It’s been unreal
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Date: 23 November, 2006



'What if everything we experience is a lie, created by somebody intent on deceiving us?'


Science fiction author Philip Purser-Hallard looks at faith in an increasingly futuristic world.

The release in August of Richard Linklater’s film A Scanner Darkly brought to an end two years in which – inexplicably and scandalously – no cinema adaptations of novels or short stories by Philip K Dick had been produced.

It managed quite impressively to be both the most faithful film of Dick’s work yet released (the field includes Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report) and a fine cinematic experience in its own right.

This month, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige showed similar proficiency in adapting a novel by Christopher Priest, a science-fiction author whose work has never been filmed before.

Nolan’s borderline-SF historical fantasy stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as rival 19th-century stage magicians whose careers profit from the occult application of that quintessential Victorian miracle substance, electricity.

Both novels, and therefore both films, deal with unreliable perceptions – A Scanner Darkly using the mechanism of mind-altering drugs, The Prestige that of the deliberate misdirections employed by conjurers.


For both authors this is a recurring theme: virtual realities, alternative histories and fractured identities crop up repeatedly in their works. In a Dick or a Priest novel, the world is contingent, tentatively constructed by our own interpretations of it.

This is also a popular theme with modern film-makers – perhaps because we, their audiences, are becoming increasingly aware of how easily the media on which we rely for our understanding of the wider world can manipulate us.

Nolan’s earlier films – Memento, Insomnia, even Batman Begins – play games of twister with their characters’ perceptions, while higher-budget blockbusters such as The Truman Show, The Island and the Matrix trilogy have probed the issue of how far we can trust reality.

What if everything we experience is a lie, created by somebody intent on deceiving us?

It’s not an altogether new thought. The 17th-century philosopher René Descartes – a writer perhaps less likely to catch the attention of Hollywood – postulated that all his sensory impressions were being fed to him by an ‘evil demon’, before proceeding famously to conclude that he could at least be certain that he himself existed.

More recently Nick Bostrom, the director of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, has argued that we’re probably already living in a historical simulation run by our far-future descendants.


Christian consumers of film, science fiction and indeed philosophy may struggle with these ideas. Dick himself believed in a form of Christianity (as the title of A Scanner Darkly, updating 1 Corinthians, might suggest), but his highly personal theology was informed by the ancient Gnostic heresy, which holds that the world is an illusion created by an evil demigod. Several of his novels suggest that gods who seem ‘false’ inside such an artificial reality may be real outside it.

Priest, by contrast, is usually more concerned with the ways in which human beings deceive each other and themselves. Often his narrators come to realise that they are creating their worlds as they write, conjuring reality into being for their fellow characters.

I’m a great fan of both writers, and I believe that nothing is less likely than that the universe is exactly as I perceive it to be. I also understand the urge (present in Eastern religions such as Buddhism) to assign the all-too-visible evils of creation to the realm of illusion.

Nor do I have any evidence that our underlying reality is not that of a capricious conjurer or deceiving demon – or indeed a virtual-reality matrix.

Ultimately, though, all such theologies would have us wash our hands of the universe we see around us, in all its complex, often terrible beauty. My science-fiction fan’s sense of wonder is too highly trained to allow me to go along with that.

• A Scanner Darkly (film)
• The Prestige (film)
• Nick Bostrom’s ‘Simulation Argument’

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