Universal Hologram

by Kit Riemer profile

Science Fiction

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Kaemi's IFComp 2021 Reviews, October 3, 2021
by kaemi
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Neural network image generators, with their dreamlike quality of semi-figurative outputs that have been processed through deeply uncanny layers of inscrutable mediations, the genuine beauty of something produced without intention towards the beautiful or the genuine in objects which never cohere, impressions that give an impression without having been left by anything, raw data composed into vector graphics, the feverish feeling of plumbing it deeper and deeper but never quite reaching anything; there is no there there; the map is not the terrain.

Universal Hologram delights in this vibe, not just in its AI-generated images, but in its refusal to underlie its vibes with coherent aesthetics or commitments, a purplish nutrient paste that has some ideas or whatever, and I mean that whatever literally, here’s how the story frames its climactic moral choice: “Gen wants you to take our little simulation-container and remove it from the grid. Then, they want you to bestow that Terminal grain of yours back into the simulation, like an inheritance, so the folks inside can move in the matrix and visit other simulations or whatever.” Yeah you know man, just like, you can change the universe, if uh, if you’re into it, or…

Most characters are like this. During a heady conversation about astral projection, dialogue like ““No, dipshit. You’re a rudimentary sentience in a computer simulation experiencing a facsimile of a fake ancestral phenomenon.” / “Oh, that’s right. We live in a highly realistic simulation, and everything we experience was programmed by someone in the actual real world.”” syrups into ethanol, a simulacrum of human dialogue. Basically every serious conversation is a weird mash of Big Ideas and a slacker ennui that assures you that it’s so post-post-ironic that it couldn’t possibly care, as in this expositional shrug: “Here’s the state of things: in the original, actual, material universe (let’s call it U1, or ‘universe one’), that is, the universe that is currently simulating our universe (U9), there were some morons who imagined it was possible to project their spirits/souls/astral bodies out of their physical bodies and into the energy plane or spirit plane, and then they could float around and look at stuff and shit.”

That’s not to say the characters necessarily need to take anything seriously. The game’s vibe works to the extent that it effuses its computer hell tone, with gleeful distortions of familiar inputs, like this description of gun-soccer: “Soccer was a video game popular among foot fetishists. / A gun was an L-shaped piece of metal that produced a loud noise and the death of one or more people.” or this hilarious description of paper: “Our ancestors on Earth used to harvest a renewable resource called “wood” and smash it until it was basically two dimensional and then dye it white. The resulting substance was flat, smooth, and capable of lacerating human skin.” When the descriptions wheel free of all earthbound concepts, it can become delightfully machinelike, truly synthetic synaesthesia: “You float peacefully, drifting slightly on the Z axis in the astral breeze.” and “At each point when a U-level is breached, you hear a brittle click and watch yourself rise up and out of a series of brackets. Each function containing other functions like a fractal, onward in each direction: too tiny to see where you’ve been, too enormous to comprehend as you move further toward the outer edge.”

However, the game’s thrusts towards the serious feel clunky precisely because they clatter into the miasmatic eyeroll of images. This is not exactly elegantly delivered exposition: “Dion sighs and gestures you into their room. They drag two battered chairs over, and the two of you sit. / “Gen is our universe’s messiah. Without Gen… well, it used to be called the ‘Simulation Hypothesis.’ Now it’s confirmed fact. Gen proved undeniable truths about our reality, and then also gave us an entirely new way of experiencing it: through the Terminal, and later, when that become inconvenient, through astral projection.””

The result is like if you took Brave New World, used it as an input for a neural network text generator, then collectively had your Discord channel edit the outputs into a Twine. We have some similar concepts, the idea of minimizing suffering through the technological attenuation of existence to mere basking, but interlaced with a surfeit of cyber-sorta-punk internetisms. Thus, some of the disconnect is intentional, as grand philosophical gestures like ““Well, for example, there were huge protests on Earth when wild animals were chemically sterilized and allowed to die off. The amount of potential suffering in a wild animal’s life is enormous, of course, but there were many who felt that there was something inherently good about the natural world.” / “Something inherently good about suffering?”” set up our narrator’s childlike inability to process these thoughts: “Dion, that story was a massive bummer.” So we have the stage for a character arc, which sort of happens, as we have our consciousness digitally overwritten to be capable of entering an underlying digital layer. But for the most part, the story relishes its condemnation of our accelerating naivety: “Light, please, uh. Stop emitting light.” An inability to conceive of light except as a command, a variable to turn off and on. Our narrowing band of experience compresses us into binaries, even as we glimpse the grandeur that lies outside: “Your mind springs out of your body, rocketing forth past whirling clusters of stars and technicolor twinkling flecks of astral energy. / In the distance, beings made of pure light and pure darkness traipse between constellations.” There is so much noise and color, and if we could just find a way to navigate the between, enter into the place where “The door opens on an expansive, brightly lit room filled with humming white boxes. Simulated worlds inside simulated worlds inside simulated worlds.” perhaps we could entune all this chaos into genuineness, contact, humanity, something transiently biotic in the endlessly replicating machinescape kaleidoscope: “The tingling, searing sensation fades. You take your hand back. The residue of the gel leaves a wet handprint on the plastic.”

Universal Hologram, in that mode, scintillates with an urgency that it shunts off into nervous laughter. “The light goes dark, and inside Dion’s room, you hear unintelligible screaming. The Internet communicates differently with everyone.” And if we could, as a tone poet, reach through that communication, render the screaming intelligible, there’s a chance, not for redemption, not for healing, but for a transformation not merely translation, an escape from the cycle of rebirth. The story stands as a touching testament, a story that can reach through all these mediating layers and achieve it, the touch, touching, the chance to connect to someone other than online.