I’ve just read a biography of Philip K Dick, perhaps well known for the films based on his stories – Blade Runner, Minority Report, Payback and Total Recall. No, I won’t be reviewing it here, I’ve been asked to do that for a magazine. That’s right, be impressed.
Dick was – to put it mildly – an interesting character, whose writings seem to have been a combination of science fiction speculation and exploration of his beliefs. To give an example, in his book Valis, he surmises that the Roman Empire never ended, that we’re actually living in AD 70, and that all the information to the contrary is artificial and is being fed to us by an external agency. As I say, interesting chap, and you can certainly see the influence of this kind of thinking in films such as The Matrix.
Dick believed that the world as we know it is not ‘real’ – or, at least, not the ultimate reality. That we could step out of our everyday existence like a gamepiece taking a leap off the board, and see the true, and full extent of reality – or, as he felt happened to him in 1974, that information about the true nature of reality could reveal itself to us. Not dissimilar in its way to Huxley’s comments about the doors of perception, the Gnostic and romantic ideas, and of course Plato’s concept of Ideals – that there is, for example, an ideal perfect image of a triangle, and any kind of attempt on our part to draw a triangle is just a faint echo of that ideal. And there are medieval woodcuts which show people poking their heads beyond the clouds of earth, and seeing the great cogs and levers that make keep the universe in motion.
It’s not a new idea, this one that if you could just peel away the accepted surroundings of reality like an actor tearing away the backdrop of a play, though interestingly it’s been loosely connected with modern scientific theories, such as superstring theory, in that they both seem to agree on the idea of additional dimensions (in superstring theory, often over a dozen additional ones, a notion which really bends the brain) existing in parallel, if not the same space (if you want to see more about the way modern physics and older ideas can converge, you could do worse than read ‘The Tao of Physics’ by Fritjof Capra).
However, I often find myself vaguely disappointed by the idea that there’s just the one reality lurking behind everything, that like Neo in the Matrix you could awake from the dream that you’ve believed to be real, and find yourself in the ultimate reality, whatever that may be. I find it more appealing to imagine that there may well be countless levels of reality lurking beyond the fringes of our perception, to be revealed slowly and steadily without end, like peeling at an infinite onion.
The form these infinite layers of reality might take is, of course, a sticky question, as is that of their origin, though I must admit I have a certain fondness for the idea that what we call fiction may in fact be a form of reality; that the fates visited upon fictional characters by their creators is not only reminiscent of the old idea that the gods play games with mortals, but is also in its way an echo of the manner in which our own demiurges manipulate our lives, as you or I might steer events in a game such as The Sims.
Scientists have, in some seriousness, put forward the idea that reality as we know it could be a simulation programmed by intelligences far beyond our understanding, and to my mind, that’s not a million miles from the idea that we could be characters in a story or other form of entertainment. The physicist David Bohm suggested (I paraphrase) that life makes little sense to us because it’s unfolding from a dimension beyond our comprehension. Which, again, I find resonant with the idea of existence as form of fiction (and vice versa), steered by unseen hands.
I suppose the idea that fiction has its own reality has its most obvious examples in fully-worked out and detailed fictional worlds such as Tolkien and Star Trek, but those stories which come without maps and technical schematics still have their roots in reality, as all stories are essentially born of ‘what if..?’ plus some extrapolation from life as we know it. Which suggests that all stories are effectively tales of worlds which developed differently from our own to greater or lesser extents… or, in other words, that they take place in parallel dimensions, where these things are as real as anything we hold to be real.
And of course the infinite number of stories that can be told links with the infinite nature of this situation as I like to imagine it (granted, it’s often said that there are only seven stories in the world, and all tales are just variations on that, but I’d argue by analogy that there are only three states of matter – well, four if you count plasma – and that the variations on those are similarly limited only by our imaginations, and we don’t seem close to running out of ideas for objects quite yet).
It’s a moderately strange notion, I guess, that there’s a parallel universe where Heathcliff stands brooding at the fireplace, and another where Wonder Woman’s just leaving Paradise Island, and yet another where Iago’s hiding a handkerchief (and so on ad infinitum), but I think it’s a more cheerful one than the notion that my understanding of reality is actually everything there is. Philip K Dick talked, in one of his final interviews, about other levels of reality, and asked ‘what if our world is their heaven?’ which is a good point, and makes me wonder whether upon departure from this realm we might similarly find ourselves in a dimension different from our own, but which, when viewed from outside, appears to be a mere fiction. You might leave this reality and rise to one where Columbo is a real person, but that reality might be an imaginary story when viewed from another realm.
What happens if you live in a story, and don’t know that’s the case? What happens when the story ends?
And is there any reason why those questions are any different for you and I on this level of existence, compared to the Columbo-is-real-universe referred to above? Why is that?
*Apologies to Arthur C Clarke