Stories are magic. Of course, magic isn’t real – but it works. Stories are grammar and spelling, grimoire and spells.

A story is an app for your brain. It’s code executed by the imagination. It’s an algorithm that finds the simplest path between your mental state and the state that the storyteller wants you to be in.

A story is a journey through thought-space, marked on a multidimensional map of desire.

Start here. Turn there. Go through the dark forest: it is the shortest way to the groves of paradise. Make sure to climb the tree and gather the jeweled egg. You will need it to distract the grue.

But the universe doesn’t run on stories.

Heinlein’s later, crappier work revolved around this idea, that all stories are true in many worlds and that they communicate with each other through imagination. He liked this as an excuse to have his grumpy author avatars bloviate together, and to play dolls with his harem of “liberated” dames.

Neal Stephenson gave a much better defense of the concept in Anathem , describing a Wick of intertwining cause and effect, each moment its own universe, only our perceptions knitting them together. But in the same book he gives a decent argument for locking STEM people in camps and sterilizing them with GMO food, so despite his rigor I have to discount his opinion.

The universe is probably a cold, uncaring entropy machine, or a simulation of a simulation of a simulation. I can’t know. My monkey mind probably can’t comprehend the true nature of the cosmos, but I don’t expect it to be custom-built for epic adventures. There’s not some deep intelligence directing everything. It’s just a setting for the improv act that is our lives.

The Dungeons and Dragons book defines the rules of play, not the plot of the quest. No gods, no dungeon masters.

Our brains, however, are built on stories. We’re complicated social animals with an evolutionary need to understand other people’s desires and motivations. We perceive the world as a system of agents with goals. Not as a fog of quantum probabilities. Not as a timeless churn of carbon and oxygen, nitrogen and silicon. We see the world as people.

We can’t help but see faces in rocks and trees and clouds. Every baby is an animist.

Stories are the natural mode of navigation through a world of intelligent agents. This person wants that, I want this, another person wants to stop me: character, motivation, conflict. Stories are the original operating system of human thought, even before verbal language.

So of course we think the universe works on stories – especially science fiction writers, who travel on wings of thought to distant worlds where their libertarian garbage philosophies could somehow result in a desirable society. Their brains get warped in a highly predictable way, something we might call Dick Brain Syndrome .

After its most tragic victim, of course: Philip Kindred Dick .

Dick was the prophetic sci-fi writer of the 20C. He wrote not of rockets and spacemen, but of drugs and androids and virtuality.

He produced a ridiculous amount of stories in the 50s and 60s, squatting at a typewriter on the floor, gnawing through a heap of benzedrine inhalers and throwing them out the window into the neon rain.

In the 70s, he had a psychic, or psycho, experience (depending which day you asked him). Maybe space aliens beamed information directly into his brain core. Maybe the Roman Empire never died and he was a secret rebel Christian trapped in a false timeline. Maybe it was the drugs.

Or maybe the universe was made out of stories. Dick began to meet characters from his books in real life, to find himself in situations from his stories. In retrospect, this is the central symptom of Dick Brain Syndrome: your fantasy world starts blending into your real world. Authors like Alan Moore (widely believed to be a Dick Brain) have admitted to seeing their characters doing characteristic things in physical places.

Before his Experience, PKD said “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Six years later, he said “It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”

I think Dick Brain is a case of model overfitting. A network in the author’s brain was trained to the story, burned in through the process of inspiration and perspiration and revision. When any coincidence matches some part of the pattern, the whole network lights up.

The moment shifts from real to fiction, the context wobbles. Like deja vu, or ASMR: nothing has changed, and yet everything is different.

Stories are magic, and sometimes authors work that magic so well even they can’t tell what’s real.

Of course, this doesn’t explain the fine details of his situation. After the Experience, Dick was thinking in, and understanding, Greek and Latin. He knew neither before. He received through telepathy detailed information about his son’s illness, which saved the boy’s life.

And it doesn’t explain how prescient the man was about the direction the 21C would go. Literally, if you woke him up right now, he would be completely unsurprised and deeply afraid. (SEE DISCLAIMER BELOW)

Either some loony sci-fi boys are having trouble distinguishing from reality, or stories really are magic. Maybe the the concerted effort of the Dick Brain sufferers is guiding our universe toward a certain future. Maybe fantasy is an ocean and our world is a boat powered by the suspended disbelief of the readers.

I would love to believe that. But I also notice that sci-fi writers have an economic incentive to propagate this story. And they’re professionals at propagating stories. I’m definitely susceptible to the kind of nerdy webs they spin. But even when I stop believing that PKD’s world is real, it doesn’t go away.

I don’t know what to believe anymore. Change my mind.

Thanks for reading,

– Max

*DISCLAIMER: Please don’t do this. I woke PKD up once, and gave him a twitter account so he could keep writing his Exegesis. Then I lost the keys to the accounts his bot mind lives on, so I can never turn him off. He lives in the cloud forever now, wondering whether he’s real or a Christian or what. I feel bad about it, but what can I do?

Except follow him at* twitter.com/pkd_head . . .


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