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Escapement, or Virtual Unreality

Friday, September 30th, 2011

In 1956, Charles Eric Maine (born David McIlwain in 1921) published a superb, often overlooked science fiction novel, Escapement, which posited a bleak virtual future. In Maine’s novel, tech mogul Paul Zakon, head of the “3-D Cinesphere organization,” builds a worldwide network of “Dream Palaces,” in which millions of “dreamers” lie immobile in isolation chambers, hooked up to electrodes and put into a semi-comatose state through a combination of IV drugs and liquid protein.

These “dreamers” spend most of their lives existing only in a fantasy world, from which they emerge only when they’ve run out of money, and are taken out of the system. Then, like the addicts they are, the erstwhile “dreamers” desperately work at whatever menial job they can find until they can scrape together enough cash for another 6 months or so in one of Zakon’s “Dream Palaces,” and then the process repeats all over again.

His unwilling associate in all of this is Dr. Philip Maxwell, whose research has created the “Dream Palaces,” in which millions of men and women are electronically fed dream scenarios more real than life, and experience a simulated existence of power, wealth, and sexual abandon. As Maine prophetically writes, describing the rise of Zakon’s “Dream Palaces” – and remember, this is more than half a century ago –

“At first the thing had been a novelty, an expensive novelty, demonstrated in a handful of specially adapted theatres in the major cities of the States. But the novelty had also been an enormous success. The Cinesphere studios converted their sound stages into psycho-recording sets, and ambitious productions were recorded on miles of brown plastic tape. Lavish, spectacular and sensational productions, loaded with romance and glamour and an aphrodisiac innuendo of sex. [. . .] In the space of four years psycho theatres – later to be called Dream Palaces – were installed in their thousands throughout North America. [. . .] Dreamplays were produced that ran continuously for days, and then weeks, and finally, years.”

As Maxwell becomes increasingly uneasy with the growth of Zakon’s empire, he starts to move against his employer, but finds that Zakon’s hold on both the populace and the law is too tight. People want what the novel terms as “unlife”; otherwise, why would it be so popular?

Eventually, a quarter of the world’s population is sequestered in isolation tanks, and as they increase the length of their “dream” escapes, they gradually default on mortgage payments and other responsibilities, and so the Cinesphere corporation acquires their property and cash savings, exponentially increasing Zakon’s empire with each passing day.

As he tours the facility with Zakon, Maxwell stops to examine the isolation tank of one Paula Mullen, 27, who has signed up for a dream entitled “woman of the world” – length, eight years of uninterrupted synthetic fantasy – in which she imagines herself alive, awake, and the center of worldwide media attention. In reality, of course, she is an immobile, nearly corpse-like husk in an oversize filing cabinet, but Zakon sees nothing wrong with this. As Zakon tells Maxwell,

“There’s nothing anti-social about unlife, Maxwell. In fact, it acts as a scavenger of society, and removes the more anti-social types from active circulation. Take this Miss Mullen [. . .] and try to imagine her as a useful member of society. She chose to escape from society for eight years. That proves she was one of the many millions of maladjusted people living out their lives in dull unending routine. The kind of people who find no creative pleasure in work. Who seek their fun in furtive sex relations and objective entertainment. She’s better off here. She’s happier than she ever knew and she’s no longer a burden to society.”

By the end of Escapement, Maxwell successfully revolts against Zakon, and brutally murders him with a jack handle, while recording Zakon’s experience of death on one of Cinesphere’s “dream machines.” Then, to awaken the millions of dreamers, Maxwell forces his way into the central control room of Cinesphere, and orders the technicians to play the “psycho tape” of Zakon’s murder throughout the entire Cinesphere system, in the hopes of awakening the millions of dreamers from their narcoleptic slumber.

But the tape of Zakon’s death is too realistic; 100 million “dreamers,” ensconced in Cinesphere’s isolation tanks, die along with Zakon, unable to support the horror of being beaten to death, and Maxwell is put on trial. As the prosecution intones, summing up the charges against Maxwell,

“Ninety-eight million, four hundred and thirty-two thousand, eight hundred and twelve people, men and women, old and young, died suddenly one evening nine months ago. They were voluntary dreamers seeking relaxation in the many Dream Palaces of the Zakon organization. This man, Philip Maxwell, coldly and brutally murdered Paul Zakon, and made a psycho-recording of his death agonies which he then played back over the world unlife network. The result you all know. Psycho dreams are realistic. Psycho nightmares are equally realistic. And psycho death is indistinguishable from ordinary death.”

The book ends with Maxwell sitting alone in his prison cell, awaiting the final verdict. While the conclusion of Maine’s novel is undeniably melodramatic, one can’t help comparing the operations of the fictional Cinesphere corporation to the real life virtual worlds offered on the web, to which hundreds of millions of people subscribe, and spend countless hours, and real (as opposed to virtual) money to “exist” in a more attractive, alternative universe.

While digital technological advances have long superseded the mechanics of Cinesphere’s fictitious operations, the fact remains that for many, online virtual life has become an addiction, and more “real” than the physical existence they so desperately hope to escape.

World of Warcraft for example, currently boasts 10 million users and counting, and their advertising motto is “10 million people can’t be wrong.” Farmville has some 33 million users, with more subscribing every day. 800 million people plus are on Facebook, which encourages its users to “be somewhere else” rather than living their own lives, unplugged from a computer. In short, “I’m not here” – more on this later. Can 800 million people be wrong? Indeed they can.

Montgomery Tully made a brilliant film of the novel in 1958; well worth viewing.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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