Reality check

The afternoon after the sleepless night hasn’t gotten any better. But I’m trying.

One thing I did during the night was finish a seriously creepy book, But the Stars, by Peter Cawdron. This is one of Cawdron’s many books in his “First Contact” series, where he imagines humanity meeting aliens for the first time, in every way imaginable. Well, at least in 20+ ways – there are a lot of books in this series. The guy is an excellent author and his output is…intimidating. Dude is a writer.

In But the Stars humanity meets its first alien intelligence a long way from Earth, on an interstellar voyage with nine crewmates. The book’s beginning is frustrating – it’s a bunch of repetitive short scenes with small changes. But there’s method to the madness.

<SPOILER ALERT> Turns out these aliens are capable of mind control, and they hijack the consciousness of the crew. The crew doesn’t even know they’ve been boarded and held captive. Each crew member’s consciousness is started then ended, over and over in various scenarios, as the aliens experiment to try and understand humanity.

It’s a twist on the Matrix, where you’re not sure if you’re in reality or a simulation. You can’t trust anything you see or remember – you’re not even sure if you’re you or a simulation of you. But in this case the bad guys aren’t machines and you’re in deep space with no one coming to help. Cawdron does a great job showing how little details give the crew hints that something’s wrong, and eventually – after decades – they begin to understand that their minds have been hijacked and they’re captives of…something. Like I said, creepy.

The mind control /telepathy thing is a good twist, but it’s a classic deus ex machina – a made-up device or concept that enables an otherwise unlikely story. In this case the device is revealed partway through the book, not at the end. But I classify it as such because the likelihood of us being able to communicate with an alien intelligence are pretty slim. Even now we’re pretty sure that dolphins, elephants, and whales are intelligent. They have a consciousness and they communicate with each other. But we can’t understand them at all, and they’re terrestrial Brothers right here on Earth. So what chance do we have to understand some ammonia-breathing, supercooled arachnid from Gliese 710?

Something about But the Stars hit me in a way that The Matrix didn’t. Perhaps it was the loneliness, the distance from Earth as the crew was captured. Really, truly alone. Or perhaps it was that they had to suffer not knowing what or who was real, over and over. In The Matrix you were either in or out, and when humans occupying reality went back in, they knew that they were in a virtual world. Cool, but not terrifying.

Both of these stories remind me that even as I sit here looking out over the vineyards, I can’t know if this world we occupy is real or is a very, very good simulation. None of us can. And it doesn’t really matter; I can be agnostic about it. Don’t care. If this is the Level 0 universe, the reality at the bottom of everything, well, that’s nice. And if this is the 10th-level simulation of a simulation, so what? It’s still our reality. I would find it fascinating if someone ripped a hole in our reality to reveal something else beyond, but I’m not holding my breath. That’s pretty much Lovecraft’s whole thing. And in that case, I prefer Cthulu stick to its dimension and I’ll stick to mine.

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