So, subsequent to writing that post, I pulled out my copy of the book and re-read it. My worn copy – see image at left – is a Bantam Books paperback edition, original price 40 cents, published in July 1964.
Sure enough, the book and the New York Times column that was the subject of my previous post share similar themes. In fact I’m not the only person to notice this. Several online NYT commenters mentioned Simulacron-3.
I’ll discuss the common themes below, but first I want to make an observation about the publishing history of Simulacron-3.
Some years ago I wanted to re-read this book. (Perhaps because of the movie The Matrix which came out in 1999 and may have been influenced by Simulacron-3.) The copy that I read when growing up on the farm in the 1960s was long gone, and the book was out of print, but I found and purchased a used copy. That is the book pictured above.
Simulacron-3 has long been out of print, but it was reprinted on August 9, 2019. See the listing for Simulacron-3 on Amazon. The New York Times column that was the subject of my previous post was published on August 10, 2019. See Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? Let’s Not Find Out. Coincidence? It would not surprise me if Prof. Preston Greene, the author of that NYT column, was influenced by Simulacron-3.
In any event, what was Simulacron-3 about?
The story was written in 1964. It takes place in 2034, then 70 years in the future. The future world in Simulacron-3 is overrun with “Certified Reaction Monitors,” a fancy name for pollsters. CRMs are constantly interrupting everyone to ask inane questions on every conceivable subject. The law requires that citizens stop what they are doing and respond. No one seems to like this, but nothing can be done. Approximately one fourth of all employment is related to polling. The government, concerned about unemployment and economic disruption, and also under the influence of the CRM union, will tolerate no changes to this obnoxious system.
Enter the private company Reactions, Inc. (REIN). Chief engineer Hannon Fuller created a “total environment simulator” that simulates a city of 10,000 people. Today we would call it a virtual reality or a sim world. They called it Simulacron-3 because it was their third attempt. The simulated people in Simulacron-3 can be studied “along the entire spectrum of human behavior” (p. 6) without polling. Eureka! No more need for annoying pollsters.
There are a few small problems. Hannon Fuller died under mysterious circumstances a week before the story begins. His assistant, Doug Hall, is now in charge of engineering. Morton Lynch, the chief of security at REIN and a close friend of Fuller, disappears. As protagonist Doug Hall tries to figure out what happened to Fuller and Lynch, the CRMs riot over the threat to their employment.
And there are other problems. The simulated people in Simulacron-3 are all too real. Interactions between the two worlds become tense.
But the biggest problem is when Doug Hall discovers that his world is itself a simulated world – that an “Upper Reality” created his world and populated it with CRMs for the purpose of studying people “along the entire spectrum of human behavior”!
Simulacron-3 is a thrilling adventure story involving romance, multiple double agents, and power struggles both within and between worlds. It is also intellectually stimulating with analysis of one of Zeno’s Paradoxes, explication of deus ex machina and cogito ergo sum, apt literary references from Dorian Gray to Gray’s Elegy (not the same “Gray”), and discussion of branches of philosophy that seek to answer the question: what is reality?
It is not necessary to reveal the ending to note a parallel theme between Simulacron-3 and the NYT column by Prof. Preston Greene. When the people in Upper Reality saw that people in the simulated world they created (Doug Hall’s world) became aware that they were living in a simulated world, the people in Upper Reality reacted in definite ways. They caused the death of Hannon Fuller (who was the first to figure things out but did not tell Doug Hall) and the disappearance of Morton Lynch. They caused the CRMs to riot and attack REIN. They tried to kill Doug Hall when he began to figure things out for himself. When all those efforts failed to halt Simulacron-3, they initiated the process to shut down the simulated world that they had created. The people in Upper Reality are planning to unplug Doug Hall’s world.
That is exactly what Prof. Preston Greene is worried about in his NYT column:
I am writing to warn that conducting these experiments [to determine if we live in a simulated world] could be a catastrophically bad idea — one that could cause the annihilation of our universe. … [I]f our universe has been created by an advanced civilization for research purposes, then it is reasonable to assume that it is crucial to the researchers that we don’t find out that we’re in a simulation. If we were to prove that we live inside a simulation, this could cause our creators to terminate the simulation — to destroy our world.
My take? Simulacron-3 is a good story. Enjoy it. I’m not losing any sleep over it.