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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Simulating Apocalypse

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Watching the news of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami unfolding early on Friday morning, the spectacle seemed to develop into an exquisitely cruel plot, as if nature herself was some sort of orchestrator in a theatre of destruction: the first act being the shaking of the earth, the second the wave of water, the third the fire, the fourth the frozen weather – and now, days later, the final, human authored act has begun, in the form of a nuclear meltdown.

But even as this dramatic metaphor began to take root, the feeling that this was somehow a creatively designed destruction reawakened in me a peculiar memory from my childhood that led me to frame it in terms that were, on the face of it, wholly inappropriate. The sense of nature’s play reminded me of my own child's play, my computer games, when I used to spend hours absorbed in Sim City. In this game, one would craft a utopian metropolis along rational lines, zoning organised blocks of residences and industry, initiating complex urban transport schemes, laying down a web of electrical and water infrastructure. Gradually, out of a flat, brown map, skyscrapers and chemical plants, factories and high speed railways modelled into an urban ideal – a world that, like the popular image of Japan itself, was precise, engineered, technologised.

Yet as the game went on, such utopianism came to seem too easy, and a little bit dull. The constrained architecture of town planning gave way to the freedom of destruction. Alongside the palette of planning tools lay another palette to undo all that careful work: earthquakes, fires, floods, nuclear meltdown and, bizarrely, a Godzilla-esque monster could be unleashed in sequence. That delicate network of roads and districts would shake, then turn red with fire, then blue with water. In those early days of computing, the sequential animated disasters would push my processor to its limit, and eventually the game itself would crash in a final eschatology that pulled one sharply out of the game world, and back into a mundane reality.

Watching those news reports, then, I could not help but feel that peculiar sense of omnipotent sadism that I had once before encountered through a technological lens. This time, the menu bars of Sim City had been replaced by multiple ticker tape overlays, as the BBC news carried live feeds from local channels, which in turn carried amateur video footage. The lower, local news feed gave word of a tsunami, whilst the higher-level and delayed BBC feed was still just scrolling across details of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake; like my old computer, the screen could not keep up with events. From this point, information flashed past at an exhilarating rate, with a sequence of disasters just like those I used to combine as a kid. And even if I was not in control of this real, human-world chaos, I understood the thrill of unleashing apocalypse in perverse ways – water causing fires, boats floating down streets, in one string of tweets on the internet, whether comic or serious or just mistranslated, warnings of a possible mutant caused by the nuclear meltdown.

Nature, it seems, like my cruel childhood self, has a twisted humour. Yet hers was also a bewildering narrative, perhaps explaining why I alighted on a seemingly inapt memory in order to try to structure the events. Looking on at a distance through the television media, it was so hard to connect the local and the global, the small and the large: to connect those tiny cars scurrying along highways away from the tsunami, with the human lives they must have contained; to connect that initial cresting wave rolling across the calm blue of the Pacific (so that one almost expected to see a miniature surfer at its head) with that sludgy brown mass that bullied cars, houses, ships across fields; to connect the decay of atoms in a reactor to the vast evacuation radius that has become the target for nuclear meltdown. It is, of course, making such connections that would be performed by a deity – or by belief in one. And it is not surprising that such apocalyptic events form the ash out of which religions arise.

Yet this is not how it can work for an irreligious person like myself. Instead, like a true humanist, I turned to a secular narrative from our digitised modernity. In his book on The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode saw in religious stories of apocalypse some of the qualities that make us want to write and read literary narratives: authored works impose the order of plot on the chaos of the world, and provide the random with some form of explanation, making sense of the ending. This is why, although it seemed so inappropriate in the moment, I naturally turned to my memory of my computer game, where I got to play town mayor, city planner and, in destruction, God. Recollecting that sense of control and logic that I once authored through the game allowed me to establish some order behind the chaotic entropy being suffered by one of the most engineered, technologised nations on Earth.

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Posted by Alistair at 11:28 am

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