Sunday, December 4, 2016

Review of Simulacron-3 by Daniel Galouye

The ‘brain in a vat’ scenario is a classic thought experiment rooted in inquiries into ontology, materialism, and epistemology. Positing the idea that it’s possible our brains are merely connected to neural stimulators which simulate reality, it asks: how can we know whether we exist in true reality or a simulated reality? While the Matrix trilogy of films is perhaps most famous for exploiting the idea in fictional form, brain-in-a-vat has been a part of science fiction for decades. Putting a dystopian, commercial spin on the concept is Daniel Galouye’s sound 1964 novel Simulacron-3*.

Researchers are hard at work developing a total environment reality simulator called Simulacron-3. Participation in marketing surveys mandatory for the populace, the simulator is intended to replace street corners pollsters who interrupt people’s daily commutes to gather information for companies seeking to better advertize and sell their products. Things take an unexpected turn when one of the simulator’s scientists, Douglas Hall, learns that the lead scientist Hannon Fuller has died under mysterious circumstances. Meeting with Fuller’s family to glean what he can from the dead man’s notes, Hall attempts to continue the research. Exasperating matters is that another scientist vanishes, seemingly into thin air. But when a man emerges from Simulacron-3 VR immersion claiming that Hall’s reality is also simulated, the rabbit hole truly opens, and there’s no looking back.

With its negative portrayal of advertising gimmicks and obligatory consumer surveys, some of the arrows in Simulacron-3’s quiver owe themselves to Pohl & Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants. Dystopian for the extent to which corporate commercial interest has dug its claws into society, Galouye’s stance is clear. But the biggest arrow of the novel remains the philosophical quandaries made possible by the setting.

Where the Matrix takes the idea in a plot-light and aesthetic-heavy direction, Galouye keeps his story rooted in the fundamental ideology inherent to the scenario. Reality not what it seems (or is it?), Simulacron-3 runs through a variety of questions and suppositions as to the real nature of its setting as Hall’s understanding of the state of affairs evolves. Likewise, Hall’s reactions and thought-states to these potential realities are key to the novel’s presentation and development. I will not spoil matters save to say Galouye does an excellent job keeping the reader intrigued with the mystery of Hall’s surrounds all the while asking pertinent, intelligent questions via Hall on the nature and meaning of that mystery. It goes without saying direct and indirect commentary on ontology, religion, and materialism run intriguingly rampant.

In the end, Simulacron-3 is a solid novel that, despite the seeming gimmick of its premise, remains an intelligent read for its positioning and commentary on material vs. simulated reality, and what, if any meaning it/they have in context of cogito ergo sum/Chuang Tzu butterfly dreaming. While Galouye had no way of knowing what the 21st century would hold for companies in terms of marketing options, the relative lack of sophistication is balanced by content that truly promotes introspection. In terms of reality simulators as a science fiction trope, Simulacron-3 must be taken as one of the best. Less psychedelic than Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch for example, Simulacron-3 is direct probing (less paranoid speculation) of the meaning of material reality, and is therefore more relatable (to the average, grounded person J).

*In a weird reversing of tables (usually it is American publishers stupidly changing book titles), British publishers elected to publish Simulacron-3 as (kettle drums roll) The Counterfeit World. Talk about taking the fun out of something…


  1. Hi Jesse

    I was delighted to see you post on Simulacron-3. I think you did a good job of referencing related movie and novels and that you presented Galouye's handling of the concepts quite well without spoilers. The more I read novels from the period, the more surprised I am that he is not better know. Especially in that he showed a lot of variety in his plots.

    All the best

    1. For sure a tough review without spoilers!! I did reference a few books and movies, but I still feel like there are more simulated reality books out there...

  2. 'I still feel like there are more simulated reality books out there...'

    Sure. But this is definitely one of the earliest presentations of the 'reality simulation via digital computer' theme. I fail to think of an earlier novel.

    Yeah, there are thematic antecedents like Fred Pohl's 'The Tunnel Under the World' back in 1955. But in that story it turns out Madison Avenue has created actual tiny robot simulations (such as the story's protagonist) in a simulated tabletop town. It's not a digital simulation.

    Yeah, too, Phil Dick danced around the theme all through the late 1950s-early '60s, with various types of counterfeit realities (TIME OUT OF JOINT, EYE IN THE SKY, etc.)and humans who find out they're androids.

    Nevertheless, I'm old enough to have read that UK version you mention, COUNTERFEIT UNIVERSE, when I was a kid in London in the 1960s. And IIRC, this is the first time I encountered the notion of the presented reality of the narrative turning out to be a computer simulation.