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At first it seems that the inner world of the Tron movies are obviously simulations inside a computer/network but there are a couple of oddities that don't fit well with this point of view where things that you would expect not to be simulated are, such as Users bleeding and the appearance of air.

Those few points could be explained as exceptions or special cases in the simulation but there could be another option: the world of Tron is an alternate reality that mirrors or is a metaphor for the internal processes of a computer system.

An alternate reality with it's own special rules would allow us to explain all the points we see in the movies without discrepancy, whereas stating that it is a simulation program run on a computer leaves these discrepancies without a good explanation.

In short the essence of the question is... is Tron sci-fi or fantasy? In sci-fi we expect to follow a set of rules that bear some resemblance to reality and that is internally consistent. In fantasy our expectation is that the 'magic' allows any discrepancies to exists without contravening the rules of the fantasy world.

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    Disagree with the last paragraph. "Alternate reality with different laws of nature" falls well within the realm of hard SF. I see your point though; upvoting. – Mr Lister Jan 11 '13 at 15:08
  • @MrLister Likewise with magic having well-defined rules and limitations (which, I admit, is less common). – Izkata Jan 12 '13 at 0:12
  • @MrLister Good point but is Tron consistent or inconsistent? – user11295 Jan 12 '13 at 13:22
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Digitizing a human is supposed to turn them into a process running on a computer. This is something that could possibly maybe happen in the real world, if you allowed for a lot of very specific definitions of what a human being is, what it actually means for one to "run" on a computer, and assume a great big honking load of hardware.

The Tron-world is an abstraction of the inner workings of a computer. Admittedly a very, very rough abstraction, and baffling to anyone who's ever written a line of code in their life, but an abstraction nonetheless, where seemingly real world actions like jumping, talking, walking, fighting, bleeding, hugging, are supposed to represent a step in the execution of the process performing these actions. We don't know what those steps are, or what technical facet of program processing is being represented by, say, taking a disc to the face. It's not unfeasible that a digitized human process would respond to that action differently than a non-human process.

Perhaps the analogues are there because the world is a simulation created by Master Control, who decided it would be funny to make humans breathe and bleed but programs not. Perhaps the analogues are there because that's the way the human process interface has decided to render a complex paralleled resource allocation. We're not given much to go on as to the exact nature of the computer world, but I don't think there's anything in the movies that says a User needs to work the same as a program for the world to be consistent.

Edit: In short, I think it's sci-fi, or at least intended to be :)

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First of all, attempting to label a work as science fiction or fantasy can be fraught with peril. Some argue that any science or technology that does not currently exist in our society is fantasy, and yes that includes staples of conventional SF such as FTL drive.

Before going on, I would also like to point out that Tron is similar in some aspects to the animated movie Wreck-it Ralph and reference this question. The critical differences being that in WIR, life forms are electrical in nature (since they can travel along power cords), in the world of Tron they are entirely digital in nature as travel is via network and other digital connections.

Things that I think we have to accept up front about the world of Tron, that 1) programs are alive; 2) humans can enter the world of Tron through a digital conversion process; 3) humans how abilities in the world of Tron that programs do not; 4) Programs have characteristics of their creators.

I believe that the fact that the programs are clearly alive is an indication that the world of Tron is not a simulation. The computing technology available in 1982 would not have permitted a simulation of that scale.

It seems to me that the world of Tron must be some kind of pocket or sub-universe, contained within the "real" universe of that story. All access to the world of Tron is through that universe. If the world of Tron was a larger scale structure, it should be possible to access it from other universes.

It is a long standing meme in fantasy that magic is ultimately derived from human belief, faith or life force. It seems reasonable to presume that the world of Tron and the living programs that it contains have somehow been created by the life force of the people that worked on them. As a person works on a piece of hardware or software, they invest some of their life force in their work and that force, as well as their beliefs goes to shape the digital world of Tron.

This provides some explanation behind the digitization of humans. The process of digitization would take the entirety of a human's life force and transfer it to the Tron world. This is why humans in that world have extra abilities - unlike programs which are constructed from small quantities of human life force, the digitized humans are bundles of pure, raw human life force - the very essence from which the programs and the entire Tron world have been created.

Ultimately, many people would consider anything involving "life force" to be strictly fantasy. However, there are some works, such as Babylon 5 and Star Trek where advanced life forms can be entirely or mostly energy (Q, Organians, Vorlons) and so an argument could be made under a similar theory that Tron is science fiction. Where and how the SF/F line is drawn is a very tricky and subjective subject.

  • Babylon 5 also has the alien healing device of unknown origin, which "transfers life force". It helps with disease, comas, and other non-physical injuries by boosting the body's own healing factors. – Izkata Jan 12 '13 at 0:15
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The Grid. A digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer. What did they look like? Ships? motorcycles? Were the circuits like freeways? I kept dreaming of a world I thought I'd never see. And then, one day...I got in!

The original simulation as controlled by the Master Control Program was rigid. It was just the Grid as it existed naturally within the confines of the mainframes at ENCOM. Things were basically built to be functional and nothing more, as a computer might build them. Some things were designed by Flynn (such as the tanks), but he didn't realize the at the time they that within the Grid they were actually represented.

The new version of the Grid created by Flynn in is significantly improved / different from the first one. This one was initially designed from the ground up by Flynn. Flynn's real world experiences obviously shaped the development of this new Grid. Flynn has a passion for motorcycles, and you see that reflected in the development of the lightcycles.

tron, tron-legacy lightcylces

Flynn's motorcycle enthusiasm has clearly changed the overall design of lightcycles to be more like real world motorcycles. This is also true of the planes he designs. It would be perfectly natural for him to design planes with wings, even though they aren't required within the Grid. If they were, how would the Recognizer fly? The wings are just an aesthetic quality. To him, a flying fighter "plane" would probably seem pretty strange as just a box.

Sam bleeds because he is a user, and not a program. It is also the plot device that allows Rinzer / Tron and CLU to figure out who he is. We never saw Flynn get injured in the first movie, but we did see him and other programs get out of breathe / tired.

  • +1 just for the quote although I still find the end of this answer unsatisfying – user11295 Jan 12 '13 at 13:26
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There is a fact not mentioned - the way humans are processing information.

If you look on something, everything you get is some light, hitting your retina and those signals are then processed by your brain. In real world, there actually is no color, there are wavelenghts which are interpreted by our brain.

So the whole process about "sensing" is just a matter of what our brain is doing with proivided information.

On this base, the world of Tron must not be anything which you can actually touch, see or feel. It can be just a stream of information fed to your brain resulting in actuall feels, visuals etc.

So, when you jump in Tron-World must not mean, that you are actually moving. It's just a command resulting in an expected behaviour, if you like. There must not be a real jump involved and there also must not be any physics involved.

So it is fully possible that the world of tron (when digitized) is just what our brain makes out of this information.

Look it like this. If Sam goes into Tron, he would have a completely different experience than Flynn. Actually he had - the World of Tron was completely different for Sam.

Some say, World-Of-Tron involved. But it is also possible, that it didn't change at all and the Legacy-Tron-World is just what Tron looks/feels for Sam instead of Flynn. There is still some common sense about environment like gravity, lookalike because it is the human expectation of a world.

What would happen, when you digitize a dog. How would the dog sense the World of Tron. Maybe there would be cats instead of motorcylces. Because the motorcycle is just a visual repesentation of some information in the grid which just gets intepreted by the brain connected.

  • Upvote for this, as this is where I was going when I read the question. We have our own perception, and if I had to explain it, I'd go along the same route, the programs talk/interact/bleed, because Flynn EXPECTS them to. – JohnP Nov 25 '13 at 18:39
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it's BOTH an Alternate Reality and it contains many simulations and contructs (Programs, people are "Basics", vehicles, tools, buildings, weather, landcape. breathing and the "air" or "wind" is illusionary and just another simulation.

That's what I think some people don't get, that the Grid is both simulation AND another reality/dimensional space or "realm" that exsists withn Flynn's server computers. It's what makes "The Grid" different than "the Matrix". Bot Alternate Reality AND simulation at the same time.

  • Good answer - would be even better if you expanded on your premise – user11295 Jan 12 '13 at 13:27
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The Tron world isn't a simulation or alternate reality - I think it's meant to be an interpretation of our own reality according to the panpsychism school of thought. So in some sense programs and computers are consciously aware systems and the Tron world is how they perceive the universe in which they're immersed.

You could argue that an unsophisticated collection of transistors or an actuarial program wouldn't have the same level of conscious awareness that we do, so some artistic license is used in Tron. Still, Tron scores points for posing some far out concepts in science fiction. Tron + Bladerunner (+ novels like Neuromancer) were key to creating the cyberpunk genre in the early 1980s.

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