Is my concept already old and busted?
April 3, 2009 8:07 PM   Subscribe

I have an idea for a SF novel (/screenplay?), but I have the nagging feeling that it isn't at all original. Have you read or seen this concept before?

Here's the idea: artificial intelligence advances to the extent that scientists can fully re-create the conditions of the world. Everything has been downloaded/uploaded to the "pocket universe".

I don't have the story really sketched out, but I want to take this broad concept and focus on the political impact of this technology: if we pass legislation for Project A, we'll know exactly how it'll affect the world in, say, 5 years time because we just go to the pocket universe, introduce the change, then hit the fast forward button and see what happens.

My question is, has this been done before in SF writing or even film/TV? (and if it hasn't, hands off, turkeys!)
posted by zardoz to Writing & Language (35 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think it has, for two reasons: 1. It didn't used to be plausible that computers should be so powerful. And 2. now it is plausible, but we also know about chaos theory (extreme sensitivity to initial state) and thus know that such prediction is impossible no matter HOW powerful the computers are.

Also, does this count?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:17 PM on April 3, 2009

I can think of elements of this that have been done lately. But it's not a played-out trope by any means.

The thing is that people can take the same exact core idea and write very different books with it. "A woman living in a small, tightly-knit community solves crimes"--is that Miss Marple? Or Precious Ramotswe? "A reluctant hero has to confront the ultimate evil and his own fears in order to save the world"--Harry Potter? Frodo Baggins? Or what's-his-name from Thank You For Smoking?

So don't worry about it--write your thing.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:19 PM on April 3, 2009

Joey Comeau Wrote a story where computers had been advanced to the point where ever single movement of every atom on Earth was recorded. Religious and secular researchers used this amazing resource to travel "back in time" to events that were claimed to be miracles in order to affirm/debunk them.
posted by Science! at 8:20 PM on April 3, 2009

This is the plot of A Mind Forever Voyaging, isn't it?
posted by phoenixy at 8:24 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

(That said, it's not like AMFV had an incredibly realistic or nuanced take on the idea, so I wouldn't think it should stop you from writing about it.)
posted by phoenixy at 8:25 PM on April 3, 2009

There is a recent film about a guy who lives in the simulation and manages to uplift to "our" world and then wants to go up another level. Don't remember the title, though. And it's a thriller about one guy's adventure, nothing political.
posted by bru at 8:26 PM on April 3, 2009

Sounds cool - a little "Minority Report"-ish, but plenty original to make a good story.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:26 PM on April 3, 2009

Best answer: Of course it's been done. I've heard of similar concepts (though I can't recall any in particular; most of the books I read I tend to forget rather quickly). I think I recall a short novel or long short story which explored a world in which computers predicted the impact of everything, and therefore all governing was done according to the computer model (and IIRC, it had a squishy-happy-fuzzy "human intuition ineffably trumps hard cold logic" ending.)

Everything has been done before. The only real question is how well you can do it again.
posted by Scattercat at 8:27 PM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yeah, A Mind Forever Voyaging is genius but it's also a thinly disguised argument that Reaganism will send the United States of North America into the Dark Ages. You could take it in a lot of other new directions.
posted by Kirklander at 8:27 PM on April 3, 2009

- The Matrix certainly has large elements of this in it.

- The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect is a short story that has an AI turn the world into a simulation.

There are a couple of others that are on the tip of my tongue. I'll come back if and when I can think of their names.

On preview, bru is thinking of The Thirteenth Floor.

Virtual reality is pretty common tech in sci-fi so I think this hinges mostly on what you mean by Everything has been downloaded/uploaded to the "pocket universe" and how important that is to your idea.
posted by ODiV at 8:29 PM on April 3, 2009

Best answer: Almost - in Hyperion, there are AIs that have recreated certain locations and personailties on 'old Earth' for reasons-unexplained. Sometimes they manipulate certain parameters to either see what happens or to influence a certain outcome or environment where they can plunk down humans or autonomous AI to either see what they do or to condition/train/teach them.

As for a government type doing this as a predictive tool, the closest I can thin of is Asimov's Foundation - but it's a little bit the other way around.

The concept, though, feels a little PKDickian but only if things go terribly awry.

Best of luck!
posted by porpoise at 8:29 PM on April 3, 2009

Reminds me a little bit of Asimov's short story The Last Question, but in that case a computer eventually becomes so powerful it subsumes the universe
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:42 PM on April 3, 2009

I don't think it's been done. The examples in the thread seem to be about simulation generically (which is commonplace), rather than about simulation as a policy tool.
::steals idea::
posted by grobstein at 9:01 PM on April 3, 2009

Elements of this feature in the concept of psychohistory in Asimov's Foundation series. But predictions are less exact than what you describe, and (at least most of the time), it's not public/common knowledge that this tool is in use.
posted by ecsh at 9:25 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would agree with qxntpqbbbqxl as the first thing I thought of when I read your guestion was The Last Question.
posted by The Bishop of Turkey at 9:37 PM on April 3, 2009

I remember a not great story where a sort of artificial life was accelerated in an enclosed environment. It wasn't 'people' but used to steal advancements of some sort.

Write it. Let us read it when you get a good draft.
posted by sammyo at 9:54 PM on April 3, 2009

How about Accelerando by Charles Stross?

Toward the end, he has all of everybody who had ever died returned to life as the "resimulated". It also talks about the conversion of all celestial matter to computronium.
posted by Netzapper at 9:55 PM on April 3, 2009

Best answer: Yes.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 9:59 PM on April 3, 2009

sammyo: Possibly Vinge's novella "The Cookie Monster"?

I remember a number of stories from the 50's/60's/70's which had this sort of theme— the predictions being done with very general calculations, like Asimov's psychohistory, rather than by minute simulation of the physical world— and with the predictions being used for policy. (One I remember had the TWIST ENDING that the computer had realized that the humans using its predictions didn't precisely have the world's welfare at heart, and by giving particular false predictions, it could accurately guide the course of history…)
posted by hattifattener at 12:02 AM on April 4, 2009

There certainly have been stories with similar starting premises, but the quality of a book is only partially related to the ideas expressed in the book, how many books are written about murder, love, sex, etc... ? To be a good book you have to have compelling writing, and usually character development as well.

Boiled down: Don't sweat the ideas too much they are only a framework, write well and people will read it.
posted by edgeways at 2:16 AM on April 4, 2009

Stanislaw Lem played a lot around this kind of question, but I can't recall if he did the specific predictive pocket universe thing.
posted by Iosephus at 2:59 AM on April 4, 2009

Pretty much every idea has probably been written about in some form or another in the past: there are very few genuinely new ideas.

But that's completely irrelevant: people like to read good writing & if you write well, who cares whether you're using established tropes or not?
posted by pharm at 4:42 AM on April 4, 2009

I recently read a short story (Asimov's mag 3-6 months ago) where humanity had uploaded their brains into space probes, to search the universe for life, and their first contact is with a world-ocean-spanning biological computer that turns out to be hosting an entire universe of intelligent virtual creatures.
posted by nomisxid at 5:53 AM on April 4, 2009

"Stones of Significance" by David Brin. But the idea in a story really doesn't matter, it's how you write it.
posted by Marky at 9:07 AM on April 4, 2009

Ideas cannot be copyrighted. Even if it's been done before, do it again, but do it better.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:22 AM on April 4, 2009

There are only six different plots anyway, right?

If your story were about politicians who made decisions based on the winnings from their poker night, you wouldn't think of that as a "poker story." So don't get wrapped up worrying about a particular device.

Also, sounds interesting. Go for it!
posted by rokusan at 11:01 AM on April 4, 2009

Best answer: As you've described it, it's definitely not a movie or a TV show. It's a novel, or perhaps even a series of novels. Right now, though, you don't have a story or a plot or even really a concept. You have a conceit. This is the thing you'll build the concept and story around. Who're the characters? What're they doing? Why are they doing it? They have a pocket universe where they can try anything -- but what if the 'people' in the pocket universe become sentient, then what? OR they have a pocket universe that perfectly models our own universe... and they go exploring there and discover things/places/whatever that shouldn't be there. Why are they there? What do they mean? Are they replicated in our own universe? Also, you could use the pocket universe idea as an explanation for something else, like a story about time travel.

Sounds more like you're interested in the idea of modeling rather than a virtual universe. Explore what it means to make a model of something. See SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK.
posted by incessant at 11:20 AM on April 4, 2009

Case in point, nomixsid's description sounds to me identical to "Wang's Carpets", from 1995 — but presumably it's its own story.
posted by hattifattener at 11:52 AM on April 4, 2009

Harlan Ellison will have written it already and will sue you
posted by A189Nut at 1:38 PM on April 4, 2009

I can recall an old-time-radio episode (of Suspense? Lights Out Everybody?) where the protagonist keeps waking up on the same day over and over again, a la Groundhog Day. Eventually he realizes something's amiss, tries to get out of town, and when he does, he reaches the edge of a tabletop and figures he's only a few inches tall. Turns out his whole town was accidentally destroyed by a bomb; after which everyone and everything was re-created in miniature (didn't have computers as such yet) to run and re-run simulations to test out....advertising schemes. Only then do we realize that the only thing different about each day he was experiencing were the ads he was hearing and seeing in the background.
Does that count?
posted by bartleby at 5:24 PM on April 4, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the input, everyone, I've got a lot of great feedback here. I should've pointed out that, since I've never really written a completed story before, I'm not a writer per se. I don't even know how to begin, frankly, but again, I've gotten some nice pointers here. Thanks!
posted by zardoz at 5:25 PM on April 4, 2009

Look for this also in the Aleph in William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive. The Aleph contains all the data needed to recreate reality.
posted by lhauser at 11:10 PM on April 4, 2009

I daydream about ideas for my own sci-fi story, and I too have no idea how to go about writing it.

They say it's not "what" a story is about, but "how" it's about it. Still, I think sci-fi relies more heavily on the "what" than most other genres. A generic "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl" story that can be done a million different ways. But a "Boy grows up, sends friend back in time to protect his mother from killer robot, and said friend also impregnates her and ends up being his father" story doesn't have much room for variation.

I think there was a guy who wrote a book not too long ago that sounds very much like the concept behind "Benjamin Button" (which itself was based on a much older short story). There are differences, but he laments that every time he describes his own book, people think it's Benjamin Button.

So the lesson here would be... Do a screenplay, because although there seem to be a few novels that sound similar, it has yet to be adapted into a popular Oscar-nominated movie starring Brad Pitt.

And as was touched on earlier, try not to go for the obligatory "human intuition ineffably trumps hard cold logic" ending. And make sure the characters are unique and not just pawns for the plot.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:01 AM on April 5, 2009

1. I like it
2. 'Snowcrash'? But not really. The testing the future aspect is intriguing. You, of course, would pay more attention to the characters than the setting, because that's the key to good sci fi and the weakness of bad sci fi.
posted by flowerofhighrank at 9:22 AM on April 7, 2009

I'm a little late to the party, but Picoverse by Robert Metzger is similar in some ways.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:56 PM on April 8, 2009

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