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Rules For Living in a Simulation

Aubrey Hirsch's work has appeared in print and online in journals like Third Coast, Hobart, PANK, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She is currently at work on a novel with the support of the Daehler Fellowship. You can find her online at www.aubreyhirsch.com.
Now if we, like those characters in recent movies, discovered specific clues in the world around us suggesting that we do in fact live in a simulation, we would of course consider those clues carefully to see what they say about how we should live our lives. --Robin Hanson
Listen. We're fairly certain it's true. The laws of the universe just don't make sense the way they should and it's more and more apparent with every atom of gold we run through the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider and every electron we smash up at the Large Hadron Collider that we are living in a universe especially constructed for us. And, since we all know infinities cannot be constructed, we must conclude that our universe has been simulated.
It's likely that this surprises you. It might even make you short of breath for a moment or two, but don't worry. Your worry itself is proof that you're sentient. The dualists and physicalists were both wrong; you don't need a brain to make a mind. You are proof of that. So is your mother. So is your dog-walker. So is the first girl you ever kissed. So is everyone you know. Or, more precisely, everyone you think you know. Everything you think and feel is real, even though it isn't.
It's only natural that you'd like to keep on with your simulated living, as would we. To that end we've devised some rules and would ask for your compliance for the mutual benefit of all involved.
First, don't talk about it. Of course it's difficult and we can't blame you for being tempted, but this is rule number one for a reason. Discussing the simulation with your friends and neighbors, or even noticing out loud the glitches in the program seems like an easy way to get your memory wiped down and rebooted. It's also possible that enough people catching on at once will result in our simulation being shut down completely. For these reasons, we've disguised this document as a piece of fiction that will appear in an online magazine and ask that, as much as possible, you behave like that's what you're reading. Feel free to casually pass this article to a friend or acquaintance, but remember, you mustn't discuss it with too much weight.
Second, be interesting. This is absolutely paramount. We must all do whatever we can to be as entertaining as possible. Ladies, it wouldn't kill you to have breakfast in your underwear one day a week. Men, more fights with your mothers-in-law, please. Teenagers, think piercings piercings piercings.
If you need to see the devastating effects of a boring simulation, look no further that the recent disasters that have been plaguing our planet. Things like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis are likely all at the hands of programmers. There are only so many times you can watch a man get up, get dressed, and get to work unabated before your curser starts wandering toward File > Tools > Events & Disasters > New Disaster.
The government, in turn, will continue doing its part to make sure our simulation is an interesting one. We've installed some truly incapable politicians in high-powered jobs across the nation to ensure maximum outrage. Additionally, we've been collaborating with foreign governments to get moving on several international wars that we think will offer prime opportunities for stories of heroism and betrayal and, of course, lots and lots of action. The loss of "life" will be kept as low as possible, but rest assured that your brave soldiers know that their sacrifice is not in vain.
Next, do what you can to preserve processing power. There is always the unfortunate possibility that our simulation will grow too cumbersome for the host servers to handle. Ours is an incredibly detailed program and when you think about how much computer power it takes to generate even a single sentient being (approximately 100 million million operations per second), the idea of simulating our entire universe for the last fifteen billion years or so is truly mind-boggling. We don't know what kind of technology our simulators are working with, but we can safely assume their processing power isn't unlimited.
Luckily, there are some things you can do to help. Most important, perhaps, is for us all to do what we can to limit population growth while still having enough sexual encounters to keep the simulation interesting. Maybe a single child is enough for you and your partner, especially considering your child isn't real anyway. Try to ignore the big eyes and soft skin and think of her instead as miles and miles of computer code etched in silicone somewhere far away. That sweet dimpled smile? 01100101000010110010001.
In order to last even this long, the program is likely to be taking some shortcuts. For instance, the stars from your exact position on the globe are probably only generated when you look up at them. Thus, you can help by avoiding things like looking up at the stars. Keeping your sock drawer and closet door closed also helps, as it is significantly easier to generate the fašade of a tightly closed dresser than to have to simulate everything inside it. Try to keep frequently visited spaces, like your car and office, free of clutter. We will also be staging more events like the BP oil spill to keep people away from beaches for certain lengths of time to give the program a break from generating all those billions and billions of molecules of water.
Finally, be kind to one another. It seems very likely that sitting back and watching a program run is only interesting for so long. The next logical step is for someone from the host world to insert him or herself into our world. Most likely, there are hundreds of thousands of them here, if not more. Since we're all being simulated by the same computer, there's simply no way of telling them from us. We need to make sure these folks are having a nice time here in our universe. Save your drama for people you've known since birth. When you meet a new person, kindness is key. This means no bullying, no betrayal, and we seriously need to cool it on the random acts of violence. Think of our planet as a hospitality town, or even a resort. We all need to be good hosts now. Our universe depends on it.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 30th, 2011


I started writing this story in my head on the train from Florence to Rome during my honeymoon in Italy. Along with my new husband, I brought with me Brian Greene's book, The Hidden Reality, a book about the possibilities of universes beyond our own. While reading the chapter on simulated universes, I flipped back to a footnote citing a paper called "How to Live in a Simulation" by Robin Hanson. I used that title and all the new knowledge I'd gained from Brian Greene to create my story, "Rules for Living in a Simulation." I later tracked down Hanson's paper, which is targeted toward philosophers, and borrowed a line to use an an epigraph, as a "thank you" for the inspiration.

- Aubrey Hirsch

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