Normally I'd just let it go, he tells me months later. But there was something about the way this guy reacted that, in truth, probably just irritated me. I was like a dog with a bone. And at that point, it sort of turned into a kind of chess match. He got angry. He got hurt. So I was like: fuck you.

Garland, known best perhaps by his recent sci-fi hits, Ex Machina and Annihilation, had been working through a new idea with friends and acquaintances and anyone whose brain he might pick. It was all shaping into a screenplay, Devs , an 8-part TV series about a team of mock Silicon-Valley programmers who creates a machine which, using quantum physics, can determine every event that has and will ever happen. How? Because the universe, according to Devs, is deterministic. Or as Garland puts it: Things dont happen in magical ways; chairs dont suddenly pop into existence.

I was just trying to figure out in my own head or in conversations with friends whereif free will existsdoes it reside? explains the director. And it just became harder and harder to find.

The suggestion also made some listeners more and more incensed. What seemed obvious to Garland, others found offensive. Or rather: fucking bullshit! Thats because determinism implies we never actually make choices. We are not free, but necessitated, impotent.

Which brings Garland to the irate man.

He goes, 'How could you even say something as dumb as that?' remembers Garland. And then I'm like, 'well, heres how.'

Alex Garland Talks 'Devs' and Determinism
Alex Garland Talks 'Devs' and Determinism
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Garland grew up in London. His father was a cartoonist. His mother a psychologist. Religion, Garland says, he absorbed by osmosis at school, where he would sing hymns to start each school day. In a sense, Devs began there.

When Garland was fifteen, his physics teacher gave a speech about the dangers of trick-or-treating, exclaiming, whatever you do, kids, you should not go out Halloween-ing, because that's when the devil will enter you, Garland recalls. I just remember sitting there thinking, this is insane. The event would mark a series of religious doubts, culminating in Garlands late teens when his girlfriend became ill. She worried God was punishing her for dating Garland, a non-Jew. So God's going to intervene in who you date, but it's not going to get involved in the Holocaust? Garland thought. That doesn't seem right. Garland chose apostasy. And after college, he escaped by traveling.

Garland went to live in the Philippines where he began writing a novel. The Beach was based on Garland's experience backpacking through Asia. It was ironic Kerouac, a snide tale of late adolescents using southeast Asia as a playground of self-discovery. The novel became such a sensation that Garland, then 26, was offered a publishers contract for two more. He was even given a sizable fee advance. But Garland didnt want it. He didnt care. He was interested in film and had already started writing a screenplay, a zombie movie, 28 Days Later.

Garland then wrote more. Sunshine. Never Let Me Go. The ultra-violent cult-hit, Dredd. Then, he made his directorial debut in 2014 with Ex Machina. His screenplay, about a programmer who performs an increasingly-trying Turing test on an AI machine, Ava, earned Garland an Oscar nomination and a devoted fanbase.

Garland with Ex Machina star Alicia Vikander
Garland with Ex Machina star Alicia Vikander
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Garland says all his films begin with an obsession, some concept that ruminates inside his head, which then takes him to the librarythen out to discuss with friends.

For me [Devs] began with the realization that determinism would be incredibly easy to disprove, Garland explains. All you'd need to do is show something that was completely spontaneous. But showing spontaneity proved challenging.

While actions like choosing a box of Cheerios feels spontaneous, its hard to say that this choice is uncaused. Our decision is likely influenced by many unconscious causesour previous meal, our cravings, a health report we saw on Facebook, an ad on TV. Our intuition is that our cereal decision could be otherwise. If we simulate this event an infinite number of times, it seems we wouldnt choose Cheerios every time. And if on just one occasion we dont, determinism is false. But the more one thinks about it, the harder it is to imagine this one occasion. Garlands determinism machine was born.

Devs, however, is less concerned with proving determinism than it is in showing viewers its consequences.

One of those consequences is no doubt religious.

Like the Bible, Devs opens with original sin. A programmer, Sergei, is invited to join the team working on the determinism machine. When Sergei realizes what the machine can do, he steals the code and runs. In the woods, he is confronted by Forest, the companys CEO and Garlands seeming stand-in for God (played poignantly by Nick Offerman). Just as in Genesis, the newly-enlightened Sergei is banished for his crime and then turned back to dusthere after being suffocated in a plastic bag and then burned, all of which Forest knew would take place. The killing highlights one of Garlands oldest religious holdups: how an all-knowing god can punish those he knows will sin. Also: why wouldnt he try and stop it?

Natalie Portman in Annihilation.
Natalie Portman in Annihilation.
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In school, Garland was told it was too complicated to understand. God moves in mysterious ways. But the response is it's not too complicated to understand, Garland explains. God either knows everything or he doesnt. Garlands answer through Forest: He knows everything, but he can change nothing. Sergei was always going to die. Garlands teacher was always going to make that speech. He would always break up with his girlfriend. Etc.

Garland realizes this sort of abstract storytelling can be hard on audiences. In a sense, he could have cashed in after The Beach or when Ex Machina won an Academy Award. He could have gone mainstream. But he balked both times. He wrote two more novels at his own pace and turned from laboratory AI to nightmarish acid trip with his follow-up, Annihilation. Garland jokes some viewers probably watch his films and go, what the hell?

The reason, Garland explains, is that his brand of cinema is ideas-driven and the messaging therein can, at times, be obscure. (He tells me the shoot-em-up Dredd is partly about the way liberals kind of love fascists.) But theres another quality that tends to alienate viewers.

One of the things that some people find very problematic in the stories I tell is what they feel as a kind of weird blankness, Garland explains. Garland first encountered this himself when he was 15, reading J.G Ballards Empire of the Sun. The protagonist is a kid, and he has weirdly blank responses to terrible things happening in front of him. And that was the book, more than any other book, where I thought, oh, wow, this was written for me.

Garland calls the blankness in his works disassociation. Its the feeling of hearing your own voice recorded or seeing yourself in a photo and realizing the image you had of yourselfalways through mirrorswas actually distorted, wrong. Garland felt certain of his own disassociation, that his account of himself was somehow incongruent with how others saw him. I find it weird, personally, that I try to be self-aware, but I'm just not, he says, very seriously. And I do things that are hiding something about my personality [to myself]. And everybody else thinks it's completely obvious. This thought, Garland says, literally keeps him up at night.

Sonoya Mizuno in Devs
Sonoya Mizuno in Devs
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These questions are fundamentally questions of identity, and Garlands work, starting with The Beach, has been a series of thought experiments driving identity into crisis: zombified London, Ava, an alien that steals human DNA, code that predicts, well, everything. Garland seeks out this dissociation, because in the blankness hes able to ask an essential question: what does it really mean for you to be YOU? (Or for Garland to be Garland?)

In Devs, that assumed answer is simply I am me because I can choose. I have control over what I do. The blankness likely comes when the characters, and the viewer, realizes they, in fact, cant and dont. Of course, many of Garlands characters never doubt their freedom. Even the ones who work on the determinism machine. They never use the machine to look into their future. Thats something I feel happens with lots of belief sets, Garland explains. They are deliberately not looking too hard at their own doubts. They are saying, dont question it.

Garland, of course, is of the opposite attitude; blankness is productive. And in the case of Devs, Garland actually thinks that giving oneself over to determinism can be liberating. If determinism is true, its consequences arent just those of lossloss of choice, loss of god. What fascinates Garland about the determinism machine is that it actually offers something: knowledge. It gives the participant full self-awareness. Youd sacrifice your belief in choice, sure. But what you gain is ammunition against dissociation: you learn why you chose what you chose, and so, in a sense, who you really are. Garland would take this apple in a heartbeat.

I find it weird, personally, that I try to be self aware, but I\'m just not. And I do things that are hiding something about my personality [to myself].

The dilemma at the heart of Devs is thus not about determinism so much as it is about knowledge. Given the power to learn the secrets of creation and yourselfgiven access to the determinism machinewould you peek?

It would be almost impossible to not look, Garland says. You'd end up feeling ashamed of yourself for not being brave enough. In a sense, we owe it to ourselves. No bullshit.

Seeing our choices for what they are, however, doesnt somehow diminish us. Perhaps impotence is the wrong word then. While Garlands films and novels pose and then challenge features of identity, they never feel mean-spirited or reductionist. Blank or disarming as they may be, theres a small celebration in the individual. That she cant quite be replicated without some alien uncanniness. That deprived of choice, he still manages to feel (and even act) free. In the end, it is really we who move in mysterious ways. Mysterious, however, only to ourselves.