The trope that changed my mind

Major spoilers for Get Out and lesser spoilers for Six Wakes follow below. This got long and warnings around topics that touch on (but don’t discuss in detail) body image.

Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes occupy different genres of speculative fiction. One is a contemporary horror film that examines privilege and alienation and the other is a space adventure set in the future. Such differences do not preclude similarities – both deal with violence, mistrust, secrets and the abuse of power. In both wealthy characters use their position to manipulate people into losing autonomy over themselves both in terms of their overall identity and their physical bodies.

The trope I’m interested in though is another feature common to both stories: the capacity to move a mind from one body to another. The details of the mechanism in both stories are not explained in detail for good reason. Firstly it is largely unnecessary to the plot beyond a certain level of detail and secondly, too much detail would work against our suspension of disbelief. There’s a sweet spot both works hit where there’s enough information to drive the story (or add a gory scene) but not so much that we are faced with implausible info-dumps. We have insufficient understanding of what a mind is to even assume that such an exchange is possible.

Both stories imply that such a transfer has problems and limitations. In Get Out the victims of the wealthy family retain some residual identity – enough to allow brief periods of control (most vividly in the shouted warning of the film’s title to the main character). In Six Wakes the flaw in the transfer method is revealed immediately – a discontinuity of memories due to an erasure of recent back-ups. Without a largely unbroken chain of memories, the question arises as to whose mind has been transferred to a fresh body? Are we our past selves, or are those beings who preceded us in the past mere relatives? The question is relevant even if we aren’t clones.

I’m not intending to nit-pick either story as a criticism of them as works. As I said above, I think they are both good examples of how to suggest a speculative technology without bogging the story down in the mechanics of it. Having said that I still want to nit-pick for the pure purpose of thinking about both stories and this idea of swapping minds and brains and identities.

How old is it? I think we can count Frankenstein as close to the trope. Mary Shelley also neatly avoids being too detailed in what Victor Frankenstein actually does to create his monster but the monster ends up with a brain but no overt residual memories. Get Out reveals that the process for stealing the living bodies of young black people for the use of ageing white people uses a physical brain transplant, with just a tiny portion of the victim’s original brain left intact. Aside from raising the horror levels of the story up a notch in a pivotal scene, the process implies an ultimate theft and exploitation of a person’s body.

Less clear is the use of hypnosis in Get Out. Missy Armitage hypnotises Chris in a deeply disturbing scene. Ostensibly, this is done to help him quit smoking but the film makes it clear there is a loss of both consent and control for Chris. Missy exploits past trauma to make Chris effectively disassociate his own identity from his perception. As he moves to the ominously named ‘sunken place’ he loses physical control and his vision contracts to a distant window as if he is a passive viewer of his life on a remote television screen.

The film (rightly) does not address the question of mind/brain duality. Instead, we see the Armitages assault Chris’s identity in both ways – via hypnosis and then attempt to physically remove his brain. And yes, hypnosis doesn’t work that way and the question of how a brain could be wired into another body only implies more questions. Get Out does not imply the rest of the body is irrelevant to cognition and identity but only that the Armitages (and their wealthy friends/fellow cultists?) believe it to be so.

Six Wakes presents a compromise between mind and brain. The mind can be reduced to digital information recorded in electronic media but then so can the physical body. Central to the story is a protean substance that can be used to effectively 3-D print organic structures – including human bodies. The ‘clones’ of Six Wakes are replicated bodies based on the ‘DNA’ of the original person. OK, DNA doesn’t work that way and in particular, it doesn’t have anything about your actual memories (as implied later in the story) but as a rough sketch, the idea is a compelling one.

In the story, human society has the capacity to not only record the physical body, memories and mental state of a person so as to replicate them but also has the capacity to alter the digital medium in which the information is stored to effect changes in how a person is reproduced. The mind is largely presented as an embodied thing but there are implications that minds just need the right body rather than an up-to-date physical reconstruction of the person’s brain.

In a major twist, it is revealed that the AI of the space-ship in which the main story is set, an actual a human mind that has been embodied in the ship instead of a human body. However, like Get Out the story strongly suggests any such shenanigans with mismatching minds with bodies comes with a cost to both. Other characters find themselves having grossly edited versions of themselves inhabiting the same bodies. One character appears to have constructed an AI within themselves – a feature that persists across replications.

There are several components in play when it comes to shaping the idea of mind transference:

  • Bodies – is our mind constrained to a single organ or are our mental processes shaped by our whole nervous system or whole body? Would I, in a different body be the same person? Everything from hormones to self-perception would change. How would our proprioception function if suddenly plonked into a new body? (As somebody whose proprioception is less than perfect, it might even be better!) What about muscle memory? I can imagine a nightmare scenario of inhabiting another body and yet only being aware of the phantom limbs of your old body.
  • Brains – is a brain an empty computer waiting for a digital download of software and memories? Clearly not – our brains grow and change as we grow and learn. Our experiences physically shape our mind and result in changes to the brain. Six Wakes 3D printing still works in this context but there’s more to it than simply DNA.
  • Memories – are we still who we are without our memories? Narratively this question often revolves around specifically episodic memory. The idea of a protagonist who can’t remember recent events (or perhaps their whole past biography) is not unique to science fiction – although it is arguably always a kind of speculative content and rarely resembles clinical amnesia. In the 1996 spy-thriller, The Long Kiss Goodnight Geena Davis’s character is a spy/assassin who due to a car crash believes her deep-cover story to be true. She retains physical skills but is unaware of them and has forgotten both episodic and some semantic memories to varying degrees (or has suppressed them). In effect, she has hacked herself in a way that is not dissimilar to the mind hacking in Six Wakes.

 

What can I say? The concept of swapping brain, mind and body is such a rich idea that even when used for horror it is always fascinating. Our own experiences lead us naturally to see our own self-identity as being closely related to but distinct from our own bodies. We can dislike or feel actively alienated from our bodies or feel trapped by them or be repeatedly frustrated by them. At the same time, our bodies shape our brains and hence our minds. Identity is connected with our bodies and our appearance as well as with our personality and our capacity to change our appearance can be a liberating aspect of personalities.

The missing component of our personal identity in the list above is the extent to which our identity extends beyond our own bodies and into our social network. Changing how others think of us is important to how we think of ourselves. That goes beyond appearance and how we perform (and ‘perform’ it self-carries all kinds of odd implications – i.e. that what is performed is somehow not real).

Possession as a concept is older than science-fiction as a recognised genre. Demonic control of a person was a genuine belief that carries forward into how we talk about our own behaviour (‘I wasn’t myself’ or ‘I lost my temper’) and about others (‘It was out of character’). There is a dual horror both of deception (a person is not what they appear to be) and also theft of identity.

Both Six Wakes and Get Out use our cultural fears of possesion to create fear and tension. However, Six Wakes uses this primarily in the form of fear of the other – there is a killer on board the ship and the apparent character of each crew member is not a trustworthy indication of their nature – indeed one person contains a murderous sub-personality hidden inside them. With Get Out possession is theft and loss of self – a literal attempt to steal bodies for the use of somebody else. This is also revealed by a sense of a breach of trust based on appearance – Chris attempts to talk to one of the few black guests at the social gathering only to find the experience unsettling in the first instance and horrifying in the second.

Fiction role is not primarily for such thought experiments into the nature of ourselves but it is wonderful that it can do so. That we have a way of playing with deep ideas in popular culture is something that science-fiction and science-fictional tropes and themes provides to wider society. Now I must go and download a different personality and play with the cat.

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7 comments

  1. Bonnie McDaniel

    Cam, have you read any of Peter Watts’ work? This is getting a bit into his wheelhouse. In particular, the idea of our conscious and subconscious minds being two separate entities.

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  2. stevejwright

    As a practical point, the copy is going to think of itself as the original – who else is it going to think it is? Hmm. Probably. Though if its new body is sufficiently different, will it necessarily *act* like the original? As you say, the extent to which our bodies influence our thinking is… hard to determine, objectively. But, *subjectively*, from the point of view of the copy, the original’s identity is all it’s got to go on, I guess.

    There have been some interesting takes on this topic in SF, some of them from some quite surprising sources. Jack Chalker’s “Four Lords of the Diamond” books involve a James-Bond-style super-agent being copied and downloaded into four new bodies, for infiltration purposes… each one starts out with exactly the same first-person narrative, with the agent reviewing the situation, making a mental note that the copies will have to be disposed of once they’ve done their work – and then having a horrible moment of realization when he notices he’s not in his own body. And each version then seems to develop in slightly different ways, though influenced more by the available space-opera superscience than the physiological differences between bodies.

    Then there’s the “Sten” series by Chris Bunch and Allan Cole – conventional enough mil-SF for the most part, but with the interesting notion of the Eternal Emperor who runs everything; he gets to be eternal through serial cloning – he’s assassinated at one point, and a new clone body is woken up and run through a pattern of formative experiences, guided by an implanted radio-control system with records of the original’s memories. The catch is, the new version of the Emperor *doesn’t want this*, and his endeavour to shake off the post-mortem control of his previous self is what drives the plot of the final volumes.

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  3. IanP

    I read Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon and Peter F Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star at roughly the same time, both dealt extensively with body backup drives/clone insurance and so on. In each case the technology had had profound sociological effects but while Hamilton’s had made humanity overall much more positive and mature, Carbon’s future was much more exploring the dark side of virtual torture, infiltration and the ultra-rich Methusala’s gaining the most out of the tech.

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