Review by C.J. Bunce
Ancient philosophers have discussed the concept for millenia: What is the nature of life? Are we part of the plan of an architect of all things or do we have a say in our future? The latest exploration of this subject uses science fiction stories as analogies to these unanswered questions in The Simulated Multiverse, by Rizwan Virk. Virk skips over the scientific method to dabble in ideas of pseudoscience like Erich von Däniken or an episode of In Search Of…, blending bits of the history of science with the “what ifs” of a Dan Brown novel, James Rollins’ The Last Odyssey, or the Wachowskis’ The Matrix. It’s an interesting trip full of elements that are integral to understanding much of pop culture fiction. The book’s impetus is an obscure postulate by science fiction’s own Philip K. Dick, and the conversation interconnects everything from Sliders to Star Trek.
In 1977 science fiction author Philip K. Dick’s work had spun far from his imaginative speculative science fiction that produced The Man in the High Castle and Time Out of Joint to the more bizarre, with characters frequently imprisoned by their addictions. By that point he’d experienced drug-induced hallucinations himself that manifested in his work, but in 1977 Dick discussed in a speech the idea that he could see alternate pasts. Dick had embraced the concept that the past is really what the majority of us remember it as, but that a minority may be able to recall entirely different pasts, which is now seen as the Mandela effect. That concept sprouted from people who thought Nelson Mandela had died long before he actually did (humans often make poor expert witnesses). In a speech Dick added another idea: “We are living in a computer-programmed reality… that in some past time-point, a variable was changed–re-programmed as it were–and that because of this, an alternative world branched out.” This was more than two decades before the movie The Matrix, and these kinds of thoughts and writings from Dick influenced the film’s creators, the Wachowskis, and many other science fiction tales. Beyond the science fiction, most today believe these ideas belong exclusively to the imaginative world and would call this the stuff of paranoia and conspiracy theory if applied to real life. But that’s precisely where Virk takes readers.
The problem with these ideas when applied to actual science, of course, is that they ignore the scientific method, and are more easily explained with the application of simple logic, which Virk chooses to skip over in The Simulated Multiverse, probably because the truth is not really as strange as fiction. Just as Archimedes posed that “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” most of the ideas Virk introduces have a more staid real-world explanation. In a sense The Simulated Multiverse feels like an effort to use smoke and mirrors to blend and popularize the possible with the improbable, like quantum science principles compared to the time bending and parallel Earth-hopping of the DC’s television Arrowverse. Virk’s voice in his writings sounds a lot like Fox Mulder in The X-Files. He writes with authority, but the content is more TED talk musings than scholarly.
Speaking of the Arrowverse, the fun of the book–so long as you acknowledge this is more fantasy than reality as Virk doesn’t offer any proofs or hard science to connect his ponderings–is like watching Unsolved Mysteries. Virk connects Run Lola Run, Fringe, Counterpart, Sliders, Sliding Doors, Black Mirror, and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (but no reference to Tron or Jumanji?), with Old School computer roleplaying games, the broad scope of modern computing, 3D, and virtual reality, with a tangent trip into fractals, chaos theory, and Mandelbrot sets.
Although the author incorporates into each of his sections the building blocks of science to explain the history of philosophic thought, picking up on things from the Mandela effect to Schrödinger’s cat, multiverses, and alternate timelines, he makes no actual case for either the existence of a multiverse or humans being locked into their own Matrix. His writing relies heavily on the use of innuendo and the red-flag phrase “many believe,” “many think,” etc., without citations following established, accepted methods (including too many references to his own past work and a colleague expert he inexplicably refers to only as “Bruce”).
In the 21st century everyone should be familiar with the concepts explained in The Simulated Universe. These ideas are the backbone of lots of fiction, and can be the beginnings of real scientific study. So Virk’s efforts here can be a kind of introduction in the way that writings about aliens building the pyramids–back to von Däniken again–have provided many a kid a roadway to real science and history–it can be engaging and even fun. Just realize that this is not a scientific study or text, but closer to speculative fiction, which–once in a while–can produce an odd bit of truth. What is missing is the ramifications to a society if the author were to be correct–in an age where fringe groups grasp conspiracy over science we could find ourselves in a dangerous fix if someone believed nothing was real and Virk’s ideas are mis-translated into peoples no longer needing to be responsible for their actions. And that’s where science fiction would turn into the stuff of horror.