Toying with traditional philosophy is one of science fiction’s most pleasurable conceits, and Robert Charles Wilson’s 2006 novelette “The Cartesian Theater” is a perfect example. A simple premise played out in obvious terms, it nevertheless possesses strong impact for its presentation—the evolution of technology dragging it ever closer to our visceral reality.
“The Cartesian Theater” is the story of Toby Paczkovski, a ‘gypsy’ living on the dole in a world of post-industrial/economic collapse. The collapse brought on by the pluralization of AI-enhanced robots which replaced human labor, society has been left to pick up the pieces; everyone is consistently able to get money, yet still straggles to live. Getting himself into trouble when agreeing to perform a bit of gray work for his ex-wife, Paczkovski heads for his grandfather’s grave for advice in the aftermath. A former trial lawyer kept alive with neuroprostheses, the dead man has nothing but insight into the bizarre story of existentialism possible only in a technologically advanced world that his grandson lays before him.
Playing with Descartes’ ideas, “The Cartesian Theater” posits a technical scenario wherein the homunuculus is manifested in the real world. Wilson crafting the idea nicely, I will let the reader discover the technicalities on their own, and suffice at saying the duality ultimately achieved is one that couldn’t fail to stir the most calloused human heart—even for the fleeting moment. The philosophy inherent to the technology’s opposition may be a touch overt, but nevertheless captures a facet of human existence that undoubtedly exists, and would exist were such a contraption ever to be created.
Greg Egan’s Permutation City delving into a similar idea from a predominantly virtual perspective and David Marusek’s "The Wedding Album" straddling the line with the real world, “The Cartesian Theater” approaches the little man within, the soul, the internalized consciousness—however you want to word it—in manifested, tangible terms. Each author’s story unfolding in equally fascinating terms, I wish only that Wilson had left the last muddling/meddling paragraph out. Death and the existence of the human soul at stake, it’s nevertheless a story only science fiction can produce.