The Last Estate



A Review of the Strange Emotional Reaction I Experienced While Failing to Review the Television Show ‘1899′


Sometime in November, my friend Rudy Johnson asked me to write him a review of the new Netflix series 1899. I was hesitant, having never reviewed a TV show before, but Rudy seemed to think I was at least somewhat qualified to write about science fiction (my favorite of the fictions). I’d loved the creators’ previous series, DARK, and 1899’s logline could have been written specifically for me: a nautical, turn-of-the-century, mystery-sci-fi period piece where the characters all speak different languages. So I pushed through my anxiety1 and told Rudy I’d absolutely write the thing. I didn’t do it, but at the time I really was planning on it.


My review was doomed before I even started writing. I thought the show was good and I didn’t have anything particularly illuminating to say about it.2 After finishing the season I scoured my sparse notes for something insightful about the plot or cast or production, but couldn’t come up with anything worth opening a Word doc over. My glorious career as a bitingly eloquent TV critic was finished. Sorry Rudy.


There was something I felt like writing about, though.


(Major spoilers for 1899 follow. If you care to watch the show, please don’t read on until you’ve finished it.)


About ¾ of the way through the first season of 1899 it’s revealed that the entire story has been taking place in a virtual world. This is threaded in an interesting way, with several bizarre occurrences and impossible setting transitions slowly culminating in the unambiguous confirmation that, yes Emily Beecham, your cool boat is a computer program. Something came to my attention when this unfolded onscreen. The thrust of the story had changed, and my experience of it changed as well. I noticed myself slouching, sighing emphatically, unclenching my jaw. I noticed myself physically relax. It wasn’t necessarily that the tension was gone from the show, but something about the new development felt familiar, a story I intimately recognized instead of something surprising and strange. That this incomprehensible world was actually entirely explainable through the magic of digital computing was soothing, not only as a viewer of a TV show, but on a deeper, personal level.


I was curious why.


It occurred to me that we as a society are obsessed with the whole simulation idea. Even before the computer was unleashed from the academic backrooms of its birth, we were imagining ourselves entering and departing from artificial realities. Early examples in sci-fi include Daniel F. Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3 and Phillip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, which came out in 1959—we were imagining humans in virtual reality almost a decade before the computer mouse was invented! And the philosophical idea of our own reality being somehow illusory goes back much further. Early Buddhist scholars were conceptualizing reality as an “illusion” or “projection” as far back as the fifth century B.C.3 Similar concepts are preserved in texts from ancient China, Greece, and Mesoamerica.


The more I thought about all this, the more a throughline seemed to take shape, along with some key questions: Have we always suspected, by and large as a species, that our world is fake? Why are we so invested in narratives centered on this idea? Why is it comforting on an almost autonomic level to think that life is but a dream, that what we experience is not true experience? Why do we crave derealization?


Is it because it’s valid?


The most recent, formalized version of the “simulation hypothesis” was developed by a Swedish philosopher named Nick Bostrom. Bostrom’s idea can be summarized thusly: As technology progresses, the amount of computing power available grows exponentially, and it stands to reason that a civilization with sufficient computing power would want to simulate their past, to test scientific hypotheses or learn more about their ancestry. Assuming even one civilization amidst the vastness of the universe survived long enough to develop this capability, it is very likely that the large majority of conscious experience takes place within these simulations. Furthermore, Bostrom argues, with enough computing power, the simulated worlds could themselves create simulations (I’d probably talk about how this seems to be the setup for future seasons of 1899, if I was reviewing the show like I’m supposed to).


This idea crops up frequently in the world of pop-science. Some go so far as to claim that it’s a “statistical inevitability” or even a “certainty.” Elon Musk is a vocal proponent of the theory. America’s favorite science popularizer, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, at one point threw out “better than 50-50 odds” that we’re currently living in a simulation (though he has since professed a more nuanced viewpoint). A recent writeup of the theory in Scientific American finds Fouad Khan arguing, with tangible exuberance, that it’s “confirmed” we live in a simulation because the speed of light, being an absolute maximum limit without a clear physical explanation, represents a “hardware artifact” of the computer program producing our universe. He goes on to propose that consciousness—the subjective awareness of our own existence and experiences—must have come into existence for some reason, and the most likely reason is we have these conscious experiences for someone else. In short, we are a bunch of sentient first-person cameras in an epic visual novel, played by the creators of our simulation.


These ideas are exciting. There’s a reason the Matrix franchise has made almost two billion dollars, to say nothing of the enormous volume and diversity of other works about simulated realities. With all this percolating, I thought about my own experiences4 with anxiety and derealization. Could it be—I mean, is it plausible, is it sane, to believe—that there might be something to this ancient, perennial, widely supported belief that our world is not the world? That maybe we humans have quietly figured out something fundamental about the true nature of reality which is rarely mentioned in polite conversation but permeates the collective consciousness? Could those moments of sitting on the couch paralyzed by the mounting unreality of it all have been glimpses of truth rather than mental illness? Has science fiction been feeding us facts all along?


It felt nice to let myself believe something like this for a while. To take stock of all the things I don’t understand about the universe—the vastness and strangeness and apparent futility of it, the things that freak me out, that make me stress and dissociate and panic—and suppose there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for it all. If we live in a simulation, then we necessarily were simulated by someone, which means we have a creator. We have someone watching us or at least able to watch us, who cares about us or at least cared enough to give us life. It was at this point I realized I was no longer thinking about a fictional idea, or a scientific one. The theory that we live in a simulation is a religious theory. It is the newest iteration of the oldest argument. It is our latest, greatest attempt at proving the existence of God.


I understand a little better now why we love these narratives, why we’re telling ourselves the same story again and again, why there’s a deep, almost cosmic coziness to stories about simulated reality, however dystopian they might be. Life is painful. Even when our own lives are filled with pleasure and privilege, we live with the knowledge of widespread suffering, starvation, violence, cruelty, inequality, and loss, so much loss all over the world. Simulation theory offers convenient packaging.5 This world is not the real world, but a veneer of a world created especially for us. It’s comforting to think there’s a definitive reason for our suffering–even if the reason is some asshole programmer wrote the code that way. Oh you must be new, I mean yeah the syntax looks bad, but that’s the only way we get through the debugger come runtime.


Unfortunately for comfort enjoyers, there are many criticisms of simulation theory. I was actually surprised to learn how unsupported it is among mainstream scientists, given the volume of articles in reputable publications saying things like “Physics can prove it!” and “We must never doubt Elon Musk again.” One of the main logical arguments against the idea comes from former true believer Dr. Tyson, who pointed out that if it is indeed possible for a civilization to gain the technological capability of simulating an entire universe’s worth of conscious experience, the universe they simulate would also produce a civilization that, in time, gains the same capability. The fact that we do not have anywhere near that kind of computing power means we’re either in the first “real” universe, or the most recent in a long ancestral line of simulations-within-simulations. That means, if simulation theory is true, we can exist in a grand total of two out of potentially infinite nodes of reality-space. This challenges the theory on its own grounds: why should our universe be so special?


The logical basis, criticisms, and ongoing debates over the theory go much deeper from here, and I think Rudy might have me keelhauled if I go into much more detail in what was supposed to be a review of a fun TV show, but suffice it to say there are compelling logical and statistical arguments that start to make the whole thing seem less likely than its evangelists would have you believe.


Probably the most damning indictment of the theory is that it’s not a proper scientific theory at all, because it’s what researchers call “unfalsifiable.” This means it’s impossible to prove wrong, or even test in a way that could possibly prove it wrong. I spoke with Dr. Joshua Tan, Assistant Professor of Astronomy and Physics at the City University of New York, and asked what your average theoretical physicist thinks about all this stuff. While he guessed there are “probably some physicists who think about it,” the theory is “essentially unused in any serious articles… The fundamental premise is that it would have no observable consequences, which makes it basically irrelevant for study.” In other words, because our universe would look exactly the same in a sufficiently comprehensive simulation as it would if the world is real, there’s no clear way to empirically test whether we’re dealing with one or the other. In theory there could be some signature, some artifact of source code execution that might become apparent to us, but so far, according to Dr. Tan, “to the extent that such a thing would have observable consequences, there is no evidence.”


And still we tell our stories. Including some pretty good ones like the television series 1899, now streaming on Netflix.


Like most people, I would prefer it if life was meaningful. It’s incredibly distressing to reconcile the fact that we are richly intelligent, emotional, conscious beings with the fact that our centuries of scientific discovery indicate our existence is a happy6 accident of biochemical reactions operating under arbitrary physical laws that came from nowhere. I would prefer there to be someone in charge. I would prefer this story to have an author. The grand narrative coming from naturalist and materialist hard science is not a story many of us are equipped to believe. Maybe that’s why science fiction is so often ready to plug its own holes with magic, with untested philosophy and religiosity. I mostly loved 1899—but it’s worth considering why we keep telling these stories and what exactly they do for us. Maybe they exist for a specific, very ancient and ubiquitous reason. Maybe they hint at some real answers, testable or otherwise, about fundamental secrets of our existence.


Or maybe, as Dr. Tan puts it: “They don’t really serve any purpose other than to excite the imagination.” Though he adds: “That’s not necessarily the worst thing.”7


  1. Picture: I am on the couch, wondering whether this is still the couch. My stomach is a little too deep inside my body and I’m touching my skin to confirm it’s still holding my insides together. When I look out the window a film of visual static blankets the blue LA sky. My perception is warped, artificial, like the couch is the center of a livestream projected on my brain from some external force. I can see the distortions in the feed, the pixelation and faltering framerate. I think about checking my phone, one of the few things that grounds me in a situation like this. But I can’t find it. I feel around for it. I can’t find it. What’s going on here? I stand up, hoping to find it. I can’t find it. I can’t—
  2. I liked the scene where the hot Spanish guy was really weird to the Danish guy.
  3. It’s worth noting that our minds can naturally process the world this way sometimes. The phenomenon of derealization is difficult to describe, but the key feature is an overwhelming impression that the world has become distant, unreal, or false. If you’ve ever experienced déjà vu or the lingering fog of jet lag, you have been subjected to some level of derealization. For me, it’s one symptom of clinical anxiety, which was extremely disturbing when it started cropping up in my teens. It would sometimes come on so strong I’d start getting paranoid—Am I going crazy? Is nothing real? Does the world feel like this to everyone and they all decided not to clue me in?
  4. Thankfully, my “reality problem” has subsided to something more merciful as I’ve gotten older. Most things feel pretty real to me these days. Now I worry about things like feeding the cats and the sustainable harvest of Pacific bluefin tuna and whether anyone will listen to my new album instead of whether reality is fundamentally real. For the most part.
  5. I’m borrowing the term “packaging” from my new Last Estate confederate Sabrina Small—when discussing this article she brought up the example of mystery candy where some pieces intentionally taste bad, and pointed out that it’s the packaging that’s reassuring, that “if you just ate a disgusting jellybean without the preparation, it would be so much more menacing.”
  6. Or unhappy. I don’t know. I had a nice birthday, but now I’m older.
  7. Scene: I am on the couch, wondering who’s sitting on the couch. My stomach is a little too deep inside my body. I’m looking for my phone and I can’t find it. Something about the whole scene feels wrong, unreal, like this couch is only a model of my couch, rendered at an unstable 30fps on the dusty old monitor of my eyes. A chemical reaction in my brain called “derealization” is causing this, a psychosomatic symptom of clinical anxiety. And that’s it, that’s all it is, probably.
Karter Mycroft

Karter Mycroft is a writer, musician, and fisheries scientist from Los Angeles. You can find their work at or follow them on instagram or twitter @kartermycroft.