Hallucinogenic virtual reality: where is the self?

If you virtually incarnated yourself in the experience of another, that is, if through artificial intelligence you could feel yourself in their skin, if you felt their impulses, their pain, would you stop being you? Would you become that other? Or, if not, who would you be? How far does your self go?

Virtual reality “fools our brains but allows us to continue being ourselves. A complicated us,” he says Edmundo Paz Soldan (Cochabamba, 1967) in The look of the plants, published in Spain by Almadía. In effect, this technology produces such sensory immersion that the brain translates images and stimuli as if they were actually happening. But what would happen then if we added virtual incarnation and a large dose of psychotropic drugs to the complexity of that we? To what extent can the brain, perception, be malformed?

Few things are as literaryly attractive as a good game of contrasts. The new and the ancestral, the virtual and the real, the beauty and the horror, the you and the me. It might be hard for us to think what virtual reality, hallucinogenic plants, deepfakes, the beauty reigns and the devastation of the jungle. Well, in the work of the Bolivian writer the answer is: everything.

This dystopian novel mixes magical realism, science fiction, the thriller and fantasy. In it, a questioned psychiatrist, Rai, arrives to supervise the tests that a laboratory, hidden in the jungle and led by the enigmatic Dr. Dunn, performs on some volunteers in the area. The objective of the research is to develop a video game that is capable of recreating the lysergic sensation produced by an Amazonian plant through virtual reality.

The effects of the so-called “alita del cielo”, a natural hallucinogen that could be similar to ayahuasca, but much stronger and certainly more whimsical, are intertwined with algorithmic design and astral travel. Paz Soldán shows that it is possible to mix cutting-edge technology and atavism, that “the shaman’s rattle is a particle accelerator.”

The apparent duel of opposites is overcome as the technological infrastructure and the “wing” seem magical to Rai’s eyes. The protagonist—like most of us—doesn’t understand the programming language or how the ancient compound technique works. The narrator says it without hesitation: “Like almost everyone, he is illiterate in the ways of the world.”

In this cyberpunk In the jungle, the technologies are so high that they become mysteries, as sometimes happens with the algorithms we know today. We know very little about how much information platforms extract from us, and we calmly give up our privacy for the sake of convenience. The question no longer centers on whether something is true or false, but on whether it is probable or improbable.

Even identity itself is something to question. “There is no self in the self. We are ideations created by our brains”, writes the author. The brain, that unknown organ, decodes reality so that we can function in the world. However, Paz Soldán exposes, with the virtual incarnation we “sprinkle” ourselves in others, we can be others, we return to being the self we were in the past, “we can be the one who abused, we can be the one who disappeared.” Then, the question shifts: we go from what would be the real to where the self remains. What is done in case of jet lagged spiritual?

In addition, the novel shows the shadows of beauty reigns, of toxic family relationships, and highlights the ethical limits of social networks, of scientific research. Paz Soldán raises questions about the human, the technical and the moral, and leaves the reader the responsibility of finding the answers for himself.

In dialogue with the so-called Latin American “jungle novel”, this book questions extractivism and deforestation in the Amazon. Precisely, the story takes place in a town on the Bolivian-Brazilian border, an area marked by rubber exploitation. The characters live immersed in a landscape overwhelmed by violence, both from man against his countrymen and from man against nature. The author puts the urgency of the climate crisis on the table and even leaves us with the chilling image of “a futuristic forest, without animals or birds. Or maybe not so futuristic.

In the maelstrom (1924) of Jose Eustasio Rivera, a work that inspired Paz Soldán, the jungle upsets the human being, precipitates him into feverish hallucinations and ends up devouring him. In a way, The look of the plants It is also a descent into hell, a trip to the heart of the darkness of the subconscious, the virtual world and the destruction of the environment.

As anticipation for the next five minutes, this work faces parallels that challenge, question and bounce in the current particle accelerator. In a display of dystopian fractals and at the same time deeply conjunctural, The look of the plants proposes various ways of seeing and wondering on how many levels “reality is overwhelming.”

Hallucinogenic virtual reality: where is the self?