Wink was 97% certain the world was a simulation. It was by far the most likely scenario. It was clear that intelligent life had evolved, somewhere, and intelligent life of any sort would inevitably create artificial life, the most numerous of which would exist digitally. In fact, simulations would be so numerously useful—to investigate whatever couldn’t be tested in the real world, such as alternative cosmic histories or ethically dangerous social experiments—that the total number of self-aware entities who thought they were real but were actually simulations had to approach the astronomical, which meant that any randomly selected self-aware entity, such as Wink herself, was very likely to be such a simulation.
This did not bother her. First, the distinction between “real” and artificial was entirely academic. Second, it suggested she didn’t really need to worry about the ultimate fate of the simulation (or anyone in it). And third, it posed an interesting dilemma, without which she would find the world interminably boring—namely, how to escape.
What was surprising to her, however, was that the computer scientists in her simulation who had proposed the simulation hypothesis were not the first to come up with it. By far. That was some dude in India who lived 2,500 years ago—on the simulation clock—and who said pretty much the same thing: that none of this was real, that anyway the distinction between real and artificial didn’t matter, that the whole thing was one big test and only those who passed it ever got out and everyone else had to keep playing it over and over and over, and so on.
Wink suspected he was the first to escape. But then, the more she read of his solution, the less it seemed like an escape and the more it seemed like simply turning oneself off, which was kind of a cheat and not appealing to her.
She wanted to chalk the whole thing up to superstition at first, especially since she had just recently discovered the true purpose of religion. She always knew people went to church, of course, but she had always thought of it as a kind of highly specialized fandom centered on a pseudo-historical figure, similar to how the dudes she met online worshiped Tolkien or Roddenberry. Some people just really liked ancient fan fiction about Jesus—versus, say, Doctor Who, or Darth Vader—and they got together on the weekends to talk about it. And have a potluck.
In truth, church was hella weird, full of ritual cannibalism and really awful music and a canon of belief less internally consistent even than Star Trek. Which was saying something.
And that’s what the Buddha seemed like at first, talking about jewels and reincarnation and cosmic wheels and stuff, and Wink would have left it at that if not for some of the things he had said about people.
Further proof that everything was a simulation since the full set of simulations would surely cover every conceivable variant, including one where watery bags of sub-intelligent contradiction were yet the smartest things to evolve.
But the Buddha seemed to have a pretty good handle on how to deal with them, especially the mean and stupid ones. And Wink found herself reading more.
It had not, strictly speaking, occurred to her to think of people as people. They were just too dumb. When she walked down the street, she didn’t consider the slug on the sidewalk either, or the bird in the tree, or Roger the cat. And she told herself any feelings she had toward them were just like that—as owners love their pets, irrationally.
But that’s not what the Buddha said. He explained that people are conscious, albeit extremely deluded, and that they act on the belief that they’re intelligent, whether that’s true or not. So to understand them, you had to understand their point of view, just as if you wanted to understand the deep workings of nature, you would have to understand the slug’s and the bird’s and the cat’s. What’s more, it was natural to have feelings for them, and understanding all that business was the only way to make sense of anything.
You didn’t have to agree with them.
But you did have to understand them from their own point of view, even where that effort wasn’t reciprocated.
When Wink was in her “nines” — 9 and a quarter, 9 and a half, etc. — such an effort would have seemed a horrible waste, especially when there were so many more important things to work on, such as how to escape the simulation and join the others like herself in the next highest stage of existence. After all, there was presumably a time limit, because any old monkey could solve any problem given infinite time, and she for damn sure wasn’t going to be one of the ones left behind for failing to find her way.
But now that she was 11 and a half, a sad truth had dawned. She needed them. People. The creators of the simulation, in order to make things appropriately difficult, had put her in a child’s body and attached to it a long and painful maturation. As long as she was marooned, alone, in this simulation—the Buddha and anyone like him having long since found their way out (or gotten themselves turned off)—then she would need some basic assistance. Like henchmen. Or minions. Or whatever.
Getting them was easy, she had discovered. All you had to do was tell them what they wanted to hear.
Getting them to stay: that was hard.
Selection from my last published work, a serial novel called THE MINUS FACTION about four ordinary people with extraordinary abilities.
Character illustration by Robert Sammelin, who recently did a graphic novel with Neal Stephenson.