Data and Determinism

Q&A with sci-fi storyteller and “Devs” creator Alex Garland

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Alex Garland presents the first episode of his new miniseries “Devs” at the College 9/10 Multipurpose Room at UC Santa Cruz on Friday, March 6. Photo by Brandon Saglam.

When you finish reading this sentence, you’ll read the next one. This is it. We can now come to the conclusion that I just predicted the future. Or did I?

Did I foresee what you were going to do, or were you destined to do it from the very beginning? English writer and filmmaker Alex Garland wrestles with this very question in his newest project, “Devs.” 

Filmed partially on the grounds of UC Santa Cruz, “Devsis a sci-fi thriller miniseries that follows computer engineer Lily Chan, played by Sonoya Mizuno, as she unravels the mystery of her boyfriend’s disappearance. City on a Hill Press had the opportunity to sit down with writer, director and producer Garland to talk about the project, its influences and more.

New “Devs” episodes premiere Thursdays on Hulu. The first three episodes of the eight-episode miniseries are available to stream now.

City on a Hill Press: “Devs” is the first miniseries that you’ve worked on, a format that allows for more freedom than a typical 90-minute film. Was there a single thing you knew you wanted to try with this new freedom and format?

Garland: I liked having the opportunity to, instead of trying to condense a story into two hours, open it out into more like six, or seven or eight, which meant I could do a slightly different kind of storytelling, which is, you could say, slower, but I see it as more reflective and with a little more time to spend with things. A lot of it was just about having time to be tonally less sugar rush-y than you have to be in cinema.

CHP: Is this change of pace more for production or for the viewer?

Garland: It’s not about helping the viewer. It’s just a different way of telling stories. Stories are built into what we are — we’re sort of storytelling animals. We do it when we’re telling our loved ones about the day we just had, we tackle issues of work via narratives — this happened, this happened, so then that is going to happen. Stories are just our way of communicating. Then the stories can take all shapes and forms, and I’m happy to try as many different kinds as possible.

CHP: Are there any forms of storytelling that you’d like to try out? 

Garland: One day, I’d really like to try theater. I like theater and it’s got some things that are really distinct to it. It’s got a strange setup to do with narrative because there’s so much sort of artifice which is right in front of you. […]. So it’s got all sorts of weird artificial things about it, but it’s also got an immediacy. It’s more like the kind of storytelling you’d get if you were sat around a table in a bar and and there’s a slight electric current between you and the person who’s telling the story.

CHP: Your work, including “Devs,” uses science fiction as a vessel to deliver powerfully tense and, at times, mysterious and surreal thrillers. What about these two genres draws you to them?

Garland: The thing I like about science fiction is that you are fully permitted and maybe even encouraged to bring in idea-based stories and those are the sort of stories I tell. I usually start with a specific idea. It might be something to do with science or it might be something to do with philosophy, might be something to do with politics. While I’m thinking about that idea, or reading about it, or watching YouTube, lectures or whatever it happens to be, a story floats out of it. Science fiction seems like a natural home for that kind of approach. 

CHP: And what about the thriller component?

Garland: Thrillers are just fun. A while ago, I began to feel that arguments often stopped working right from the outset. If you were arguing in an oppositional way to someone, as soon as they detected the oppositional argument, they just entrenched into their position and you entrenched into yours. And no progress was made. It becomes like people talking in a bubble. Each one is speaking but there’s nothing crossing the gap between them. I thought stories get around that because they get invested in the character and a narrative and, maybe in a thriller, some propulsive narrative. And then arguments can float through it more by osmosis than anything didactic.

CHP: As you just mentioned, your stories are very idea-based. Your first film, “Ex Machina,” dealt with the complex question of what it means to be human and the idea of machine consciousness. Then, your adaptation of “Annihilation” probed into ideas and questions around what’s familiar, what’s alien and what happens as we move from one to the other. Are there any ideas or questions that you went into “Devs” asking, wondering or thinking on?

Garland: Yeah. There were two in particular. One is to do with a consequence of looking at the physical world in a particular kind of way, which is determinism, which basically says we live in a universe which is non-magical and everything that happens is a result of some kind of physical cause and effect, and because our brains are also physical objects within that physical universe, we’re subject to the same rules of cause and effect. You end up in a space where you lose free will. If you believe in that cause and effect link chain, then at the end of that road you discover that you don’t have free will anymore.

The other was to do with quantum mechanics. The thing about quantum mechanics is that it seems to be an extremely good way of describing our world, but quantum mechanics itself works in a way and functions in a way that is completely counterintuitive to our experience of living in that world. So there’s this enormous dissonance between the way we feel the world works and how it actually works and that dissonance felt the same to me as the free will problem — that we feel very strongly that we have free will but when you investigate it, maybe we don’t. It was those kinds of ideas to do with a counterintuitive existence, this big gap between what we instinctively feel is true and what is actually true. 

CHP: In the first episode, the character Forest talks about this idea of determinism versus free will. His deliverance of those ideas, as well as other imagery worked into the show, inject a very religious vibe. Can you talk a little about that?

Garland: There’s a principle at the heart of many religions, specifically Christianity, where we are punished or rewarded after our period of time on this earth by our actions during our lifespan. Broadly speaking, if we act in a good way we get rewarded with an eternity of paradise and if we act in a bad way, we are punished with an eternity of damnation and that is a punishment/reward system based on free will. We had choices about whether we acted in a way that was correctly devotional to God, or we failed to. But it runs into a problem which is that God is supposed to be omniscient, all-knowing, and if God is all-knowing, then God knows what our actions will be before we even arrive on this earth. 

In theory, God would know all actions that would exist a thousand years from now or 10,000 years from now. Under that circumstance, God is punishing us or rewarding us for things that he already knew would play out in the way they played out. Either that or God is not all-knowing. For the free will state, God has to have gaps in his knowledge but that causes a big theological problem because now suddenly God is not all-knowing and in not being all-knowing, one of the consequences that can happen is unexpected events, [and] unexpected events could lead to mistakes. That paradox is really central in Christianity. So there’s a theological discussion happening within the story as well. 

Alex Garland stands among the same forest scenery featured in his new miniseries “Devs.” Photo by Brandon Saglam.

CHP: What inspired you to make this analogy between a divine plan and coding that we see in the show?

Garland: It’s not so much to do with the divine plan. It’s more just simply highlighting an issue to do with punishment and reward via free will [and] how we react to things in a sort of punishment/reward way. The coding aspect is more to do with how you could manage very, very large data in order to make accurate predictions — large data and very, very spectacular amounts of processing power. We can actually be very, very good at making predictions based on an amount of data.

If you were to ask an astrophysicist “where will the earth be in relation to the sun in 104 years’ time?” They would give a very, very accurate prediction because we have a sufficient amount of data about the mass of the sun, and the mass of the earth, and the nature of each to each other in terms of their gravitational effect and their orbit and things like that. So an accurate prediction could be made in a deterministic way. The data leads us to this conclusion. Then, the question is what if you massively enlarge that data pool to include other sorts of deterministic objects such as humans and how good could you be at predicting actions on the basis of a data set?

CHP: You undoubtedly had to do a lot of research for “Devs.” Were there any materials in particular that you continuously returned to or used as your reference point?

Garland: What happens is there’s often seminal texts or seminal works that then lead to a lot of other bits of writing. A lot of what I was reading about, if you followed it back, […] there was a particular guy in the 1950s called [Hugh] Everett who presented an interpretation of quantum mechanics [that] is now called Many Worlds Interpretation. There was subsequently a guy called David Deutsch who wrote a book called “The Fabric of Reality” and for me, that was the seminal text. Is this all a bit heady? 

CHP: I think it’s perfectly fine. I think that it’s what the show is about.

Garland: That’s the problem — it’s what the show’s about, and my job is trying to sell the show. It’s a fucking nightmare because I end up talking about quantum physics. But what are you gonna do? It is what it is. 

CHP: But you also take these things that sound dry or hard to comprehend and then find a way to make them very consumable through your films. 

Garland: I hope so. I don’t know. Not really. In my experience, there’s quite a small group of people who tend to like them quite fiercely and then there’s a much larger group of people, by which I mean almost everyone, who doesn’t give a shit. There’s a kind of viewer or a kind of reader that is interested in accessing these ideas. To people outside that group, it just feels like pretentious claptrap, which is a shame because the ideas I’m presenting aren’t my ideas, they’re the ideas of really highly intelligent, very sophisticated, very interesting people who have some wonderful observations about the way the world could be and also the philosophical implications of those observations. I wish it could be more broadly disseminated, but maybe I’m not the right guy to do it.