The Big Idea: Jon Evans

There’s the observation that at any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. In Jon Evans’ new novel Exadelic, this may be more right than anyone ever suspected.


Exadelic‘s big idea is why it is, probably, the only book about occult magic categorized by Amazon as ‘Hard Science Fiction.’ That high concept: in the present day, an AI trained on occult texts learns how to hack reality itself. More precisely, it discovers that the fundamental substrate of our universe is more like software than hardware … and the phenomena we’ve long called “magic” stem from bugs in that software.

It also learns there used to be much more magic—hence ancient myths and legends—until, a few thousand years ago, our reality’s operating system was patched, and most magic went away. But a sufficiently sophisticated AI can still exploit the subtler bugs which remain, and hijack the laws of physics.

The notion that our universe is fundamentally software has a surprisingly illustrious scientific history. Stephen Wolfram has long suggested reality is, at root, “a vast array of interacting computational elements.” But the universe–as-software idea raises some disconcerting questions: does that suggest it’s running on hardware … somewhere else? Was it programmed? In other words, do we live inside a vast simulation? And if so, programmed by what, for what purposes?

Exadelic is a book made of spoilers, and I don’t want to reveal much more. But I do think it’s entertaining and instructive to go over the history of the notion that our reality is a simulation … a history which, it turns out, goes back thousands of years.

Consider Saint Irenaeus, in the second century AD; the second Bishop of Lyon, after the first was martyred by the Romans. Despite this, Irenaeus managed to find time for some persecuting of his own. Today he is best known for his work Against Heresies, in which he attacks the then-popular Gnostic splinter faiths.

Gnosticism was a complex family of beliefs, but all included the notion that our world is a cruel simulacrum of true reality—or, if you will, a simulation—created by a malevolent god. You’ll note this is also, basically, the plot of The Matrix. But wait; it gets wackier. St. Irenaeus is also known for his belief that “God made himself Man, that Man might become God.” Or, as Ronald Cole-Turner puts it, “It is important to note that for Irenaeus, salvation is not primarily a pathway to God. It is a process by which humans become gods.”

SF readers have a name for that belief, too: transhumanism. As such, one can interpret the persecution of the Gnostics by St. Irenaeus as an attack on simulationists, by transhumanists … 1800 years ago! Many of our tropes are much older than we think.

Over subsequent centuries, the Gnostics and all their texts were eradicated, making Against Heresies one of the only records of their existence. And yet their long-forgotten beliefs have had a significant influence on science fiction, and on how we imagine the future … thanks to a murderous blood feud, a possible grave robbery, a thief-priest, and the black market of the alpha metropolis of an ancient civilization.

I realize that sounds like a D&D (or maybe Call of Cthulhu) campaign. But in 1945, in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, that very combination of events led to the discovery of long-buried original Gnostic texts. And, a few years later, a certain C-list SF author grew obsessed with them.

That author spent most of his life struggling with small advances, poor sales, addiction, mental health, and failure to sell any of his ‘mainstream’ work. His books were very weird, and often didn’t really make much sense. None of his peers could have suspected he would become the most culturally significant science fiction author of the twentieth century.

But if you measure by Hollywood adaptations, he absolutely was, because I am talking about Philip K. Dick, whose influence on other writers (including me) has also been immense. In fact, way back in 1977, at a convention in France, PKD declared that we live in “a computer-programmed reality,” referring to the true/higher level of reality as “the matrix world.”

While the Wachowskis have always been cagey about their influences, Jean Baudrillard’s book Simulation and Simulacrum actually appears in The Matrix … and it, in turn, cites Dick. (Albeit misnaming him “K. Philip Dick,” perhaps signifying the respect SF commanded at the time.) It’s pretty remarkable that a direct chain of citation for the simulation hypothesis extends from The Matrix, via PKD, to Gnostic beliefs assumed eradicated and forgotten for many centuries! Culture dies hard, is perhaps the lesson here.

Regardless of whether the simulation hypothesis is correct, “the universe is software” is a compelling metaphor for the world in which we do live — one increasingly mediated by software, where other people appear to us mostly in compressed digital forms. That isn’t necessarily bad. Often software is better than hardware; that’s why we write it! But when this mediation goes wrong, it can contribute to depersonalization and even dehumanization. Philip K. Dick  said his work focused on two questions: “What is Real?” and “What is Human?” Exadelic is a hard-SF thriller, but it uses its big ideas to grapple with those two questions too.

Exadelic: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

Author Socials: Web site|Twitter

8 Comments on “The Big Idea: Jon Evans”

  1. The premise as you’ve outlined it reminds me of the worldbuilding for the Wheel of Time series: the main story takes place in the third age. The second age was one of ubiquitous magic, during which powerful magic users invented worldwide transportation and communication networks that ran on magic. This ended, and the third age began, when a group of magic researchers ‘dug too deep’ and caused a cataclysm that nearly destroyed the world. The first age was our current ‘real’ historical era, which ended when an AI figured out that magic exists and how to alter humans so we could use it.

  2. This ‘Big Idea’ discussion alone was enough to put this book in my TBR pile. Looking forward to reading it.

%d bloggers like this: