Solipsis: Escape from the Comatorium

4 July, 2012

The rejected cover. 

So I've not been posting to Lumpy Junk in a while because my junk has been busy writing a novel called Solipsis: Escape from Jeff's Brain. The e-book was published yesterday. The paperback will be available in about a week.

This project started as a screenplay, and after several drafts, I decided to expand it into a novel.

Solipsis is my take on the Virtual Reality genre (See also: The Matrix, Inception, Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ, Neuromancer, Total Recall, Source Code, and Spy Kids 3-D).

I began by identifying the issues I have with Virtual Reality stories so that I can find a way to fix or circumvent those problems.

Problem # 1 

It's one thing to ask the audience to suspend disbelief. It's another thing to ask them to take your stupid ideas seriously. But Jeff, you say, if stories are totally realistic they'll be boring.

"Brain Spiral" The painting I picked for the cover.
 Used with permission from Laura Freeman
My contention is that you don't have to abandon logic and realism to have an exciting story. It's easy as hell to come up with cool shit if you don't actually have to stick to any logic at all.

Think about the Matrix. Why do the robots keep humans in the Matrix? So they can extract thermal energy from them. Does that make any fucking sense at all? No. It doesn't. You're telling me that this super intelligent AI couldn't come up with a better power source than comatose people? Not only are humans a terrible energy source, but they also have this nasty habit of waking up and, you know, being hackers. They're breeding hackers instead of figuring out geo-thermal energy, or utilizing their "form of fusion."

Basically The Matrix gives us an epic story of humans vs. robots in an awesome virtual reality where there is no spoon and explosions happen in slow-mo and shit looks cool.

But do you really have to abandon realism to tell that story?

What if the AI actually are keeping the humans alive and in a matrix set in pretty modern times because they need help from human computer programmers? The AI aren't quite creative enough to figure out all their problems, so they keep these human slaves and trick them into helping them. Instead of embracing a sensical story, we get sequels that ignore the billions of people inside the matrix and focus instead on a weird dirty city of raves and flying octopi.

See this post for what I would have done with the Matrix sequels.

Problem #2

If you are in a computer world and it's just some video game, then what the hell does it matter? Nothing's at stake. So if you're telling a story in a virtual reality, you have to find a way to make things matter.

The Matrix solves this by the amazing logic "If you die in the Matrix, you die in the real world."

It makes no sense at all, but hey, it leads to cool shit.

The Thirteenth Floor, another virtual reality film, made you switch bodies with your avatar, and if you die in the virtual world, the AI who you swapped with is suddenly in your body and you're dead. Huh?

In Surrogates, people remotely pilot robot bodies that aren't fat and ugly, living vicariously. The plot of  the film revolves around some new weapon that kills the people piloting the robot via some virus or original.

You can tell it's fake because of the pixels.
In Inception, at the beginning, dying simply wakes you up. This is much more realistic, and leads to interesting situations where people can be tortured and you might want to kill your friend to free them from torture. The stakes are still there because they are trying to accomplish a mission and dying/waking up prevents them from doing that, and can get them in trouble in the real world.

But rather than embrace this, they change the rules shortly thereafter so that dying sends you to limbo. The movie makes it work, but it's much less realistic.

Why do dreams have to make any sense when it comes to biology/death/physics? Add onto that the pretty non-sensical idea of "militarized sub-conscious." Really? It's movie logic, so okay, it's exciting, but ultimately pretty shallow.

Problem #3 

Virtual Reality movies embrace ambiguity for ambiguity sake. For example, the whole ending to Inception rests on this (maybe) twist-ending. Is he still dreaming or isn't he? I've written about Inception in more detail, but my beef here is that this ambiguous ending is totally uninteresting. It thinks it's really clever, but it isn't.

Beyond that, I don't get any pleasure out of watching things purposely not resolve and pretend to be clever. Total Recall and eXistenZ also fall into this camp. The whole plot of both films centers around trying to figure out "are we still in the game/dream or aren't we?" It's as if Hollywood sees something shiny (ambiguous reality) and can't see past it. It's okay to introduce some ambiguity, but when the whole story is just a series of contradicting clues telling you one minute that it's real and the next minute that it's fake, then the whole thing seems like a philosophy major's circle jerk.

Problem #4
Wasted Opportunities

In the film Surrogates, the coolest thing they could
come up with was blonde Bruce Willis.
Talk about a golden opportunity.

If you are in a virtual reality, then you can do anything. Of course films are limited by budget constraints, but even within those limitations they still waste their chances left and right.

 For every cool thing in Inception there are five totally cliche things.

So in Inception, on one dream level, they're in a van, falling. This causes the dream world one level down to be in zero-gravity. So Joseph Gordon-Levitt ends up in a whacky gravity spinning fight, followed by a cool puzzle where he has to make sleeping people fall despite having no gravity to help him. So since falling in one level causes zero-gravity the next level down, then the zero-gravity in the hotel should cause zero-gravity in the next dream level down, thus leading to an awesome climax of the film taking place on a space station.

Except that didn't happen. Instead we get a final act set in the snow level from Goldeneye, where they have gravity...somehow. Add that up with the fact that Juno has the ability to bend the world, turn things upside down, do crazy shit to physics, and yet...after establishing these powers, never uses them again.

Problem #5
Bullets that never hit anything

Gun fights have serious realism issues because the main characters seem to dodge bullets. James Bond has dodged 4662 bullets in his film career. We can call this henchman syndrome or Stormtrooper's malaise. In Bond movies and regular action flicks, they have no explanation for this.

The most common way of getting around this issue is to have the bad guys want to capture the main character because they need them as a hostage or need some information from them.

Another way around this is to have main characters who have super powers (Superman, Wolverine, Jedis), equipped with superior equipment (Batman, Iron Man), or are hackers (Neo). Jedis and super heroes and Terminators can't just be killed by some idiot with a gun. But there are no such thing as super powers or the force or time-traveling robots, so how else can we have our main characters be powerful?

The worst tactic for dealing with this problem is to do nothing at all. Inception has no explanation for why these dream hackers are able to win every gun fight they are in. No explanation at all.

In the Matrix, realizing there is no spoon allows you to dodge bullets. But Neo can do it better than Trinity and Morpheus for some reason. Because he is the one...what does that mean exactly?

Why don't the agents just spawn with awesome machine guns instead of dodgeable pistols? Why not spawn with grenade launchers? There's absolutely no reason the agents only have these shitty pistols. Remember, they designed the world, they're in charge, and yet they play it out under these weird restrictions. Is it because spawning too awesome of weapons, or spawning wherever they want would be unsettling to the population and lead to people "rejecting" the illusion? If so, why not use that in the sequels. Maybe they start to get desperate and use bigger and better weapons, causing thousands of matrix dwellers to die.

This is what I'm talking about when I say wasted opportunities.

Jedi and Sith have a kind of future sensing intuition. This combined with a light saber makes them able to block bullets and lasers and sense their way out of problems. This is one of the main reasons Star Wars is good.

Paycheck, the film and the Philip K. Dick story, is about a guy who had been able to see the future, but his memory has since been wiped. But before the memory wiping, he mailed himself some clues that had to be seemingly innocuous. Thus you have a plot where a guy always has the exact right thing to get him out of any jam, kind of like a psychic Macgyver. Or you know...Q. That's an interesting way of explaining how your main character can get out of so many sticky situations.

Virtual Reality, body augmentation, trans and post-human worlds offer up super powers and such without the need for suspension of disbelief. I mean, the Matrix could have been about a guy whose just the most talented video gamer on the planet, with amazing reflexes and such. But instead he's fulfilling some kind of prophecy...

Which leads me to my next point:

Problem #6
Too many leaps of Faith

You get ONE leap of faith.

Movie Idea: Geese lay golden eggs that
are actually human heads. BWAH!

Back to the Future asks you to buy that Doc Brown built a time machine. That's the one leap of faith. If you buy that, everything follows pretty logically from there.

This is a principal of post-modernism. There's one weird thing, everything else has to follow logically from there. Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine, both Charlie Kaufmann films, require one leap of faith. In BJM it proposes that there's a portal into John Malkovich's brain. Beyond that one weird thing, everything else is believable. You don't have this weird brain portal AND time travel. Eternal Sunshine proposes that there's a procedure you can have to erase bad memories you don't want anymore.

The beauty of stories like this is that they are set in worlds that are different, thus the story can be original, but they aren't unbelievable worlds. Everything after the one weird premise has to make sense. If you drop the audience into a world with magic and clones and weird shit everywhere, they're going to have a hard time relating to characters or believing the world. I'm not saying it's impossible to do, it's just extremely hard to pull off.

The first three Indiana Jones films feature religious/mythological/occult kinds of things. So that's the audience's leap of faith. Then in Indiana Jones 4, Aliens show up... And it's not in a way that's related to the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. So now this story which has asked you in the past to believe in these religious artifacts is also asking you to believe in Ancient Aliens. Now if these ancient aliens were part of the Ark of the Covenant or Holy Grail stories (presumably with some kind of alien Jesus), then perhaps you could do it as a single leap of faith. But when the film asks you to make a second, unrelated leap of faith, everybody is like, WTF? Aliens. It's pretty weird to think about it, but Indiana Jones is set in a universe where Christianity is correct, AND there are weird aliens. Are the aliens Christians too? Did they have their own alien Jesus. (Idea for a movie: The Passion of the Beeblebrox).

The Matrix sequels start asking multiple leaps of faith, and that's where you lose a lot of people (Neo is the one in the matrix, AND he can make EMPs with his hands in the real world?).

So you get only get one leap of faith.

Having identified all these problems, I set out to create a story that followed those principals. In a few other posts written in the past year and a half, you'll see other principles of mine at work.

For example, I'm not a fan of over-the-top evil bad guys who have no apparent goals other than gaining power and being dicks to everyone. If you want there to be an interesting conflict, the way to do it isn't to come up with better trick photography and CGI, it's to come up with real dilemmas, hard decisions, you know, things that require thought.

Goals of Solipsis (Spoiler Free Section)

1. Realism. Logic. It all needs to make sense.

2. Have stakes without sacrificing realism (dying in virtual world will not kill you in real world. In fact, you can't die in the virtual world. You could be decapitated and you'd still be alive and in control of your body [good luck seeing where you're going]). Having said that, there still needs to be consequences, otherwise, what's the point.

3. Ambiguity is okay, but the plot won't just be a contradicting set of clues to which there is intentionally no answer.

4. Don't waste your opportunities. Don't resort to a simple gun battle.

5. No bullet dodging (unless there's a good reason for it). Bad guys have ability to aim guns in roughly the right direction.

6.  Only one Leap of Faith.

7. Make the main character's goals be more nuanced than simply "give me back my family" or saving the girl, etc.

8. Bad guys have actual goals and aren't simply evil dicks. It's not black and white, good vs. evil.

9. Don't use female characters as shrieking damsels.

10. Make this thing have some real ideas, not simply a way of coming up with excuses to have some action set-pieces.

Alright. Got all that? Now if you want to know more, here is the premise of the novel. I'll only reveal details that are established within the first third of the novel. Read at your own risk.


My novel supposes a near future in which people can be plugged into a shared neural network. While the Matrix just jams a metal rod in their necks, in my novel you have to have every nerve ending wired up. The only way to do that is through a procedure called a vivisection, in which the brain and nervous system is extracted from the rest of the body. You have to become a brain-in-a-jar.
I would have just ripped this off and
used it as the cover.

This setup creates some interesting circumstances. Only vivisected people can be plugged in, and once you are vivisected, your body is gone, you're a brain-in-a-vat. So this means that obviously not everyone is going to rush out to get this procedure done. It's a select few. And who would it be? The dying. This is a way of cheating death.

Vivisected people can either remotely pilot robots, like Surrogates, or they can live in the virtual world called Solipsis.

The few vivisected people are outcasts in a society of able-bodied people. They live in vats on an ocean platform, sharing a virtual reality world called Solipsis.

Since most people can't get the procedure, they rationalize it away as inhuman, barbaric, etc. That combined with the religious concepts of heaven and hell, and the fact that more Americans believe that angels exist than any other country's population, and you'll see a conflict brewing.

Ultimately the conflict in Solipsis comes about when a religious cult, thinking they are doing god's work, takes over the Ocean platform and takes the brains-in-jars hostage. The bad guy' goal is to restore god's order: People die, god judges them.

Taking over the virtual world of Solipsis, the bad guys create a virtual hell and put the vivisected people in it, torture them, try to convert them. These religious cultists don't think it's wrong to kill these vivisected people because they think god wants them dead. So it's not murder to them.

So that's the premise of the conflict, which takes place inside of Solipsis, a virtual world. The brain-jars are in a giant room called the Comatorium, hence the title.

Comatorium. Vivisection. Televator. Anybody get it yet?
So far everything is realistic, it asks no real big leaps of faith. The idea that we could hook a brain up to a computer is no longer a new idea, (nor even science fiction). People are already controlling prosthetics with their minds. They've augmented mice brains with microchips. So does anyone really think it's outlandish that fifty years from now they'll have the technology to plug directly into a virtual world and experience it just as you would the real world? Maybe it's not the most likely thing, but it's certainly more realistic than fighting a war against AIs that are keeping us in pods and using us as batteries or something.

This premise also takes care of the problem of stakes in a virtual world. The people of Solipsis are trapped in hell, being tortured, and they feel pain just as if it were really happening, and you can't even kill them to put them out of their misery  If you put a bullet in their head, they feel it, but it won't kill them. If you decapitate them, they feel it, but they aren't physically harmed in any way. So this leads to situations where main characters can be reduced to nothing but severed heads. The stakes here are high. Renee, the main character, has the ultimate goal of defeating the cult, taking back the station, but she also has smaller more immediate goals like helping comrades by relieving them of the pain of being tortured/decapitated etc.

That's not Stormtrooper Syndrome.
That's what happens when you eat Yoda's cooking.
As to the issue of stormtrooper syndrome, I avoid this problem by making Solipsis a virtual world where no guns or explosions are allowed. It's a safety measure built into the code (Solipsis is the main world, there are other worlds for playing games and such with other rules). This means that fights inside Solipsis don't come down to who has the better aim. The non-vivisected bad guys interact with this virtual world like they are playing a video game, so they don't feel pain, can't be physically harmed, but also don't have great control over their avatars. Since they are in control of the simulation, they have the high ground, can re-spawn, can change things, can make their avatars bigger, stronger, etc. BUT they are at a disadvantage because they're using a joystick and the vivisected people are controlling their avatars directly with their minds. So this avoids stormtroopers malaise, and explains the "super power" of the main characters.

As for wasting opportunities, you're just going to have to read the book and trust me when I say that I don't waste my opportunities. There is actually quite a lot more to this story, a couple of "holy shit" plot twists, and a I haven't even said a thing about the characters. Honestly this description barely qualifies as spoilers because it's doesn't give away much more than the premise.

The main character, Renee, is a teenage girl who has spent her whole life living inside of Solipsis. Much of the early plot is about her discovering the nature of her world, and is thus the audience's surrogate.

As for ambiguity, the story has some, but it's not about the ambiguity, it's just an added layer.

And really there is a lot more to the story than just the premise and the mechanics of the world. It's about the nature of the self, what it really means to be human, psychopathy, the neuroscience of free will, science vs. religion, what kind of life you live when you can essentially live forever (for example, does monogamy make sense when you're going to live hundreds of years?). So much of our lives is dictated by biology, so when we become post-biological, how will that effect us? Should death be a natural part of life?

This is right after he pulled a thorn out of its paw.
The conflict at the heart of the story is something that's very relavant. How will society adjust to the changes technology ushers in? Science and Religion are already fighting battles over science textbooks. In Louisianna they just started teaching that the Loch Ness Monster is proof that evolution is wrong. Once we start entering the transhuman and post-human realms, do you think the religious forces that are currently fighting against the ability of women to control their reproductive systems are going to just go along with it?

The conflict of my story is a conflict of ideas. The bad guys aren't just some evil robots who decided that humans are the enemy. In the future, the bad guys aren't going to be invading aliens or sentient robots. Hell is other people.

So that's what I've been working on. Really though, most of what I just wrote is what I was doing a year ago when I was writing the script. The last eight months has been a lot more about making scenes more interesting, giving characters more depth, and trying to make my writing not sound like a screenwriter wrote it. (Close up on cool shit. Pan over to reveal an awesome thing.)

After writing this project, and the months of thinking about it, it's time for me to start my next project, and it should be a topic that requires as little thought as possible: Sarah Palin.

P.S. Check out my new website.

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