ThemesSome of the main themes of the novel

1. How do I know this is real?

One of the main themes of the novel Virtually, from a narrative standpoint, is the assumption that the reality that J. (the protagonist) is in is not real. But this in turn engenders the questions, What is real, and how can he prove this reality isn't? For any reality, virtuated or the real thing, to stand up to inspection, it must be credible and consistent. The latter is more important than the former: even an incredible reality can be mistaken for the real thing if it is consistent for long enough. This is how delusions arise, by misconceptions believed and not contradicted for a great length of time. Schizophrenics hear disembodied voices for years, and this is their reality. The non-religious see daily occurrences that support their non-belief, just as the religious see ones that support theirs. There is a lack of contradiction that might otherwise make them say, What I think is real isn't. If you were to wake up tomorrow and find your whole life had been a dream, and confronted with a radically different you, in some other world, ask yourself the question, How could I ever have believed any of it? - well, the answer would be simple: after all those decades of living in it, how could you not believe it?

The following, from Chapter 6 of the novel, encapsulates some of these ideas.

... he was stricken once again by a feeling of alienation, out-of-placeness, brought on by something mind-numbingly mundane: a string of cars roaring past. It struck him as such an ungainly and improbable invention, the car, something hard for him to reacclimatize himself to. He found himself smiling at the cuteness of the VR program he had helped to create, perfect from the inside but far from perfect as seen from without, corners cut all over the show, huge gaping holes papered over with the thinnest of fabrications. The chop-chop age: that was the best of them, and most extreme, the hardest one for him to unaccustom himself to, having to get used to this slow-slow world again, of planes and cars, ovens and microwaves. He could barely believe in them. Microwaves? How could anyone bear to use something so slow? The trouble stemmed from the fact that the VR software was so far ahead of the hardware. If you travelled from A to B the hard way, the long and slow way, the data retrieval units would have to work their socks off just to keep up, projecting scenery whenever you looked, a mountain of information. The technology would be stretched to the limit. And occasionally - not often, it was true, but then once was too much - it would be stretched beyond the limit, tripping up, running dry of data. A hole would open up in the VR world. Not exactly conducive to believability, looking up at a VR sky in the middle of day and seeing the fabric tear and open up, a white nothingness revealed behind, a blaze like the sun gone nova. The hole would close again, of course, double quick time, but the damage would have been done, the credibility ruined, doubts about the reality of reality creeping in and undermining the program. It was a problem they were working on, would eventually crack, simply a case of waiting for the hardware to catch up; for now, it was simply swept under the carpet. Travelpods and Instacookers had been invented to gloss over the problem, nothing more than contrivances, although they were convincing enough.

In the reality J. has come from, for the convenience of the VR program, cars and microwaves have been obliterated, replaced by instantaneous travel and cooking. Improbable, but if that is your reality, day in, day out, why wouldn't you believe it?

2. What is reality?

The question 'What is real?' is tackled in the novel from a philosophical standpoint. Many thinkers through the ages have contemplated the same question. J. keeps a journal of philosophical musings, perversely at a time in the plotline when he is a mental health patient, and therefore least in possession of his faculties. The following is from Chapter 11:

May 16. I'm making great strides, although with every step forward, there's a smaller step backwards too. Because it always leaves me with a tickling of doubt. I step out of VR and I wonder how I can ever trust reality again. But then I remind myself that everyone experiences the same thing, every day of their life, albeit in a much watered down form: "I had a dream in which I was a butterfly, and now I don't know if I'm a man who dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I'm a man." I simply have to get on with things, have to accept this world and live my life, knowing it might all be a dream and at the same time having to quell that doubt in order to remain rational and sane. The same as anyone does. And I use the word "quell" advisedly. Not quash or expunge, merely subdue, allay, suppress. My doubts about reality are a vital part of me, help to define me. How can I ever excise so crucial a part of myself? The scalpel of psychological examination is not so fine that it can slice away doubts such as these and leave me whole. They're woven into my psyche. They're a part of my mental make-up. I've been exploring some idealist philosophy lately, in particular the works of Berkeley. Esse est percipi: the cornerstone of his whole philosophical edifice, To be is to be perceived. Although he doesn't mean that everything is illusory. Berkeley has "proved all things a dream" thought W.B. Yeats. That's merely the bastardized version of his philosophy. As far as Berkeley himself was concerned, all you know about the world, and all you can know, are your perceptions of it. If I'm sitting in a chair in a room, then I know the chair exists (it exerts pressure on my buttocks and back and I can feel it) and I know the room exists (I can see it) and perhaps I also know, as I do now, that Corelli's Concerto Grossi exist (because I can hear them being plinked and plunked by the string orchestra on my CD player in the background), but as for the rest of reality, who can say. Perhaps all the people in my world are mere ghosts, who evaporate when they leave my presence. The world itself is pure fiction, a construct, forming ahead of me and disintegrating behind. Obviously, this isn't true, and I, like everyone else, know it isn't; but it might be true, and I, like everyone else, might only think I know it isn't. Berkeley's philosophy is in perfect accord with VR. He would have loved it. Although it wasn't only Berkeley who had such "all is illusion" misgivings. They've been commonplace through all history. Take the Vijnanavadins, for instance, 4th (or 2nd?) century Buddhists who held that the reality we perceive is no more real and tangible than the images a monk calls forth during meditation. According to them, the only thing I can know to be real is my consciousness of the momentary interconnectedness of the events that make up the cosmic flux. Those events... they can be anything, VR simulated, it doesn't matter. Only my consciousness of them is real. Only me. Only the I perceiving, not the thing perceived. The world to Berkeley and the Vijnanavadins was simply an agglomeration of sensations, something fashioned in the mind to mimic the reality that lies outside the mind. A VR world is no more nor less than this, a mere collection of sensations.

Ultimately, the question 'What is real?' is not answered, though the denouement of the novel hints at the real reality. This seems fitting, as it is a question we can all pose but never, truly, be sure of having answered.

3. The nature of dreaming

Many is the time we have all been enmeshed in a dreamscape, convinced it is real. But just how real was it? Just what does it take to trick the dreaming senses? Probably not that much. If you dream, and in your dream you hear a piece of classical music (Bartok's 5th quartet, for the sake of argument), and the dream is completely realistic, what would that mean? Would you hear every note, every colouration of every instrument? Is that even possible? More likely, you would hear very little. You are, quite literally, hypnotised (from the Greek hypnos, sleep), highly suggestible. Surely that arch hypnotist, your brain, would merely need to command you 'hear Bartok's 5th quartet', and you would, without even hearing a single note. The following is from Chapter 11:

Because a VR world, while it was meant to mimic the real one and seem as solid and tangible and 3D, was by comparison insipid and flat, full of cardboard cutouts and unreal padding. It was all sheer fakery. Had to be: the hardware still wasn't sophisticated or high-powered enough to make it otherwise. Very cleverly done though. You would never notice, from the inside. You could look, say, at a VR painting from a distance, hanging on a white wall by an open doorway; you could see the sumptuous detail and colour of it and marvel at the craftsmanship; and you would never realize that all you actually perceived was a dullish smear of colour together with the message, This is a painting with sumptuous detail and colour. If you looked closely at it, then that was another matter, but from a distance, that was all it was, a smudge of colour and the relevant label, just as the wall it was on was merely a faint sensation of white tickling the brain and the word, Wall, with the open doorway simply an impression of emptiness and the information, Doorway here. The whole VR universe was simply a flat backdrop, blurred, out of focus, in front of which cutout figures pranced and paraded. It was testament to just how simple were the basic mechanisms of the human brain, that so complex an organic machine could be so completely taken in by it.

4. The dangers of immersion

to be continued

5. The curative power of an artificial reality

to be continued

6. Schizophrenia, telepathy, and clairvoyance

to be continued

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Buy the e-book version of Virtually online via (UK readers), and (North America).

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