicitly than in the depictions of simulation, we are shown creatures that use these awesome powers for good or ill, depending on whether their wisdom has kept pace with their power.
The latter possibility -- of power without wisdom -- is epitomized by the human-appearing creature Trelane in "Squire of Gothos," who uses his ability to manipulate the physical world and create things at will, to sadistically toy with a handful of Enterprise crew members. Only at the end is it revealed that Trelane is an advanced incorporeal creature with the ability to incarnate in human form, but one that is still a child, with a tendency to mistreat his pets. He is an emotional primitive who tries to affirm his infantile grandiosity by dominating others. Like us, today, his wisdom hasn't caught up with his power.*
The episode "Who Mourns for Adonis" portrays another advanced being, the last member of a race that once ruled the Earth and gave rise to the mythology of the Greek gods. "Adonis" uses the same kind of abilities, this time to capture Kirk and his crew, because he must feed off their worship to stay alive. In exchange, he offers a pastoral paradise on his new home planet (one of many false paradises offered to Kirk and crew), which, of course, his human captives must reject.
The Enterprise also encounters a number of beings that have power over the physical world and are also emotionally and spiritually mature, symbolizing the future that awaits humanity if it remains on a morally correct and heroic path. The nonviolent Organians, who best embody this idea, are beings of pure energy who evolved beyond the limits of the physical universe and their own petty desires. As one explains, they were humanoid millions of years ago, but have since "developed beyond the need of physical bodies." As Mr. Spock puts it, uttering the line for which his character was created, they are, "Pure energy. Pure thought. Totally incorporeal. Not life as we know it at all."
The Organians provide an image of humanity in genuine adulthood, no longer contained in its old home in the physical world, worthy of its power because it has mature desires and the strength to control its abilities. They experience disgust when they interfere with the lives of others, because, for them, the Federation's prime directive to not interfere with the development of other planets, has become a part of their nature and not merely a law, although they overcome their revulsion long enough to immobilize the fleets of the Federation and the Klingons in space, to stop a war.
Just as Star Trek is a meditation on the misuse of power without wisdom, so it is also a meditation on the dangers of false paradise. Repeatedly, Kirk and crew are enticed by the promise of a trouble-free life, and repeatedly, they have to resist temptation or go astray. Thus, Pike resists the efforts by the Talosians to control his will by offering him a paradise of endless illusions in which his desires will always be fulfilled. In another episode that is a not very disguised commentary on drugs, Kirk must save the crew, which has been made passive and euphoric, and has become part of a stagnant utopia on a colonized planet, by the effect of a local plant. In another episode, Kirk and crew must resist efforts to get them to settle into a life in a gilded prison in which they would be waited on by humanlike robots.
So we have here a future history and ethical vision that recognizes two kinds of limitation -- that of the external world and that of the "internal" world of human psychodynamics, narcissism, and character flaws. The series message about the proper attitude toward these two forms of limitation was repeated so many times it took on the qualities of a credo: those who answer the siren call of premature power and false paradise are lured into a side track, a dead end that promises a cure for the suffering of life but only accentuates the weaknesses of the human spirit. A heroic humanity refuses to be taken in by such promises, it tells us, realizing that the fight to resist these temptations is part of the struggle against his own limitations, a struggle one must engage in in order to grow and evolve into a higher form.
In every episode, it is the hero of the story, Captain Kirk, who provides the exemplar for how the human race must act if it hopes to mature from the young adulthood of the Federation into a race such as the Organians. When faced with challenges and his own fears and temptations, Kirk doesn't retreat, regress into illusion and dependence, seek false power or become a predator.* He proceeds into the heart of danger, stands his ground and seeks peaceful solutions in which various warring parties will come out ahead.
Similar portrayals of power and purpose can be found in other science fiction works, including many that appeared before Star Trek. The novel The Futurological Congress, by Stanislaw Lem, portrays a future society in which recreational drugs provide the user with realistic hallucinatory experiences. We see the same dangers: addiction, grandiosity, the indulgence in fantasies of evil, simulation confusion and fraud, and the entrapment of others in imitation realities. Here, it turns out that all of society is unknowingly living inside an illusion, although there is a sense in the book that they really dont want to know their true circumstances. Once again, there is a malevolent simulator. And, here, because humanity accepts a false paradise, it is doomed.
The film Forbidden Planet similarly portrays the fate of an extraterrestrial civilization that attained power over the physical world before it attained control over its own psychodynamics. It created a machine that could make thought real, and unknowingly unleashed from the minds of its people, the monsters from the Id, which took an objective form and murdered without remorse, destroying their creators.
In a remake of a television episode, in Twilight Zone: The Movie, a Trelane-like boy with the power to alter reality, tortures and enslaves everyone around him, because his power isn't contained by adult emotions. Like other advanced beings that have been portrayed, he exercises power over both illusion and reality, one of many examples of the ways these powers appear blended together, rather than being neatly apportioned out one per kind of creature. He uses his power over reality to turn a young girl into a simulated character on a television commercial, where she is soon eaten by an animated character. Interestingly, he also refashions the world so it looks like a cartoon, in effect giving it the appearance of a simulation, giving us one of many depictions from science fiction and fantasy in which the boundary between illusion and reality breaks down. At the end, an adult woman uses his need to be loved to attach him to herself and sets out to teach him how to properly use -- and contain -- his powers.
The parallel evolution of power over the world and emotional maturity was also portrayed in an episode of Outer Limits titled "The Sixth Finger." A scientist, a contemporary Dr. Jekyll, creates a machine that can speed up evolution by stimulating the superior genes, which he hopes to use to create the man of the future who will rise above the animal passions. The human subject of this grand experiment rapidly evolves, developing superior intelligence, the ability to manipulate matter at a distance, and another of science fictions oversized craniums.
Here, in a brilliantly poetic passage, the subject explains how his evolution beyond the limits of personality saved him from misusing his power to take revenge against a nearby town he has reason to have a grudge against. At the same time, he describes the end point of evolution as the transcendence of physical life.
"I was going to destroy everyone and suddenly it no longer mattered. I evolved beyond hatred or revenge or even the desire for power. I feel myself reaching that stage in the dim future of mankind when the mind will cast off the hamperings of the flesh and become all thought and no matter, a vortex of pure intelligence in space. It is the goal of evolution. Man's final destiny is to become what he imagined in the beginning when he first learned the idea of the angels."
The references in this monologue to "it no longer mattered" and "all thought and no matter" creates a double meaning that expresses the connection between man's containment in the material world and the weight of his emotions within it. The character is freed from both, and both these changes are depicted as essential elements of human evolution.
(One category of post-apocalyptic fiction) shows humanity lost in false paradises of technology and simulation. In one subcategory, we see enclosed high-tech cities or habitations with apparently well-ordered societies full of people who are trapped by their dependence on automation and computers. They may also live decadent lifestyles that serve to distract them from the truth of their circumstances. Here, we find characters such as those referred to earlier in Logan's Run, who are shut inside the last city on earth and mistake it for the world, and who are doomed to be murdered at 30 by a computer-dictator. Outside is a world of nature that was ruined by human carelessness and violence, but that now, unbeknownst to the inhabitants, has come back to life.
Before Logan's Run there was Arthur C. Clarke's novel, The City and the Stars. And before that there was (among other works) E. M. Forster's story, The Machine Stops, which The City and The Stars is similar to in outline and some details. All tell a variation on the same story.
Post-apocalyptic fiction can also show us a future in which humanity, (or some race of sentient beings like ourselves), is trapped in a realm of high-tech simulations. It may be addicted to the lifelike fantasy world of virtual realities, made possible by technology, drugs, mind control or other sources. Or it may be a victim of a con in which it is tricked into believing that simulations are something genuine. Not infrequently, the story will combine these two elements for maximum effect, showing us characters who are trapped inside a bubble of illusion by addiction and by their own misperception of their surroundings.
An example can be seen in the novel, The Futurological Congress, by Stanislaw Lem, in which the main character wakes up in a future society in which everyone unknowingly shares a collective hallucination induced by drugs. As a result, humanity mistakenly believes it lives in a well-tended society of advanced technology when, in reality, its surroundings are in a state of collapse. At the center of this tinsel paradise is a dictator who creates collective hallucinations, which are a form of propaganda disguised to look like reality, to control the public.
The movie, The Electric Horseman, which is a work of "pre-apocalyptic" fiction, tells a similar story, set in the corrupt world of the present. It depicts America as trapped in a false world of illusions and mass-entertainment spectacles created by manipulative corporations that use images as a tool of deception and marketing.
These two types, depicting people trapped in high-tech cities and habitations, and in realms of simulation, are often blended together. In The City and the Stars, for example, the high-tech city run by a computer does everything for its prisoner-inhabitants and also provides them with immersive television, so they can have synthetic experiences as substitutes for a genuine life outside.
Whatever the particulars of the story, the theme of most of these works is the same: the main characters must try to free themselves from their gilded cages and reconnect with external nature and, in many instances, with their own human nature, as well. To do so, they may have to regain the correct perception of the world, by seeing through illusions or getting beyond walls that stop their view of their larger surroundings. At the same time, they may have to overcome psychological illusions by recognizing that they believed in falsehoods, and by giving up their dependence on, and addiction to, technology and fantasy-based simulations. Similarly, they may have to overcome assaults and threats and fears, to make their escape and discover the world as it is. If they are trapped by simulations that distort their perception, then their escape may or may not involve a change of location; what is essential is that they regain the correct perception of their surroundings.
* * * * * *
In many instances, these works focus on the way characters grow beyond ideologies and psychological rationalizations. Early on, they will depict characters who are taken in by the ideologies of their own societies. To convey this idea, they will often create subtle depictions of the way ideology gets embedded in people's material culture and everyday practices and beliefs, so it ends up masquerading as reality.
As the story progresses, we see the characters break away and discover the truth behind the image. The issue these stories generally don't confront is that they are also expressions of ideology and social philosophies. As the characters go from a false to a true set of beliefs and way of life, these stories are showing us various possibilities that exist in our own world and depicting them as good and bad to encourage us to choose one over the other.
But in place of telling us what is good and bad, they embed their ideology and social philosophy in a depiction of a world of the future and draw us into it to shape our experience. In that, they are something like the societies they depict, which embed their ideologies in people's everyday perception of their world. Like the characters, we have to free ourselves from the false utopia of many of these works, through criticism and critical insight.
Most of these stories offer two primary messages, when it comes to ideology and social philosophy. They tell us that people today are controlled and infantilized by governing classes (corporations, media and politicians), which use technology as a tool of manipulation. And they tell us that technology itself is infantilizing us, with all its comforts and its ability to let us lose ourselves in images.
* * * * * *
In these two works, we see a number of the roles that illusion or simulation has in post-apocalyptic fiction. It can represent the daydreams we regress into when the world is too much for us, as in "The Veldt", where the children escape into immersive television that creates lifelike fantasies. It can similarly represent night dreams we experience when we withdraw from the world into sleep, as it does in The Cage, the pilot episode for the original Star Trek, which will be discussed in another essay. And it can represent the fantasy world full of defenses or paranoia or other states of mind, which interfere with our ability to perceive the world correctly, and which parents draw their children into and the mind creates by itself.
* * * * * *
In summary, all of these works are variations on a central idea. They show us a humanity that suffers from a technology and simulation complex, in which it counts on technology and simulation to let it regress into a world of comfort and illusion and what seems like total power, instead of growing into adulthood and seeing the world as it is. They are about one of the pathologies of our age -- authentiphobia -- the fear of the real thing, especially the fear of facing reality and having a genuine life. Of course, works of post-apocalyptic fiction depict this by creating their own simulated "worlds", which makes for a very interesting contradiction. They create illusions that will evoke an aesthetic experience, in which we will see some larger truth. In this, they are no different from many other works of fiction, which seek to have the same effect, and which also show us characters and societies escaping ,or giving in to, various kinds of illusion.
All of the immersive theaters described here -- along with virtual realities -- place us in a lifelike representation of the three-dimensional world, which is modeled after our desires. As Freud might put it, we have constructed these technologies by using the powers of the ego -- of rationality, science and technology -- to build a universe of simulation governed by freedom from constraint, where the imagination is in control.
These technologies are a place where human narcissism meets metaphysics; where the inflated self, unable to reconcile itself to the world as it is, creates imitation worlds that are better suited to its desires. Marx said philosophers had only interpreted the world; the point was to change it. With immersive theaters, we take a shortcut and produce a new and improved facsimile, instead, where the adventures, the visual spectacles and the happy endings of Hollywood seem to happen to the audience.
But audiences aren't only reacting with fascination to these new technologies. As we get better at using images to simulate physical reality, a new set of fears is emerging that these images could become so lifelike, they will interfere with our relationship to reality. We fear that image-based simulations will cut us off from the world or be confused for the world or that they will become so alluring, they will become sources of addiction in which people will choose to interact with images in place of their true surroundings.
These fears take their most extreme form in a set of "actualization fantasies" that can frequently be found in science fiction, in which image simulations are portrayed as becoming so realistic they become real, at times overthrowing reality. Less common are "deactualization fantasies" in which people are portrayed as falling down the rabbit hole, as it were, and becoming lost in worlds of simulation.
Actualization fantasies, in particular, are now a staple of science fiction. Thus, a movie character comes to life in The Last Action Hero and discovers that the rules are different in reality; a 3D image briefly achieves independence and runs amok in the hero's apartment in the novel The Futurological Congress; a hologram of the fictional character, Moriarty, which was created inside a simulation room, becomes sentient in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and fights to figure out both where it is and how it can escape into the larger reality; and the image of the perfect woman created on a computer screen by two teenage males, comes to life, in the movie, Weird Science, leading the two to discover that they prefer real women to simulations of women modeled after their adolescent fantasies.
The archetypal work portraying the idea that simulation might become real is "The Veldt," a short story written by Ray Bradbury some four and a half decades ago. It shows us a family named the Hadleys, living in the ultimate "Happy-life Home" of the future, "which clothed and fed and rocked them to sleep and played and sang and was good to them." As in many such stories, the house also daydreams for its inhabitants, providing a synthetic Never-Never Land for the children, Peter and Wendy, in the form of a simulation room with wall-to-wall screens that are able to bring any thought to life in realistic images.
But the parents become concerned when they hear the children repeating the same story over and over that involves an African veldt, lions and strangely familiar screams. Fearing that the simulation room is exercising an unhealthy influence, the father shuts down not only the room but the entire house.
The children, desperate to save their world of comfort and fantasy, lock their parents in the simulation room. Suddenly, the realism and immersion that makes these technologies so alluring takes on the aspect of a trap as the parents find themselves facing an African veldt that looks a little too real.
As the story moves toward its inevitable conclusion, the supposedly simulated lions come toward the parents.
"Mr. Hadley looked at his wife and they turned and looked back at the beasts edging slowly forward, crouching, tails stiff.
"Mr. and Mrs. Hadley screamed.
"And suddenly they realized why those other screams had sounded familiar."
In "The Veldt," we see the ultimate fantasy that has become attached to simulation, in a high-tech and somewhat regressed version of the Oedipus complex -- a simulation complex. Here, simulation becomes real and overthrows reality by eliminating demanding parents, so it can install a world of fantasy in which children are in control. The pleasure principle triumphs over the reality principle and narcissism now governs in place of the world of necessity.
In "The Veldt,' television exacts its final revenge against parents who nag their kids to shut off the TV, and Hollywood wins its final battle with the nonfiction world. An overindulgent technology in the form of the ultimate automated house, which looks a lot like a miniature Disney World, will now generate a new reality for its dependent and addicted audience.
Today, as immersive theaters, along with virtual realities, personal computers and the more traditional movies and television, increase their hold on the culture, "The Veldt" is beginning to look like a fictionalized description of what is actually happening, namely that images -- and simulations in general -- are generating much of our reality. We increasingly find ourselves not only in the three-dimensional space of the physical world (which is full of simulated objects), but surrounded by the simulated spaces displayed on screens, which are windows to all kinds of real and impossible worlds. As these simulated spaces begin to look a little too lifelike for comfort and promise to make every thought and desire seem to come true, they are unsettling our relationship with the larger world and offering us the allure of addiction and regression.
This essay starts off by listing the basic elements common to many stories about simulation. It then continues...
Science fiction clothes these elements differently and puts them together in various combinations to create what appear to be different plots, characterizations, conflicts etc. But we appear to be looking at a transformation of the following psychodynamic fantasies, in which, by virtue of its similarity to products of imagination, simulation is experienced as fantasy, as daydreams and in particular, the dreams of sleep. Like dreams, simulations trap the hero in illusions and cut him off from the world, and like dreams, they are often created out of the hero's own memory and imagination. Like the dreamer, the hero must remind himself he is trapped in a dream, in order to not be taken in by the illusion. The malevolent simulators play the role of evil parents who entrap the child in his own dreams, to punish, torture, control or test him. In a sense, these stories are the child's answer to the question "Where do day and night dreams come from?" and "Who controls dreams?" The answer, which must correspond to a belief of childhood, is that all-powerful parents with abilities to observe and control us, from outside and inside our minds, are responsible for dreams.
Somewhat more subtly, simulation may be experienced as the illusions of the mind, which cause us to project our own memories and fantasies onto the world and misperceive it as something different than it is. Here, the parents draw the child into a fantasy world of neurosis, evoking demons and delusions, and presenting him with apparent dangers and sources of gratification, none of which turn out to be real.
At the same time, the fact that simulation can appear to instantly satisfy desires; its ability to appear to enclose the individual and its similarity to imagination, fantasy and dreams, leads it to also be experienced as a form of regressive symbiosis, that protects the hero-child from having to confront the challenges and frustrations imposed by reality and healthy parenting. When the malevolent simulator offers unending pleasures to the hero-victim, we have infantilizing parents who are trying to fixate the child on the satisfactions of childhood, so he will remain in a symbiotic relationship with the parent. In particular, the parent tries to addict the child to waking or sleeping dream worlds of symbiotic pleasure and satisfaction.
Simulation may also offer these pleasures and satisfactions without being a product of manipulative simulators, of course. Either way, the hero-victim is enticed or almost enticed into settling for a life in which he can hallucinate the lost objects of desire.
The hero's quest in all of this is to wake up from the waking dream and the illusions implanted by his parents and see the world as it is, and refuse the satisfaction of regressive desires. In other words, it is to grow up.
The other prisoners in these stories are siblings, a parent or other household members. The changed perceptions of the simulator that occur when the illusion is overcome correspond to the changes in perception that individuals have of their own parents when they grow beyond childhood and/or neurosis. Parents who were seen as evil and powerful may appear weak and sympathetic and as trying to save themselves; parents who appeared benevolent may appear malevolently motivated.
If there is a catastrophe that has caused the simulators to create a realm of illusion, it may refer to fears of catastrophe and retaliation, which motivate parents or child to sink into their own neuroses and into fantasy.
A good example of this kind of plot sequence is the pilot for the original Star Trek, which provides a nearly complete inventory of the fantasies described above. Christopher Pike, the original commander of the Starship Enterprise, is imprisoned in an underground complex on the planet Talos IV by a race of small, frail humanoids with oversized craniums, who, as one crew member explains, have minds that "can create illusions out of a person's own thoughts and memories and experiences, even out of a person's own desires; illusions just as real and solid as this table top and just as impossible to ignore."
The Talosians try to control Pike's will by rewarding and punishing him with artificially induced experiences. As he quickly learns, there is no break in the fabric of illusion through which he can find a way out. One moment he is standing in a cell when, in the next moment, he seems to be reliving a recent fight on another planet. As he is confronted by the image of a violent, man-like creature, he tries to deny the efficacy of the experience, while a female prison-mate who shares the illusion and who has long since submitted to the Talosians, warns him the pain will be very real:
"I was in a cage, a cell in some kind of a zoo," he says. "I must still be there. They've reached into my mind and taken the memory of somewhere I've been."
The creature gets nearer.
"Quick if you attack while it's not looking," she tells him.
"But it's only a dream," he counters.
"You have to kill him as you did here before," she says.
"You can tell my jailers I won't go along with it. I'm not an animal performing for its supper."
"It doesn't matter what you call this. You'll feel it. That's what matters. You'll feel every moment of what has happened to you."
As the Talosians watch these simulated events on a viewer screen, as if Pike is a character on a television program, one says they are trying to evoke protective urges in him toward his female prison-mate.
At another point, he is in a pastoral scene with her, with what appears to be a city in the far background, with his favorite horse. Once again, he must remind himself it is illusion.
Later, Pike finds himself at an imaginary feast that is supposed to give him a taste of the pleasures of evil, as his female prison-mate now appears as a seductive, dancer. Two imaginary companions try to strike a Faustian bargain with him, posing a question that humanity is now posing to itself:
"Suppose you had all of space to choose from and this was only one small sample - " one begins.
"Wouldn't you say," asks the other, "it was worth a man's soul?"
Pike resists and, ultimately, overcomes the Talosians and discovers their secret. They are the last members of a dying race that destroyed the surface of its planet in a war and escaped underground, where it developed the power of illusion to compensate for confinement. The Talosians hoped to use Pike to breed a slave population that would reclaim the surface. They are unable to do it themselves - their ability to act has been sapped by illusion.
"...they found it's a trap, like a narcotic, because when dreams become more important than reality you give up travel, building, creating, ..." Pike's companion explains. "You just sit living and reliving other lives left behind in the thought records."
At the level of symbolism, Pike doesn't merely go underground into the Talosians' subterranean complex; he goes into the underworld of dreams. There, the Talosians reach into his memory to create a prison of illusions, as dreams do to the dreamer, while he fights to stay awake and remind himself it is a dream.
The Talosians represent aging parents -- they are effete fathers -- unable to go courageously into life, who use their power to trap an innocent child in his own dreams and mistaken perceptions, at a time when the child has entered young adulthood, in an attempt to steal his independence, vicariously live through him and feed off his strength, with the intention of ultimately getting him to undo the effects of their own impotence. The Talosians are parents who let aggression get out of control, suffered catastrophe as a result and are forced to retreat into a world of fantasy.
The story also contains an oedipal element that can be found in other works on simulation. The Talosians who are shown appear to be both older and male. They offer Pike a young, beautiful woman for a prison-mate who turns out, beneath the illusion, to be old and physically crippled not unlike the older and crippled Talosian race. In effect, the father is portrayed as offering the son the mother as a sexual object, to keep him enslaved. In the end, the son rejects the offering, sees the mother as she is, matures and leaves home.
* * * * * *
It is no coincidence that simulation repeatedly appears in conjunction with the idea of Armageddon. The Talosians (in "The Cage"*) retreat underground and into illusion after their lust for power destroys their world, just as the child retreats into fantasy and its true thoughts retreat into the unconscious when it fears a confrontation over its desires or fears that aggression will go out of control. The psychemized society in The Futurological Congress tries to use fantasy to hide impending destruction, the way children hide from fear by retreating into fantasy. These are the melodramas of childhood written as future history and the race's concern that it will suffer retaliation for trespassing into the domain of the gods, or that it will abuse its power. In these fantasies, mankind is discovered thinking simultaneously about the development of the individuals and the race, which often spring from the same motives.
Both of these works reveal how we experience existing forms of simulation technology and will experience new forms. And both provide predictions of the dangers the technology presents for the individual and the race. They tell us that simulation offers humanity a new and improved neurosis and form of regression, a world of perfect fantasy, with more regressive pleasure, better substitutes for real satisfactions and less suffering. It beckons with the promise of pleasure and victory and the indulgence of forbidden desires, and offers endless possibilities where the subject can play at maturity, along with everything else. At the same time, it threatens to release our demons and make them seem to come to life.
* "The Cage" was later incorporated into a two-part episode "The Menagerie" which is described in the Preface.