This will be a slightly spoileriffic review, so beware, I suppose, if you haven’t read it and would very much like to.
Perfect State is a novella that takes a new look at an old classic of philosophy: the brain in a jar. My understanding of popular interpretations of the theory are limited to that one Philosophy class I took—then quickly dropped—in college, and The Matrix.
Perhaps I’m no expert in the subject. I have, however, pondered the topic with friends at great length, late at night (especially in college), only to get lost in the maze of what is reality, anyway?
Interesting conversations, those.
What I find particularly compelling about the brain-in-a-jar theory is that following any number of logical threads leads to some fundamental questions about experience and subjectivity. If we are indeed disembodied brains, our experiences the result of electrical stimuli, are they still real experiences? Is reality itself not a series of electrical stimuli interpreted through an apparatus that happens to be an organic machine? Am I not already a brain in a person-shaped jar? Are any of the people I know, the things I interact with, the routine of my life-is any of it real? How could I tell if it wasn’t?
These aren’t exactly the questions Brandon Sanderson asks in Perfect State. In fact, he does away with a good deal of the highfalutin pontification, in favor of telling a very fun story. Not to say that there are no interesting questions raised by Perfect State. There are. You should read it.
The hero of Perfect State is man who knows he is a brain in a jar. Turns out, all of humanity are brains in jars. The difference is that each and every person gets to “live” in an environment/world/locale personalized to them. A world that will challenge them and demand they ascend to positions of power. For some, like the hero, these worlds are fantasy settings, complete with cultures, creatures, magic; the whole nine. For others, like the nemesis of the story, they’re cyberpunk worlds replete with robots and (one hopes) a veritable cavalcade of sweet guns and laser noises. For still others, the challenge might be political, social, cultural.
Every individual lives in a world designed and specialized for them. A Perfect State, if you will. (Sorry about that.)
So how does our hero know he’s a brain-in-a-jar living in an artificially-generated reality? The beings with the keys to the mind-simulations tell him. They tell everyone, evidently, when they come of age.
So where’s the tension? Where’s the story?
I’m glad you asked, friend.
Our hero, bored as he might be with his perfect and immortal life, ruling over a world designed for him, is more comfortable ignoring the reality of his artificial reality than confronting it head-on.
And the guys with the keys to the simulation just informed him that he has to go on a date. With another brain-in-a-vat. Outside of his State. To propagate the species. (Which is, apparently, a matter of finding compatible couplings and synthesizing a new brain out of DNA taken from the pair. In case you were curious.)
The ensuing adventure is a short and thrilling ride wherein Sanderson gets to play with a number of settings—fantasy, noir, dystopian future—and ask some interesting questions about what such an existence might be like for the brains who live it.
The pacing is perfect, the action is engrossing, the characters fascinating, and the major twist spectacular. Read this one in an hour or two, and find yourself—like me—wishing there was more. The nice thing about a setting with infinite possibilities?
There are infinite possibilities.