How Science Fiction Redefines Who We Are, and What We’re Becoming
On Technology and the Reinvention of Selfhood
On August 12th, 2013, Rajesh Rao, a researcher at the University of Washington sat in a leather couch watching a crudely rendered orange sky on a computer screen. As a cartoon rocket crossed the screen, Rao, who was wearing a dark blue cap studded with electrodes, sent a signal over the Internet to trigger a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil, or TMS. The TMS, resting over assistant professor Andrea Stocco’s left motor cortex, caused Stocco’s finger to tap a key, which fired a cartoon cannon at the rocket. Rao was playing a simple game by using his mind to move Stocco’s finger.
The video game Rao and Stocco played at the University of Washington showed that one person could move another’s body through a mind-to-mind connection. Should their demonstration change the way we think about what a person is, what an individual is, or what a body is?
Similarly, if what I feel and do depends on bacteria in my gut, are those bacteria a part of “me”? If I am a data point in the predictable behavior of a population, am I a part of a larger “me”? If a system manages the actions of my body without “my” awareness, is it part of “me”? If my feelings and memories are replicated outside my body, will they still be part of “me”? You don’t need to be impressed by any individual question to feel a cumulative weight of doubt.
And it’s not just ideas about the physical self that are in flux. In our culture, work is a fundamental part of identity. The recently coined term “economic singularity” refers to the point at which all work can be automated. It may sound absurd, but the idea that in the foreseeable future all human labor will be superfluous is making its way through our culture. Whether the idea is right, partially right, or wrong, it can still create anxiety.
My first novel, Join, imagines a technology that allows a small group of people to unite, becoming a single awareness with multiple bodies. The new, unified individual must think about self, social relationships and mortality in new ways. After writing Join, I began to see how other writers were reimagining the self. Many of their stories are science fiction, but others use structures that don’t implicate technology. The novel seems a particularly apt medium for this work, as layers of narrative perspective offer a foil for the layers of awareness.
Ramez Naam’s Nexus Trilogy describes a nano technology that extends the work of Rao, Stocco and others. It creates a channel for rich mind-to-mind communication, and a new layer of control over our bodies. Nexus also assumes that a human-like consciousness can exist as a product of computer data and processes, which is one of the most influential ideas in modern science fiction. (And is usually paired with the question of whether such a consciousness should be considered human.)
But why do we imagine investing consciousness into things? Why is the desire to have the non-human world speak to us a primary theme of speculative fiction? Our fascination may owe as much to an instinct to anthropomorphize the world—or to test the world for human consciousness—as it does to any benefits that might result from specific technical achievements. If so, the idea has a conceptual lineage in fiction that passes through the myth of the golem and the story of Pinocchio. Technology and literature are both expressions of the human heart and mind. Can our rich literary history also help us understand the forces that are setting direction for technical innovation?
The Nexus books occur in a period of transition, and Naam has plotted them around tensions between traditional views of the self and new possibilities. From the first book in the trilogy:
He had his own dreams. A thousand minds connected. A million. A billion. […] Would they still be human at the end of this? Might they be something more?
All of the Nexus books build on contemporary thinking around what “something more” might be, and Naam is an informed, thoughtful and creative writer. The Nexus trilogy focuses on the practical consequences of technologies, and assumes that people might be able to manage oncoming changes. The result is a fiction of adventure and optimism, even when it addresses risk and dystopic themes.
But can we really manage whatever is causing technological change, or even understand it? A story’s relationship to that question can inform genre and narrative strategy. Other recent books position a disintegration of the self as a part of a broader assault on our understanding of reality, and suggest that the assault comes from forces or principles we can’t control.
In Mark Doten’s novel, The Infernal (Mark Doten is my editor at Soho Press) the pages of memory and identity are encrypted, shuffled, and selectively decrypted for the reader. (The book embodies this metaphor by, in part, including random strings of text in arbitrary places.) The Infernal introduces its characters as dramatis personae. Though many bear familiar names—e.g., Condoleeza Rice, L. Paul Bremer, Osama Bin Laden, Mark Zuckerberg, Nathan Myhrvold—the characters are distortions of their namesakes. For example, the Condoleeza Rice and Paul Bremmer of The Infernal are adopted siblings. In this world—located between a noumenal reality and something like The Matrix—names adhere for associative value.
One of the The Infernal’s story points is the omnosyne, a device that retrieves and stores essential information about an individual. Unlike the benign mind-computer interfaces in most science fiction, the omnosyne tortures and kills its human subjects. In The Infernal, the digital manipulation and storage of consciousness has gone catastrophically awry. Its fragmented characters, with identities cobbled out of a cultural landfill of self-awareness, splinter and stagger and sometimes struggle heroically beneath forces that appear to be political and technological, but are ultimately mysterious.
While The Infernal plunges the reader directly into this nightmare, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer expertly guides her into similar terrain. The story begins by following a small research expedition into a mysterious and dangerous place known as Area X. Whereas The Infernal finds irrationality and mystery in politics and technology, in Annihilation they grow out of biological processes.
From the beginning, the novelist denies the reader the use of character names. The relationships between characters quickly descends into speculation around motives that is both reasonable and intensely paranoid. Characters’ memories of past relationships are uncertain, as are assumptions they make about the place that surrounds them. The botanist, the novel’s protagonist, withholds information not only from the reader but from herself as well. For example, rather than explain why Area X is uninhabited, the botanist says:
I understood why no one lived in Area X now, that it was pristine because of that reason, but I kept un-remembering it. I had decided instead to make-believe that it was simply a protected wildlife refuge…
With a paranoid thoroughness, Annihilation asks fundamental questions such as how we come by our ability to read and write. Early in the book, the botanist encounters a life form that leaves what might be a fungal spoor on the walls of a mysterious well or tower. The spoor, which may not “need to be made of anything,” spells out words that other members of the expedition may or may not be able to read. The ineffable logic of Area X, immune to our science and reason, overwhelms our understanding of what we are.
In Charles Yu’s novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe and his short story collection, Sorry, Please, Thank You, it’s human ingenuity that unleashes innovations that fragment the self. The gremlins of invention—represented by the salesman of manufactured and prepackaged lives, and the company whose employees experience other people’s grief—are blowing raspberries at the better angels of our nature, who might have hoped to offer them guidance. In these stories, individual identity is a resource to be fractured and mined for commercial gain.
Yu also uses technology as a metaphor to pick apart the sense of time passing and life unfolding. His novel’s protagonist is a network technician in the time travel industry, and the protagonist’s mother has retired into a repeating 60-minute time loop. Yu’s skewed metaphors are lyrical and rich not only because they resonate with a felt experience of memory and perception, many of them also recall the clouds of factoids bubbling endlessly out of modern research and into social media.
In these works, personal transformation is seen variously as a problem to be solved, a mysterious fait accompli, an alien threat, and the predictable result of ungovernable human desire. In each, we peer at aspects of the self through the magnifying lens of technology. Science and technology may be motivating a reimagining of the self, but they’re not always central to the work.
David Mitchell’s first book, Ghostwritten can be experienced as a novel or as a collection or short stories, and includes a character who seems meant to bridge the two forms. The book’s “Mongolia” segment is narrated by a noncorporeal entity, a being who lives in the bodies of others and can travel between bodies when they touch. The entity’s description of inhabiting a mind is reminiscent of the experience of reading one of Ghostwritten’s teeming segments:
However much I learn from the nonstop highways of minds like Caspar’s, they make me giddy. It would be the euro’s exchange rate one minute, a film he’d once seen about art thieves in Petersburg the next, a memory of fishing with his uncle between islets the next, some pop song or a friend’s Internet home page the next. No stopping.
The noncorporeal entity explains the rules of its existence as it moves toward choosing a final form. Its story arc invests the book’s episodic structure and Mitchell’s musings on fate and chance with an explicit invitation to imagine the various forms a single life might take. By offering only minimal connections between stories, Mitchell allows the reader’s experience to stand-in for the novel’s missing structure.
The idea of the self connects directly to the reality of death. I know that I will die, and my death will be mine alone. But what is gained by connecting one question mark (the mystery of identity) with another (the mystery of death)? In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson explores that terrain in an episodic novel built around reincarnation.
After Ursula Todd dies, she’s reborn again as herself. Though she’s unaware of her cycles of rebirth, she accumulates memories of traumas that persist as intuition and that slowly help her create a satisfying life. In one sequence, eight year old Ursula dies in the influenza epidemic of 1918. She’s reborn, and as her death approaches again, she is moved by intuition to avoid the same fatal series of events. After enduring several cycles of life, death and rebirth, she eventually finds a path to survival.
As with Ghostwritten, Life After Life explores multiple perspectives through a single point of view. But Life After Life is interested in the many different ways in which a person can remain herself. Other than the conjectures of her childhood psychoanalyst (her parents find Ursula disturbingly precocious), Ursula has little insight into what is happening to her, and her understanding of her own life remains fairly conventional. But psychoanalysis is the modern discipline that effectively broke the rationalist model of a unified self. The episodic structure of the book shows us that Ursula has a dual nature: the awareness she imagines, and a more comprehensive one, an awareness more decorated than demarcated by death.
Science is challenging the boundaries of the self while technology breaches them. Our ideas of our selves—which underlie our laws, our social standards, and our close relationships—may not be keeping up with what we’re becoming. As we attempt to shape a new understanding of our selves, fiction—with its dexterous intermingling of words and dreams—is a natural place to turn for new perspectives.