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Exploring existential entanglements
on 15 January 2006
Imagine a future where you don’t need sleep, where you don’t lose any part of your memory, your body doesn't age and you are never prone to any disease. You keep all your mental and intellectual capacities, even your emotional ones. You can still identify your “self”. All this is achieved by having your mind “uploaded” into a perfect body of chosen age and live happily ever after. You have become a Mindscan. Not, so fast, though! What about your consciousness, your “soul”? Can it really be copied? And what is going to happen to the original biological self? What about the reactions of family and friends; how do they take this technological wonderwork?
What drives people to take this extreme step? The two protagonists make this choice for different reasons. Karen Bessarian, a highly successful writer in her eighties, doesn’t accept the fast approaching end of her life. She has more books to write and life to enjoy, so she chooses a younger body. Jake, the rich forty-something heir to a Canadian brewery, carries his father’s genetic marker for a brain defect. The older Sullivan collapsed into a vegetative state after a row between father and son when Jake was 17. Jake had put his life on hold to avoid stress and other triggers for brain damage. Meeting at a sales event for the Mindscan technology, Karen and Jake develop their relationship in different ways – as biological selves and as mind “instantiations” with new perfect bodies.
Once the "uploads" have passed their first examinations they are let loose on their family and community with varying results. Tongue in cheek, Sawyer cannot resist some small political stabs contrasting US society at the time [as projected from present conditions] with an increasingly broadminded and left-leaning Canadian one. Jake doesn’t fare well as an uploaded new self. His mother refuses to accept his new identity, his love doesn’t even look at him. Sawyer presents a realistic scenario for his exploration of the reaction of the “loved ones” resulting in most of the story playing out in and around a US court room. Karen’s son, expecting a rich inheritance, challenges the “thing” that has taken over from her. “I don’t care whether copied consciousnesses are in fact persons in their own right. The issue is whether they are the same person as the original.” His lawyer, of course, argues that “it” is not and brings various scientists as witnesses. The other side also has ample expertise on its side and a lot riding on success.
Sawyer has created an intriguing speculative fiction world some 40 years hence where mind scans are possible. In his version of 2045, the technology for cloning humans has not been mastered. Instead, the brain is copied – completely and accurately – in a moment of “quantal entanglement” of the biological brain. The process creates a quantum fog that congeals into one artificial replacement brain. The new “you” takes over from that point. To avoid the problems of sudden doubles or clones, the original, now a "shed skin", has to disappear. Conveniently, lunar explorations have advanced so that a retirement home can provide for the cast-offs - most of whom are old and expect to die within a short span of time anyway. They are mostly rich and content with their lot. Given the costs involved in the whole process, overcrowding is not a problem and any luxury desired can be provided. However, Jake is not finished with earth life yet...
The subject of consciousness and individual self is not a new one for Sawyer. This time, though, he has expanded the complexities beyond what he did, for example, in Factoring Humanity. Using the present–day hot debates around new findings in brain research and the challenges they pose to our understanding of human individuality and functioning into the near future, he confronts our perceptions and belief systems. This opens a new dimension for the philosophical/scientific debate on human consciousness and identity. Professionals as well as interested laypersons grapple with the dividing line between neuron pathways as a result of biochemical reactions and brain functions as expression of thought, argument or emotion, the “soul”.
Mindscan, while deeply philosophical, is an absorbing, well written and highly enjoyable story. Current scientific research and its impact on our future societies are front and centre of this novel, yet, it doesn’t overwhelm the reader and moves easily along with the narrative’s flow. Sawyer has created a complex and very human tale of individuals thriving for their own, unique, personally fulfilling lives. Star Trek: TNG’s Data, who always thrives to become more human, would find good role models in the android versions of Karen and Jake. [Friederike Knabe]