Monday, 9 May 2022

The Last Reality Boom

Saw two Multiverse movies recently, one day after another actually; "Dr Strange: Multiverse of Madness" and "Everything, Everywhere, all at Once". This plus listening to a collection of Ted Chiang stories and Rick and Morty suggests is may once again be 'Steam Engine Time', which lead me to think about the last cinematic Reality Boom, from the late 90's/early 00's, that one not multiversal but hierarchal, its realities stacked within each other rather than arranged like beads on velvet; 



The big successful hit of this group, the one that entered pop culture, was the Matrix, but there were many more at the time  


[The Acceleration]
1982 - Tron
1983 - Videodrome
1990 - Total Recall
1992 - Lawnmower Man
1995 - Virtuosity


[Peak Dream]
1997 - Open Your Eyes (Spanish Original)
1998 - Dark City
1999 - The Matrix
1999 - The 13th Floor
1999 - eXistenZ
2000 - The Cell
2001 - Vanilla Sky (remake of Open Your Eyes) 


A slowly building acceleration of the various potential forms of the concept with a serious peak in 1999. Three films in one year about your reality being a lie, and all more similar to each other than is usual. 

I somewhat loathe the morality of The Matrix, and moreso as I get older. Everyone but an enlightened few is a drone and is fine to execute them if they get in your way, because you have access to a higher reality and are trying to free them from the conspiracy. A conspiracy which is actually, at this time, keeping them alive. 

And even if they are virtual, does that make it reasonable to kill them? Everyone, or nearly everyone, in the Matrix was 'real', meaning all their relationships, loves, hatreds, friendships, alliances and betrayals were 'real', even if organised in an unreal Matrix, but when it comes to killing robots and 'agents'; purely synthetic sentients, at exactly what point are you committing mind-crime? Did that weird octopus thing they EMP'd in one of the Matrix films have some digital data-kin who will be disappointed that particular squid is not coming home? Will they have a pre-saved copy who wakes up to be told "yeah we lost a previous instantiation of you, running time post this point was three years, sadly all data was lost and we don't know what destroyed them". If you are digital do you grieve for that other self? 

But everything is a dream and you are being kept in that dream by those that hate you, well *you* aren't because you are one of the chosen special few who have 'woken up', but that makes it completely legitimate for you to do whatever you want to both the dreamers and their guards. 

And on some level this doctrine is implicit in the 'simulated reality' genre, with its hierarchy between more-true and less-true worlds and its common themes of deception, conspiracy and subordination. There is very much a 'they' in the core 1999 films and the interests of the 'they' are in subduing, deceiving and controlling the minds of humanity, trapping them in dreams while they are somehow exploited and instrumentalised in the 'real'. 

I remember questioning this a little at the time. After all, once you accept that one reality can be simulated, how can you know that any future time in which you "wake up", you have entered the 'real' reality? If one can fool you another can, and even those agents and systems may themselves be fooled. 

Ultimately this leads us back to questions of morality in situations where there are multiples and layers of reality.




By comparison, the Many-Worlds hypothesis and its pop-cultural descendants have to me a more-pleasing cosmology with a greater but harder to realise potential for moral investigation. 

Harder to realise because the potential for infinite worlds actually means a lack of controlling or limiting structure and that seems to be part of the reason that the recent multiverse movies all basically default to very similar themes and emotional construction. 

First stage is nihilism, with grief and pain over particular paths chosen and a general sense of meaninglessness. Then with Dr Strange and EEAaO, a general reconciliation along the lines of core pro-social values and openness to change. 

Which, ok. Can't really argue with core pro-social values, and as for openness to change, well I don't like Hippies but I will accept a society of hippies over one of paranoid schizophrenic Marxists. 




Can't confirm absolutely but feels like that show and its disturbing over-plot about nihilism and near-infinite alternate selves has had a lot of strange children.

The idea of the Multiverse is hardly new, especially for comic readers and genre heads, but *this particular* boom does seem to feed off that show, as in I feel like a lot of the creators were watching it. 

Rick and Morty is very much trapped between the core nihilism and narcissism of its central premise and, I suspect, that of Dan Harmon, and the moral developments, more embedded in its structure than in any single episodes. Oddly, for a show which begins with the dominant character having the classic dark-multiverse point of view that 'everything is infinite therefore everything is both meaningless and disposable', it’s a show that refuses to throw anything away, and while realities might be disposed of, core experiences of its central cast are not, no matter how odd or surreal they are, which means it seems to grow morally, almost against its own will. 




It was easy to see the Virtual Boom feeding on a deep sense of alienation and paranoia, the separation from reality by a world of machines, but if that is the case, what weird subconscious trauma or energy is the Multiverse Boom channelling? Like the Virtual Boom many of its more notable fictions are about the sense of meaninglessness - but whereas the Virtual Boom often seemed related to a kind of anhedonia linked to isolation, disconnection and alienation through routine, the Multiverse Fictions seem to be more about shame, specifically the shame of paths not taken or relative failure compared to a desired or expected state, and to be about the meaninglessness of infinite options. In a cosmos where anything can happen and everything has happened, what does it mean that your particular events have happened? How does one find meaning in such a situation? 

It feels like the current Multiverse Boom is an unconscious immune response to social media, yes, but also the psychological tension and particular kind of alienation brought about by a massively more socially interconnected world. 

The Multiverse Movie  character often isn't 'trapped', 'controlled' or 'kept asleep' by some evil dominating power, they are more just lost, surrounded by infinite possibilities, the full extent of which make anything they can do or have done feel utterly empty, and are living with the anger and shame of their own choices and own life-path clearly not being the best, and often not even near medium, compared to how incredible they *could* have been if they just chose differently. 

This feels a lot like being connected to social media which, tbh, is a bit of a facile "vampires are syphilis" take but there we go. The SonderPain is fucking us up guys!



  1. I buy the 'unconscious immune response to social media', but also more generally the kind of cultural singularity that the internet and digitization seems to have enabled, everything exists all at once, worlds within worlds of cultural content are being generated at an increasing pace. I really enjoyed the Peak Dream period. Great piece :)

  2. The ever-present regret in society as manifested by the multiverse-as-FOMO is because there are too many podcasts to listen to. That is all.

  3. I found this one thought provoking and very clearly written, thanks man. Your content is awesome!

  4. I definitely thought this was going to be about like a Goldrush or Economic Boom for the stuff that makes up Reality by gods and corporate reality farmers to create new dimensions and worlds.

  5. This got me thinking of many, many anime, but I imagine the lists and discourse would be impossibly long to expand it that far.

  6. Maybe:

    In the 90s-00s the world is relatively peaceful and the future feels stable and predictable. One common narrative is of people with desk jobs, spending the days in front of computers, with no higher purpose except for earning money. And the fantasy of virtual reality is -- this boring meaningless everyday life is just a dream, there is a higher purpose that you can find, all you need is a moment of revelation to escape the Matrix.

    In the 10s-20s, the world feels unstable and riddled with crises (climate, pandemic, wars, Trump), everyone's supposed to take a stand and do their part (protest, lobby, vote, segregate rubbish, fight racism, argue on Twitter, what have you), the task seems impossible and futile. Then, the multiverse fantasy tells us that the overwhelming higher purpose we face every day is not that important, that even if we fuck up here, there are plenty of different worlds that aren't fucked, and even if we don't fuck up, someone else in a parallel reality will -- so we can just sit back and enjoy ourselves.

    (I'm not sure about these, they feel kinda simplistic and ignore, for one, 9/11... And I was a kid in Peak Dream, so I don't have a clear comparison between the two)

  7. Another really great post. Thanks. I wonder if there is a literary version of this acceleration to peak dream model.

    When I was young in the now far off 70s Zelazny's Amber kind of defined this for me. I almost always like these stories - I am thinking Iain Banks novel Transition, John Crowley's Great Work of Time, Paul McCauley's Cowboy Angels were all Peak Dream ( I think) period pieces.

    Pretty sure there is a TV version too - from Sliders to the OA. FWIW.

  8. sorry for necromancy but it would be interesting to follow this line in ttrpgs. like 90s - kult, nephilim, delta green, unknown armies, wod (especially mage) with their core gnostic polarity of illusion vs reality behind the curtain. it would be interesting to see if there is multiverse boom opposed to that.

  9. also where would twin peaks the return fit in? it seems to suggest at least several realities at work but connected to some higher cosmic struggle.

    1. I don't know but I feel like the Lynchverse is its own thing