Ness has written a bleak, coming-of-age science fiction thriller where the protagonists’ emotions swirl around in a dizzying eddy of uneasy teenage sensations. Strange feelings jolt around while an awkward journey of self-discovery unfolds. “More than this” is set in a dystopian sinkhole where vast swathes of society have decided to subjugate their normal everyday experience to a life inside a sleek, shiny coffin, while their brains are logged onto a computer simulation where they live a happier existence in their minds. Think a Young Adult version of the matrix.
More than what:
There are interesting metaphysical questions throughout. Mainly what does it mean to be alive and what happens when we die? “People see stories everywhere. We put random events together as a story and pretend it’s true”.
This focus on stories is a crucial point about the human minds compulsion to create them. Yuval Noah Harari (author of the important “Sapiens” book) has written religion in a similar light. He labelled it our first quest to find out the answer to a lot of the big questions that we face as a species.
The human mind will search frantically to connect the dots between sometimes random and unconnected ideas.
Ness leaves the ending deliberately opaque. In fact, we are never certain how much of this online simulation is genuine. Somewhat like our belief in God. “There is always something more than this” says Regine, acknowledging that no story can ever provide all the answers.
I read “More than this” as a critique of the impact that the internet has had on modern life. When tragedy befalls Seth’s family, a social worker steps in to advise them that the best course of action is the escapism of the burgeoning online world that increasing numbers of people were connecting to. It is sold as a panacea to the pain and risk we experience in everyday life. It makes you think: are we already using the internet in this way? Albeit, to a lesser degree.
Seth, Tomasz and Regine ignore the temptation to go back online when they are first disconnected. They have an innate sense that the physical world, with all its flaws, is where they want to be. They are willing to die to stay alive. They understand that the visceral sense of living on the edge, inherent in our mundane daily existence, is something that we need.
“How can you keep anything to yourself in this uselessly connected world” exclaims Seth when the pictures expose his relationship with Goodmund. His phone is the device that is used to rapidly share the inner details of his relationship with his school. Technology has had myriad benefits. Is exposing the inner details of our personal lives one that we should add to the list of human achievements?
Seth even tells us that he dislikes being photographed. It is only because he trusts Goodmund that he allows the picture to be taken, highlighting the enormous control that is now in our hands. The power to make the intensely private public in a matter of seconds. Have we thought this change through?
How will this evolve? Where does this end? We can already see evidence of society questioning the rate of change, with social media providers being increasingly put under pressure to tighten their privacy settings.
Seth sees his relationship with Goodmund as “their own private universe”. This is an interesting concept – that private associations can act as a bulwark against the modern obsession with capturing everything and sharing it online.
Life as a homosexual teenager in “More than this”:
The reaction to Seth coming out is mixed. His mother is angry, his father accepting. He knows that society is set up such that he will be “teased” in school when his sexuality is exposed. Goodmund cannot return to school for some time as he is in fear of being bullied when he does. His parents do not accept him.
The name Goodmund is interesting, symbolising all that is good in Seth’s life. Monica decides that she has to out Goodmund after discovering the pictures. She is ashamed of being with a bisexual man. Why? Is she just hurt because her boyfriend cheated on her or does it hurt more because it was with another man? That the word “good” is used to describe a teenager confused about their sexuality, is important, as it tells us that this sense of confusion is a normal process to go through.
Ultimately, Seth is driven to suicide after being outed as a gay man in love with a school friend. He feels he has no other out and drowns himself. Social media and
We are told that governments encourage its citizens to go into hyper sleep in “More than this” as it would help the environment. This is an intriguing idea. If millions of people were to not consume for their whole lives, it could change the economics involved in order to save the planet. It seems a strange way to live but the less we eat and travel could make the difference between saving our doomed planet or the destruction of it. This is the most pressing issue we are dealing with as a species. Maybe Ness has offered an unconventional solution.
As our lives digitize at an astounding rate, we are beginning to confront the reality of the impact that AI will soon have upon us as a species. Will the “world go online to forget itself” as Ness imagines?
Or will we evolve as Seth does when he progresses to becomes a “man who saves his friends”, having been unable to protect his brother as a child?
The real question is whether we will have the collective humanity to make the right ethical decisions to safeguard the future of the planet.