Simulated reality in fiction

Simulated reality is a common theme in science fiction. It is predated by the concept "life is a dream". It should not be confused with the theme of virtual reality.


Title Author Year Remarks
Accelerando Charles Stross 2005 A collection of related short stories, assembled as a novel, chronicling the life of a man and his daughter both pre and post-singularity.
The Algebraist Iain M. Banks 2004 Posits a religion according to which 'The Truth' is that our universe is virtual.
Amnesia Moon Jonathan Lethem 1995 On a road trip, two characters set out from a post-apocalypse Wyoming town and encounter a succession of alternate realities, including one shrouded in opaque green fog, another luck-based political system, and it is suggested that these divergent alternate realities emerged to obstruct an alien invasion of Earth. Homage to Philip K. Dick.[1]
Breakfast of Champions Kurt Vonnegut Jr. 1973 Kilgore Trout, an amateur science fiction writer, writes a story that mocks individualism by suggesting that there is only one human man and one God, and the rest of humanity are robots, made to test the man's reactions; hence, a kind of simulated reality.
Chronic City Jonathan Lethem 2009 Several strands relating to virtual reality games and virtual objects, but then events in the "real world" lead the reader to conclude that the "real world" is a simulated reality which is accreting errors and anomalies.
The Cookie Monster Vernor Vinge 2004 The characters come to doubt their own reality. This story was reprinted in several anthology collections, won the 2004 Hugo Award for Best Novella, and was nominated for the 2005 Nebula Award for Best Novella.[2] One reviewer rated the story "A+" and praised "the central mysteries which Vinge so very skillfully unwraps for you over the course of the story itself."[3]
Count Zero William Gibson 1986 The second sequel of Gibson's Neuromancer, the novel continues themes around cyberspace and introduces a computerized device called an Aleph which contains an advanced version of cyberspace that appears as a simulated reality to those that "jack" into it, as well as to digital entities that reside within it.
Darwinia Robert Charles Wilson 1998 By the end of the story it is revealed that whatever happens in the story is really beyond the End of Time and that the Universe, the Earth, and all the consciousness that ever existed are really being preserved in a computer-like simulation known as the Archive.
Dead Romance Lawrence Miles 1999/2004 Part of the Virgin New Adventures series of Doctor Who spin-off fiction, but mostly disconnected from the rest of the series. The novel is set on a version of 1970s Earth within a "bottle universe," invaded by powerful beings from the greater universe beyond. It is suggested that these beings are fleeing their own invaders and that their universe is merely a bottle within a yet greater cosmos.
Diaspora Greg Egan 1997
A Dream of Wessex Christopher Priest 1977 Released in the United States under the title The Perfect Lover. A team of specialists undergoes a sort of computer-monitored group hypnosis to create an alternate England, hoping to improve their dystopian world, but their utopia is endangered by one member with foul emotions and megalomaniacal ideas.
The Dueling Machine Ben Bova 1969 Dueling as a means of settling disputes has been revived by the invention of the dueling machine, which allows two adversaries to have at each other in the imaginary wrld of their choosing, with no danger to either other than humiliation and the loss of the point in dispute—until the Kerak Worlds found a way to kill with the machine.
"The Electric Ant" Philip K. Dick 1969 A man awakes from a vehicular crash, and is transferred to a special treatment facility after being informed that he is a biological robot. He finds that his subjective reality is controlled by a punch tape reel in his chest panel, which he begins to manipulate in an effort to control the world that he experiences.
Electric Forest Tanith Lee 1979
Epic Conor Kostick 2004 The inhabitants of a whole world play in a virtual world for their real income and status.
Eternity Greg Bear 1988 In particular, his introduction of the Taylor algorithms as a means of determining the simulated nature of an artificial environment.
Eye in the Sky Philip K. Dick 1957 After a nuclear accident, seven victims successively pass a range of solipsist personalised alternate universes, including a geocentric, magic-based universe and a hardline marxist caricature of the contemporary United States. Tom Shippey wrote that it might be "a private fantasy world, watched over by a Vast Active Living Intelligence System."[4]
Feersum Endjinn Iain M. Banks 1994 Describes a version of Earth with very extensive virtual reality capabilities.
Forever Free Joe Haldeman 1999
Get Real: A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality Philip Zhai 1998 A philosophical speculation on the ontological status of the extreme form of virtual reality that combines with teleoperation, in comparison with what we perceive as the "actual" or "physical" reality. An array of thought experiments is constructed for the purpose of philosophical investigations.
The Girl Who Was Plugged In James Tiptree Jr. 1974
Glasshouse Charles Stross 2006
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams 1979–2009 Earth was designed by an alien supercomputer called Deep Thought to find the Ultimate Question to the Ultimate Answer of Life, the Universe, and Everything (the Ultimate Answer already established as 42), using organic life as part of its operational matrix. However, early on in the first book Earth was destroyed just before the critical moment of read-out, leading to the events of the rest of the series. Later, part of the action takes place in a synthetic universe.
Idlewild Nick Sagan 2003 This novel contains a simulated school inside a simulated world.
Illusions Richard Bach 1977 A pilot on the Midwest summer barnstorming circuit meets a messiah who shows him that the world is merely "like a movie" designed by "the Master" to entertain and enlighten humanity.
Killobyte Piers Anthony 1993 Killobyte is a "second generation" virtual reality game that puts players into a three-dimensional, fully sensory environment.
Loop Koji Suzuki 1998
The Man in the High Castle Philip K. Dick 1962 Initially, it appears that Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire won the Second World War in an alternate, occupied United States. However, the I Ching divination tool discloses this as an apparent illusion.
A Maze of Death Philip K. Dick 1970
The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect Roger Williams 1994
The Mirage Matt Ruff 2012 A world where the Middle East is the centre of Capitalism and Democracy and the United States is home to sectarian and terrorist violence. Most of the history of the world is told throughout the book through excerpts from a website called The Library of Alexandria, the world's version of Wikipedia. It is eventually revealed that the timeline is an illusion created by a Djinn.
Mona Lisa Overdrive William Gibson 1988 The first sequel to Gibson's Neuromancer, featuring further exploration of the influence of cyberspace in the future.
Moongazer Marianne Mancusi 2007 A post-apocalyptic underground society pacifies its citizens by plugging them into a simulated version of New York City before the war, meanwhile telling the people that they are actually traveling to an alternate reality where they can escape their constricted lives.
Neuromancer William Gibson 1984 In this future, cyberspace has taken on the attributes of virtual reality.
Old Twentieth Joe Haldeman 2005 A group of immortal humans sets off on a thousand-year voyage to explore an Earth-type planet. To amuse themselves, they use virtual reality to take trips to the twentieth century; but when the trips start to go wrong, a virtual reality engineer discovers that the simulated world is ruled by a self-aware computer... who may be running a more complex simulation than they can ever imagine.
Omnitopia Dawn Diane Duane 2010 Features a MMOG called Omnitopia that contains multiple player-built worlds that can compete for popularity, earning real-world money.
Otherland Tad Williams 1998
Permutation City Greg Egan 1994
Phase Space Stephen Baxter 2003 Includes several short stories pertaining to simulated realities, particularly in reference to their solving of the Fermi Paradox. Most notably the framing story "Touching Centauri," but also "Poyekhali 3201," "Glass Earth, Inc." "Tracks" and "The Barrier," which explores the Zoo Hypothesis.
"Princess Ineffabelle" Stanisław Lem 1965 A story-dream The Wedding Night of Princess Ineffabelle from the story-in-story The tale of Zipperupus, king of the Partheginians, the Deutons, and the Profligoths from the short story The Tale of the Three Story Telling Machines from The Cyberiad.
The Reality Bug D. J. MacHale 2003 Is set on a world destroyed by simulated reality.
Realtime Interrupt James P. Hogan 1995 Is set in the near future, a cyber reality with its creator trapped inside.
REAMDE Neal Stephenson 2011 Though not set within a simulated reality, the novel stars the creator of a hugely popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game and discusses many of the behind-the-scenes operations in its creation and success.
The Remnants series K. A. Applegate 2001 Set on a ship that creates virtual landscapes
The Restoration Game Ken MacLeod 2010 A mysterious anomaly leads to the revelation that the characters are living in a simulated world, which is in turn embedded within another simulated world.
"The Seventh Sally" Stanisław Lem 1965 The Seventh Sally or How Trurl's Own Perfection Led to No Good, from the Cyberiad
Simulacron-3 Daniel F. Galouye 1964 Also published as Counterfeit World. Adapted as a TV miniseries World on a Wire (1973) and as the film The Thirteenth Floor (1999).
Snow Crash Neal Stephenson 1992 Romanticizing the perilous world of some young hackers, the novel discusses the history and nature of language and virtual reality, among many other topics.
Sophie's World Jostein Gaarder 1991
Surface Detail Iain M. Banks 2010 In which a civilization uses computer simulation and mind uploading to create and populate Hell.
"They" Robert A. Heinlein 1941 A short story that focuses on a man who believes the universe was created to deceive him.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Philip K. Dick 1965 In this future, alternate states of consciousness are mediated by widespread and legal use of hallucinogens.
Time Out of Joint Philip K. Dick 1959 Ragle Gumm is trapped within an artificial reality that resembles small town America in the late fifties. It is disclosed to be a strategic simulation run by a Terran government at war with its separatist lunar colony in 1998.
"The Trouble with Bubbles" Philip K. Dick 1953 In an era where scientific exploration has proven the solar system to be devoid of extraterrestrial life and robots take care of most work, humans pass time by building miniature simulated universes called Worldcraft bubbles.
"The Tunnel under the World" Frederik Pohl 1955 A person accidentally finds out that he lives the day of June 15 over and over again. It turns out that a ruthless advertising executive took over the whole ruins of a city perished in an explosion of a chemical and rebuilt them, together with people, in miniature for testing high-pressure advertising campaigns.
Ubik Philip K. Dick 1969 Several former corporate employees are killed but their consciousnesses remain sentient, albeit decaying, in a simulated shared hallucinatory experience.
Utopia Lincoln Child 2002 Set in a futuristic amusement park called Utopia that relies heavily on holographics and robotics.
Valis Philip K. Dick 1981 In this departure, it is our own world that is stated to be a hallucinatory overlay, produced from a gnostic demiurge that is malignant- although it may also be a visual and auditory hallucination produced by authorial schizophrenia
"The Veldt" Ray Bradbury 1951 A short story from The Illustrated Man, this grim tale describes two children who prefer their simulated-reality nursery to their parents.
Vurt Jeff Noon 1993
Pollen Jeff Noon 1995
Automated Alice Jeff Noon 1996
The Wonderland Gambit series Jack L. Chalker 1995-1997 A trilogy that pays homage to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Words Made Flesh Ramsey Dukes 1987
"You're Another" Damon Knight 1955 This short story about a character who finds himself in a bizarre, perhaps movie-based reality was frequently reprinted, and was translated into French as "En Scène!".[5]
"Crystal Nights" Greg Egan 1992 This short story is a tale of a group of scientists that create a simulation of a world to explore evolution and societal development. Eventually they reveal themselves to the inhabitants and are treated as gods, but then their creations realize there is more than meets the eye and plot their escape.


Animation, anime, light novel, manga and cartoons


Title Year Genre Based on Description
Avalon 2001 Science fiction drama By Mamoru Oshii
Brainscan 1994 Horror science fiction A science fiction/horror film about a teenager playing an interactive video game; directed by John Flynn
Brainstorm 1983 Science fiction Science fiction film directed by Douglas Trumbull and starring Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood
Brazil 1985 Science fiction Directed by Terry Gilliam
The Cabin in the Woods 2012 Horror comedy Directed by Drew Goddard, in which to prevent doomsday a group of teenagers must be sacrificed without their realizing what is really behind the horrors they experience. One reviewer wrote that the film "is all about the reality conspiracy."[6]
Cargo 2009 Science fiction Directed by Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter.
The Congress 2013 Live action/animation science fiction drama Loosely based on Stanislaw Lem's novel The Futurological Congress By Ari Folman and Stanislaw Lem: An aging, out-of-work actress accepts one last job, though the consequences of her decision affect her in ways she didn't consider. A take on the common sci-fi trope of an apparently Utopian future that turns out to be an illusion.
Cube 2: Hypercube 2002 Science fiction psychological thriller Written by Sean Hood
Darkdrive 1996 Science fiction By Phillip J. Roth
Dark City 1998 Neo-noir, science fiction By Alex Proyas
eXistenZ 1999 Science fiction body horror By David Cronenberg, in which level switches occur so seamlessly and numerously that at the end of the movie it is difficult to tell whether the main characters are back in "reality".
Good Bye Lenin! 2003 Tragicomedy By Wolfgang Becker: a Berlin family tries to make the feeble mother believe that East Germany did not fall.
Inception 2010 Science fiction heist thriller Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, in which an extractor invades dreams to steal information and ideas, but is asked to implant an idea instead of stealing one.
The Island 2005 Science fiction action drama Directed by Michael Bay, in which numerous clones of wealthy investors are kept in an isolated facility as to rejuvenate the investors with the clones' organs. The clones' facility is presented as an idealized society and the last safe place on Earth to prevent them from leaving.
Jacob's Ladder 1990 Psychological horror Thriller directed by Adrian Lyne
The Lawnmower Man 1992 Science fiction action horror Directed by Brett Leonard.
Lost Highway 1997 Neo-noir, psychological mystery thriller By David Lynch
Mindwarp 1992 Science fiction Directed by Steve Barnett
Nirvana 1997 Science fiction, cyberpunk Written and directed by Gabriele Salvatores
The Matrix series 1999–2003 Science fiction, cyberpunk By Lilly and Lana Wachowski, in which humanity lost a war against sentient robots, and now are predominately used as bio-electric power for the robots, their minds kept active by populating them in the simulated reality of the Matrix.
The Nines 2007 Science fantasy Written and directed by John August, is focused on the subject of simulated reality.
Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) 1997 Psychological thriller By Alejandro Amenábar (remade as Vanilla Sky, 2001).
Paperhouse 1988 Dark fantasy Directed by Bernard Rose. Based on the novel Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr.
Source Code 2011 Science fiction, techno-thriller An Army pilot is resurrected into a virtual world in order to identify and stop a would-be bomber; a science fiction techno-thriller film directed by Duncan Jones.
Strange Days 1995 Science fiction, cyberpunk, thriller A thriller in which users can experience another person's memories; the film earned director Kathryn Bigelow a Saturn Award for Best Director. Angela Bassett won the Saturn Award for Best Actress.
Surrogates 2009 Science fiction, cyberpunk Directed by Jonathan Mostow, is based on the 2005–2006 comic book series of the same name and stars Bruce Willis as an FBI agent who ventures out into the real world to investigate the murder of surrogates (humanoid remote control vehicles).
Synecdoche, New York 2008 Postmodern comedy drama Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman: an eccentric theatre director creates a replica of New York City inside New York City, complete with a copy of himself making his own replica of New York City.
The Thirteenth Floor 1999 Science fiction Daniel F. Galouye's Simulacron-3 Directed by Josef Rusnak, is loosely based upon Simulacron-3 (1964), a novel by Daniel F. Galouye, and features many characters acting within an uncertain number of layers of virtual reality.
Total Recall 1990 Science fiction action Philip K. Dick's story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" Directed by Paul Verhoeven, in which the lead character, looking to have the inexpensive memories of a trip to a Mars colony implanted in his mind, experiences an adventure of espionage that leads him to Mars and helps free the colony from an exploitive businessman, but whether these are part of the memory implant or reality is open-ended.
Tron 1982 Science fiction Released by Walt Disney Productions. The film was written and directed by Steven Lisberger. A computer programmer is transported inside the software world of a mainframe computer, where he interacts with various programs in his attempt to get back out.
Tron Legacy 2010 Science fiction By Walt Disney Pictures
The Truman Show 1998 Comedy drama In which the titular character unknowingly lives his entire life in a false reality created to make a voyeur television show about him.
Vanilla Sky 2001 Science fiction psychological thriller Remake of Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) Directed by Cameron Crowe, in which the lead character experiences out-of-control lucid dreaming while having been cryogenicly frozen
Virtuosity 1995 Science fiction action Directed by Brett Leonard
World on a Wire (Welt am Draht) 1973 Science fiction Daniel F. Galouye's Simulacron-3 German film adaptation of the novel Simulacron-3, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Welcome to Blood City 1977 Science fiction Western Directed by Peter Sasdy
Westworld 1973 Science fiction Western-thriller Directed by writer Michael Crichton


Interactive fiction

Computer and video games


  1. Kelleghan, Fiona (July 1998). "Private Hells and Radical Doubts: An Interview with Jonathan Lethem". Science Fiction Studies. Retrieved March 30, 2014.
  2. Von Ruff, Al. "Bibliography: The Cookie Monster". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved March 30, 2014.
  3. Alexander, Justin. "What I'm Reading #46 - The Short Stories of Vernor Vinge". The Alexandrian. Retrieved March 30, 2014.
  4. Shippey, Tom (Aug 17, 2012). "We Can Build You: Tom Shippey reviews Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick, and How to Build An Android by David F. Dufty". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved March 30, 2014.
  5. Von Ruff, Al. "Bibliography: You're Another". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved March 30, 2014.
  6. Bradshaw, Peter (12 April 2012). "The Cabin in the Woods – review". The Guardian. London: Guardian News and Media. Retrieved March 30, 2014.
  7. Max hallucinating on Valkyr - [the note reads] You're in a graphic novel & Michelle Payne: [the note reads] You're in a computer game, Max.
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