[The following contains spoilers.]
It is surely as inevitable as the twenty-second century that we will be able to one day digitally convert our neurological data. By this, I mean that it will be possible to copy and paste the mind, downloading it onto new devices and running it within new simulated realities. Any lover of horrors can here thrill to all of the conceivable misuses of this technology within the criminal justice system. There are indeed irresistible opportunities for the daintiest of sadism. Prisoners’ minds could be uploaded into some simulation in which they would be gruesomely tortured on an infinite loop. Limitless mental copies of a prisoner could be treated in this way, whilst their original body was being held in a cell somewhere, without a mark on it.
The Dutch writer Lex Noteboom meets this idea midway in his futuristic audiodrama The Deca Tapes. The minds of ten prisoners have been wiped. Their names are gone and they seemingly retain no memories of who they once were. They are not imprisoned in a digital simulation, however, but planted within a simulated reality that has to necessarily access their physical biology. This world comes to be hosted on a “slow ship” that is ferrying the prisoners across space towards a mining colony.
I am not sure why the Deca Group is panicking about “tapes” from this ship being leaked to the public. Not only is the on-board entertainment a simulation, but none of the corporation’s fingerprints can be lifted from it. There are no guards and no beatings. If the prisoners ever agreed to end the simulation, then the simulation would end. If they chose to, they could easily overpower the minority amongst them who are actively collaborating with the project. In some quite stupendous sub-outsourcing, Deca has contracted all responsibility for running its prison out to the prisoners themselves. What’s more, these prisoners are not even conscious that they are their own guards.
One is distinctly reminded of the landmark television drama The Prisoner (1967), in which a wayward government agent (Patrick McGoohan) had been confined to an eerie simulation of a seaside village. But in The Deca Tapes there is no equivalent outsider. It is almost like The Prisoner without McGoohan’s character or his perspective. The Cook (Sarah Ruth) has an instinct to rebel but in practical terms she is going nowhere. The other prisoners are so unsettled by her questions that the simulation is only reinforced.
After the divulgence of its “sacred” ten-pointed motif, we might grow suspicious that Deca is not the normal, morally-sloppy corporation but something significantly less secular. The Illuminati of the space-mining age, perhaps. The story’s endgame is dominated by a “Preacher” (Casper Stokhuyzen) or a front-of-house propagandist. He uses boorish mysticism to manipulate the other prisoners into passively accepting the simulation. He essentially persuades them to stop heckling from within the performance.
Despite this, his success is purely short term. The choices that his enemy the Cook makes might help to subtly rumble the project, steering the prison ship on a more advantageous course. One consequent observer (Jonathan Nyberg) reckons that “a bunch of strikes or riots” might ensue. It is implied, though, that there are over five hundred other ships in which the simulation has not been disrupted.
The structuring of The Deca Tapes is so faultless that it is occasionally almost possible to overlook the story’s resemblance to an allegory. Whilst the first episode is exhilaratingly surreal, you never resent the steady dissipation of this fund of strangeness. Clarification occurs as if through smooth adjustments to a fine lens. There are no cheap shocks or jolts, but rather each new explanation banks in a satisfying flow. The only weakness is that the characters sometimes falter when they are not serving the needs of the allegory. For example, the Cleaner (Nick Messina) inexplicably fades away at a point when he should surely become more violent, whilst there is never any attempt to realistically account for the Preacher’s motivations.
The story is a relay race, with eight of the characters accepting the narrative’s baton. In its preference for monologues, one might initially fear that The Deca Tapes has selected rather too starchy a format, or one with the plainness of an exercise from low-budget theatre. With such a large cast at its disposal, it is unfortunate that nobody in this drama can have a conversation. Of course, this also gives emphasis to the lack of solidarity between the characters, or their internment in mental cells.
If these prisoners have been designated as the most rebellious in society, their monologues unsparingly reveal how they are now reduced to conformity. Even when they are privately confiding to the microphone – even in the very heartlands of their individuality – they cannot achieve any greater control. Nonetheless, within a simulation that is itself one big top-down story, personal monologues can be potentially weaponised. The Entertainer’s decision to switch off the stories sparks a major crisis; the Cook’s resumption of this storytelling could fry up a revolution.
You might think it a mercy rather than a punishment that these prisoners have had their painful personal histories deleted. Yet you cannot rehabilitate somebody by simply lightening them of their past. The prisoner will be instead left unaltered within a smaller, two-dimensional form. It becomes increasingly clear to us that the Cleaner is still demented and that characters such as the Cook and the Teacher (Nadja Freeman) are unlikely to rue their earlier crimes. The same old biscuits lie underneath the new wrappers.
In The Deca Tapes the authorities end up with much the same control that they had once had over their traditional brick prisons. We are comforted that the future might yet belong to imaginative storytellers rather than to authoritarians and neurologists.