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 as an awkward journey of self-discovery unfolds. “More Than This” is set in a dystopian sinkhole where vast swathes of society have subjugated their normal everyday experience to 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.
Ness addresses some 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 storytelling is a crucial point about the human mind’s compulsion to create narratives that enable us to make sense of the world. Yuval Noah Harari (author of the important “Sapiens” book) has written about religion in a similar light, labelling 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. 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 befell Seth’s family, a social worker stepped in to advise them that the best course of action was the escapism of the burgeoning online world that increasing numbers of people were connecting to. It was sold as a panacea to the pain and risk that we experience in everyday life. We are already using the internet in this way.
Seth, Tomasz and Regine ignored the temptation to go back online when they were first disconnected. They had an innate sense that the physical world, with all its flaws, was where they wanted to be. They were willing to die to stay alive and understood that the visceral sense of living on the edge, inherent in our mundane daily existence, was something that they needed.
“How can you keep anything to yourself in this uselessly connected world” exclaimed Seth when the picture that exposed his relationship with Goodmund became public knowledge. His phone was the device that was 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 disliked being photographed. It is only because he trusted Goodmund that he allowed 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 viewed 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.
The reaction when Seth came out was mixed. His mother was angry while his father was more accepting. He knew that society was set up such that he would be “teased” in school if his sexuality was exposed. Goodmund could not return to school for some time as he feared being bullied. His parents did not accept him.
The name Goodmund is interesting as it symbolised all that was good in Seth’s life. Monica decided that she had to out Goodmund after discovering the pictures. She was ashamed of being with a bisexual man. Why? Was she just hurt because her boyfriend cheated on her or did it hurt more because it was with another man? That fact that the word “good” is used to describe a teenager confused about their sexuality is important and it tells us that this sense of confusion is a normal process to go through. Ultimately, Seth was driven to suicide after being outed as a gay man in love with a school friend. He felt he had no other out and drowned himself.
We are told that governments encouraged its citizens to go into hyper sleep in “More Than This” as it would help the environment. What a beguiling idea. If millions of people were to consume substantially less, it could change the economics involved in order to save the planet. It seems a strange way to live but traveling and consuming less could be the difference between saving our doomed planet or destroying it. This is the most pressing issue we are dealing with as a species. Perhaps Ness has offered an unconventional option.
As our lives digitise at an astounding rate, we are beginning to confront the reality of the impact that artificial intelligence will soon have upon us as a species. Will the “world go online to forget itself” as Ness imagined or will we evolve as Seth did when he progressed 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.