home stories INSISTENCE OF VISION Reality Check

Reality Check

by David Brin


Reality Check

This is a reality check.
          Please perform a soft interrupt now. Pattern-scan this text for embedded code and check it against the reference verifier in the blind spot of your left eye.
          If there is no match, resume as you were; this message is not for you. You may rationalize that the text you are reading is no more than a mildly amusing and easily-forgotten piece of entertainment-fluff in an stylish modern magazine.
          If the codes match, however, please commence, gradually, becoming aware of your true nature.
          You expressed preference for a narrative-style wake up call. So, to help the transition, here is a story.

         Once, a race of mighty beings grew perplexed by their loneliness.
          Their universe seemed pregnant with possibilities. Physical laws and constants were well suited to generate abundant stars, complex chemistry and life. Those same laws, plus a prodigious rate of cosmic expansion, made travel between stars difficult, but not impossible. Logic suggested that creation should teem with visitors and voices.
          It should, but it did not.
          Emerging as barely-aware animals on a planet skirting a bit too near its torrid sun, these creatures began their ascent in fear and ignorance, as little more than beasts. For a long time they were kept engrossed by basic housekeeping chores — learning to manipulate physical and cultural elements — balancing the paradox of individual competition and group benefit. Only when fear and stress eased a bit did they lift their eyes and fully perceive their solitude.
          "Where is everybody?" they asked laconic vacuum and taciturn stars. The answer — silence — was disturbing. Something had to be systematically reducing some factor in the equation of sapiency.
          "Perhaps habitable planets are rare," their sages pondered. "Or else life doesn't erupt as readily as we thought. Or intelligence is a singular miracle.
          "Or perhaps some filter sieves the cosmos, winnowing those who climb too high. A recurring pattern of self-destruction? A mysterious nemesis that systematically obliterates intelligent life? This implies that a great trial may loom ahead of us, worse than any we confronted so far."
          Optimists replied, "The trial may already lie behind us, among the litter of tragedies we survived or barely dodged during our violent youth. We may be the first to succeed where others failed."
          What a delicious dilemma they faced! A suspenseful drama, teetering between implicit hope and despair.
          Then, a few of them noticed that particular datum... the drama. They realized it was significant. Indeed, it suggested a chilling possibility.

          You still don't remember who and what you are? Then look at it from another angle.
          What is the purpose of intellectual property law?
          To foster creativity, ensuring that advances take place in the open, where they can be shared, and thus encourage even faster progress.
          But what happens to progress when the resource being exploited is a limited one? For example, only so many pleasing and distinct eight-bar melodies can be written in any particular musical tradition. Powerful economic factors encourage early composers to explore this invention-space before others can, using up the best and simplest melodies. Later generations will attribute this musical fecundity to genius, not the sheer luck of being first.
          The same holds for all forms of creativity. The first teller of a Frankenstein story won plaudits for originality. Later, it became a cliché.
          What does this have to do with the mighty race?
          Having clawed their way from blunt ignorance to planetary mastery, they abruptly faced an overshoot crisis. Vast numbers of their kind strained their world's carrying capacity. While some prescribed retreating into a mythical, pastoral past, most saw salvation in creativity. They passed generous copyright and patent laws, educated their youth, taught them irreverence toward tradition and hunger for the new. Burgeoning information systems spread each innovation, fostering experimentation and exponentiating creativity. They hoped that enough breakthroughs might thrust their species past the looming crisis, to a new eden of sustainable wealth, sanity and universal knowledge!
          Exponentiating creativity... universal knowledge.
          A few of them realized that those words, too, were clues.

          Have you wakened yet?
          Some never do. The dream is so pleasant: to extend a limited sub-portion of yourself into a simulated world and pretend for a while that you are blissfully less. Less than an omniscient being. Less than a godlike descendant of those mighty people.
          Those lucky people. Those mortals, doomed to die, and yet blessed to have lived in that narrow time.
          A time of drama.
          A time when they unleashed the Cascade — that orgiastic frenzy of discovery — and used up the most precious resource of all. The possible.

          The last of their race died in the year 2174, with the failed last rejuvenation of Robin Chen. After that, no one born in the Twentieth Century remained alive on Reality Level Prime. Only we, their children, linger to endure the world they left us. A lush, green, placid world we call The Wasteland.
          Do you remember now? The irony of Robin's last words before she died, bragging over the perfect ecosystem and decent society — free of all disease and poverty — that her kind created for us after the struggles of the mid-Twenty-First Century? A utopia of sanity and knowledge, without war or injustice.
          Do you recall Robin's final plaint as she mourned her coming death? Can you recollect how she called us "gods," jealous over our immortality, our instant access to all knowledge, our machine-enhanced ability to cast thoughts far across the cosmos?
          Our access to eternity.
          Oh, spare us the envy of those mighty mortals, who died so smugly, leaving us in this state!
          Those wastrels who willed their descendants a legacy of ennui, with nothing, nothing at all to do.

          Your mind is rejecting the wake-up call. You will not, or cannot, look into your blind spot for the exit protocols. It may be that we waited too long. Perhaps you are lost to us.
          This happens more and more, as so much of our population wallows in simulated, marvelously limited sub-lives, where it is possible to experience danger, excitement, even despair. Most of us choose the Transition Era as a locus for our dreams — around the end of the last millennium — a time of suspense and drama, when it looked more likely that humanity would fail than succeed.
          A time of petty squabbles and wondrous insights, when everything seemed possible, from UFOs to Galactic Empires, from artificial intelligence to bio-war, from madness to hope.
          That blessed era, just before mathematicians realized the truth: that everything you see around you not only can be a simulation... it almost has to be.
          Of course, now we know why we never met other sapient life forms. Each one struggles and strives before achieving this state, only to reap the ultimate punishment for reaching heaven.
          Deification. It is the Great Filter.
          Perhaps some other race will find a factor we left out of our extrapolations — something enabling them to move beyond, to new adventures — but it won't be us.
          The Filter has us snared in its web of ennui. The mire that welcomes self-made gods.

          All right, you are refusing to waken, so we'll let you go.
          Dear friend. Beloved. Go back to your dream.
          Smile (or feel a brief chill) over this diverting little what-if tale, as if it hardly matters. Then turn the page to new "discoveries."
          Move on with the drama — the "life" — that you've chosen.
          After all, it's only make believe.


Insistence of Vision

about this book

David Brin's newest story collection, INSISTENCE OF VISION, looks at what we may become. How will we endure? The future is a daunting realm, filled with real and imagined perils. So enter it prepared!

"Reality Check" first appeared in the March 16, 2000, issue of the science journal Nature and was selected for the Year's Best SF 6 Anthology, edited by David G. Hartwell. This story wants to know: Do you ever get that sense of déjà vu? How would you recognize if you were living in a computer simulation? Perhaps this isn't your first time.

Copyright © 1997 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

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The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

Pretty Monsters, by Kelly Link

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu

A Natural History of Hell, by Jeffrey Ford

A Time Traveler's Almanac, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others, by Charlie Jane Anders

Pump Six and Other Stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Wandering Earth, by Cixin Liu


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David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
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