“To exist is one thing, and to be perceived is another.” —George Berkeley, in Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous
Speculative Fiction and the Problem of Perception
Speculative narratives often trouble our perceptions. Their worlds are unknown to us and, unlike when we read a mainstream novel, we are often suspicious of whether what we are reading (or what the narrator is describing) is truly what it appears to be. This question of how we understand what is perceived—and what can be considered real and true—is not only a project for readers of speculative fiction, it is one for philosophers. Indeed, because of this, speculative narratives pose an interesting place to look for stories that focus specifically on philosophical questions regarding the nature of perception. Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial, Elisabeth Vonarburg’s Dreams of Sea, and Haruki Murakami’s Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World are three such works.
But what is the “problem of perception” and why are philosophers concerned with it?
During one of the thematically crucial scenes in Rear Window, Bing Crosby croons in the background To See You is to Love You. With this simple nuance, Hitchcock underscores that our beliefs and feelings about the external world are based on what we perceive (whether through sight or otherwise). Indeed, for those readers who have seen the film, we know that the whole of the plot turns on what can be assumed or believed based on a few things observed.
And so it is with perception: what we perceive is always a mix of what our senses take in, what our pre-conceived notions about what we observe are, and what larger meanings we derive from our observations. And, thus, perception is always problematic. And the extent to which it is problematic has long been one of the core problems of philosophy, as perception relates directly to what knowledge we can truly have about the external world.
Angélica Gorodischer: A Multiplicity of Perspectives
Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial (IROSF review) collects a series of eleven stories about “the greatest empire that never was.” One story in particular, “The Two Hands,” illuminates various aspects of perception by depicting the story of Emperor Orbad and his nameless usurper from a variety of perspectives: the Storyteller, the Archivist, the Officer of the Guard, the Chambermaid, and the Fisherman. This structure allows Gorodischer to explore how different individuals perceive a situation based on their own social status and values. In turn, the narrative demonstrates how differing perspectives can impact what is ultimately recounted in oral history. Indeed, this multiplicity of perspectives simultaneously sheds light on what has occurred after Emperor Orbad’s fall and obfuscates the true details of the events. The reader is left to sort through the different versions and then discern the “real story.” In this way, the reader’s project mirrors that of the philosopher, as articulated by Bertrand Russell in The Problems of Philosophy:
Here we have already the beginning of one of the distinctions that cause most trouble in philosophy—the distinction between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality,’ between what things seem and what they are.
The more the reader learns about what events seem to have transpired, the further they may feel from the actuality of the events.
Then, startlingly, the Fisherman shares his perspective, interrupting the flow of the tale:
I never saw any emperor. We live down the river, in houses on the mud. We fish at night. We salt the fish and sell it. We marry women from other houses on the mud. We have kids and they grow up and help us fish. When our kids are grown up, we die.
The story literally pivots around this entry, as it falls in the center of the narrative. Yet it has no direct relationship to the tale of palace intrigue being described in the main narrative. With this gesture, Gorodischer underscores the existence of people in the empire whose private worlds, while unknown to the major characters, and only of tangential interest for readers directly concerned with the outcome of the narrative, are just as vital. Further, the Fisherman’s simple statement spotlights how seemingly major, regime-level events may have little effect on many “common” people's lives.
One of the central items of dispute in the main narrative focuses on the identity of the only person who visits the usurper before his death. The Archivist, who abhors “spinning fantasies like the storytellers,” states as plain fact that the visitor was “a beggar, lean, lousy, filthy, leprous.” However, the Storyteller suggests two alternatives: either the visitor was the usurper himself from an alternative timeline in which he had never risen to power, or that the visitor is Death itself. Indeed, the Storyteller insists that “both versions are true, just as true as all the other versions running around the empire,” alluding to the fact that each individual ultimately decides how to interpret situations and events in order to fit them within their larger worldview.
Like the narrator of Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, who admits to being a consummate liar, the Storyteller calls into question the validity of what we have just read but at the same time, illuminates the impulse to make sense of events in a larger historical context. Gorodischer’s narrative makes clear that both fiction and history share the trait of being devised by those who articulate it. Thus, both fictional and historical narratives collect only the real or imagined perceptions of their storytellers and are limited in the extent to which they truly reflect a confirmable truth.
Vonarburg: Rendering the Unfamiliar Familiar (and back again)
Élisabeth Vonarburg’s Dreams of the Sea is one of the most deeply philosophical novels published in recent years, and dedicates particular attention to the problem of perception. Like Gorodischer’s stories, the book presents a multi-tiered narrative structure which shows how varying individuals perceive the world differently and what impact this may have on the notion of objective truth. In this way, Dreams of the Sea is also much like Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, where perspectives shift throughout the story in order to invoke the philosophical question of how perception affects each person's understanding of the external world and the individuals who populate it. Yet, like Woolf, Vonarburg is able to ground these questions in the deeply personal issues driving her characters.
The novel’s narrative is constructed to depict two parallel storylines: the story of the planet Tyranaël’s native “Dreamers” and the tale of colonists from Earth who arrive thousands of years after the Dreamers no longer inhabit the planet. The colonists’ experiences, rather than told first-hand, are depicted through pre-cognitive visions on behalf of the Dreamers, who are viewing the humans' experiences from a time several millennia earlier.
Throughout the novel, these Dreamers envision bits and parts of the surviving colonists' experiences, observing how they deal with loss, new love, and the discovery of Tyranaël. At the same time, the Dreamers are living out their own lives, reconciling their own hopes, fears, and conflicts.
One of the most compelling elements of the story is that each native Dreamer only views a small part of each human's lifetime. The stranded explorers' experiences are pieced together by Dreamers tapping into the various memory plates onto which their visions have been stored. As Eïlai (the primary Dreamer through which most of the story is told) taps one of these plates, she remarks “I have always liked Arethai's Joris ... and perhaps her Joris is not actually the same as mine.” Joris, one of the colonists from Earth, is perceived differently depending on which Dreamer has Dreamed her. Joris' attempt to find community and love on this new world is particularly meaningful to Eïlai, who longs to feel less isolated from her own community and who also deals with issues of loss. Because of this bond, Eïlai feels she can best understand and interpret Joris’ experiences.
In Eïlai’s visions, she watched the colonists attempt to make sense of the ruins of her people’s civilization. In many of these scenes, the novel directly explores the relationship between language and the objects that it describes. While surveying a building thought to be a temple, one colonist sees “objects that the eye can label quite readily as ‘table,’ ‘chair,’ ‘couch’.” He goes on to assume that the presence of these objects indicates rooms used as “‘bedrooms’” and “‘kitchens.’” The quotation marks here are Vonarburg’s, and their presence calls into question the validity of the labels her characters are applying.
Vonarburg consistently destabilizes the relationship between objects in the story and the words that are being used to signify them. For example, after one human colonist remarks that the “spring grass is fresh and vigorous,” he parenthetically remarks, “but is it really grass after all, or some variety of plant that resembles grass?” This statement underscores one of the primary challenges facing science fiction writers: to render the unfamiliar familiar. While some critics would argue that science fiction makes our own worlds strange, it is rather the opposite: science fiction puts forth an effort to render the strange knowable through the use of familiar terms and situations. Vonarburg, however, asks readers to question the words and Earth-based references her characters have used to describe Tyranaël.
While discussing the controvertible assumptions the colonists had made about the Dreamers (that a given building is a temple, that more than one ethnic group existed on the planet), one colonist remarks:
We have been telling ourselves stories for so long that they seem credible to us, that’s all. Hypotheses, based on correlations that would be valid on Earth, but we have no guarantee that they would be here.
Here, the discussion highlights the role of culture in affecting how we interpret what we see. The only words and frameworks the colonists have to explain the mysteries of Tyranaël are human ones. However, the very non-human nature of the planet renders it unknowable in human terms.
Dreams of the Sea presents us with two ways in which our perceptions of the story are problematic. First, the Dreamers see only small fragments of the colonists’ experiences and these visions are interpreted based on the bonds the Dreamers feel to those being observed. Second, the colonists can only hypothesize about the Dreamers’ civilization based on a set of expectations that cloud their ability to distill objective truth. At one point, Eïlai questions whether her visions of future colonists from Earth may be real at all, calling the entirety of the novel’s human story into question. Tellingly, the novel closes with Eïlai looking up at Tyranaël’s sky, “where perhaps no alien ship will ever drop anchor.”
Haruki Murakami: Thinking into Being
Haruki Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World traces the efforts of a nameless detective whose current case relies, ultimately, on effectively distinguishing appearance from reality. Murakami’s detective is a “Calcutec,” whose brain is specially designed to sort through massive amounts of data. The alterations to his brain, however, have left him experiencing two separate lifetimes concurrently. In one, he lives in our external world and is investigating a peculiar case involving the skull of what appears to be a unicorn. In an internal world that exists only in his subconscious, he is trapped in a walled city, “the end of the world,” where unicorns are raised and tended. For the majority of the novel, both existences play out with the each side of the narrator’s mind unaware of the other. The reader, however, can begin to see that elements from each reality bleed into the other. A librarian as love object, dried bones as a clue to the past, and other subtle elements—lyrics in a folk song, hand-drawn maps, doors into memory—begin to pepper both narratives. It slowly becomes unclear which reality influences the other as elements in one reality will predicate the same elements in the other, then vice-versa.
Once aware of the dual realities his mind perceives, Murakami’s detective—like the reader—must sort through what he can be sure of—what Bertrand Russell refers to as “sense-data” or “the things immediately known in sensation—in order to distinguish between external reality and his internal one. The detective’s project, then, is to come to terms with the extent to which both his external and internal worlds are driven by his own imagination, his own desired perceptions of them. Indeed, as the reader and the detective become unsure which elements are real and which are not, as the narrator’s sanity comes into question, the implication becomes stronger that all of the detective’s perceptions are shaped by his subconscious. His final choice of which reality in which to reside—in which reality lie the core issues that he must sort out—suggests that the most “real” existence is that of the mind. That those elements wholly constructed from ourselves are the most knowable.
Murakami’s conclusion here—that the detective would feel his subconscious reality is more real and necessary than the life he perceives in the external world—aligns with the core of Descartes’ philosophical beliefs. Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum (I think therefore I am) suggests that one’s own existence is an irrefutable claim. After all, what can we say we are more certain of than our own thoughts?
Perceived Perceivers Perceiving
Each of these books explores not only what their characters can know through their perceptions, but also the extent to which the reader can know the truth of what is “real” in their perceptions of the narrative itself. Like other great novels of ideas, these books prompt readers to ask broad questions about both the nature of literature and their own experiences in the world outside the novel.
Ideally, these three cases have opened doors for deeper discussions about the open territory that speculative fiction offers within which to explore philosophical concepts. Perhaps recognizing that the genre’s unfamiliar worlds offer unique environments for such exploration will shift the way that readers experience genre texts, open new pathways for critical interrogation, and ultimately impact the way in which the broader “literary community” at times perceives the genre.