The Magazine

Brain Drain

A tale of old minds in new bodies, and the meaning of consciousness.

Jun 2, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 36 • By ANN MARLOWE
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I'm poor in everything but ironies, and to be truthful, I’ve forgotten what’s so good about irony in the first place. It’s just the resting state of the universe. .  .  . Irony is not order, but it gives a shape to things.

This is the voice of the narrator of Strange Bodies, and there’s nothing in his diction to betray that this is a book of speculative fiction, or science fiction, as you prefer. Nor is there anything in his asides about his academic specialty, Samuel Johnson (“Johnson seems to project a vast empathy back out to the reader; he seems to know what it is like for the reader to live”), or in the stray facts we learn as he recounts the story of his life. (Who knew that, in Dr. Johnson’s England, postage was paid by the recipient, so letters were written to use each sheet of paper to the maximum?)

The speculative element, which comes upon the reader in the very first line—“Whatever this is, it started when Nicky Slopen came back from the dead”—is developed in our narrator’s grave and understandable anxieties about his identity. But these are announced in terms more usual in literary fiction: “I am a living refutation of Descartes. I am a codable sequence of proteins. I am a mind’s shadow. Someone is building God in a dark cup.” (I had to look up that last line, from Jorge Luis Borges’s poem “Baruch Spinoza.”)

What we think of as unique in us is infinitesimal. We can be coded in a few days. .  .  . The truth is, we are virtually identical. We are interchangeable. That is the true beauty of humanity: ant beauty, not peacock beauty.

About midway, there’s a wrenching moment when we understand who the narrator is and what the references to coding mean and why he has been talking around the fact. But by then, the novel has shed its initial stately pace for the rapid shifts and suspense of a finely crafted thriller.

Marcel Theroux, son of the American writer Paul Theroux, has given his hero, Nicholas Slopen, some elements of his own biography (ancient English public school, English literature at Cambridge, Russian speaker, two children, residence in Tooting), and, in some respects, Strange Bodies is reminiscent of the realistic novels of post-financial-crisis Britain, such as John Lanchester’s Capital (2012). There’s the preoccupation with neighborhood status (Slopen refers to his wife as having something “Notting Hill manqué” about her), the hurdle of private school tuition, the need to pigeonhole everyone in terms of social background: Besides the one obvious science fiction element, Strange Bodies is social realism all the way.

The conceit of Theroux’s fifth novel is that it is possible to implant a human being’s consciousness into another body, as long as a certain density of that person’s words is available. “The Procedure,” it is explained, is undertaken by a rogue team of ex-Soviet scientists in Kazakhstan operating on bodies obtained from unfortunate mafia foot soldiers and ex-convicts.

Theroux comes down firmly on the Ludwig Wittgenstein side of one of the 20th century’s great philosophical debates, insisting that consciousness is linguistic, the sum total of our verbalization of our experience, rather than some mysterious “ghost in the machine.” One of the novel’s scientists, in fact, chooses as an early-stage experiment to replicate Samuel Johnson in a new body, selecting him because his dictionary, diary, and letters, together with Boswell’s biography, might come close to replicating his entire consciousness. (How things work out for the new Dr. Johnson is another matter.)

Strange Bodies doesn’t explain how the consciousness of the old inhabitant of the body is extirpated—and Slopen sometimes thinks he has had dreams of a former life that belonged to his new body’s old owner. But the project of coding and uploading a human consciousness isn’t just a staple of science fiction; it’s one that many futurists think is right around the corner. There’s no mention here of “The Singularity,” a lately much-discussed theoretical near-future moment when artificially intelligent beings become smarter than human beings and begin to replicate themselves—and the rate of change becomes so rapid as to make the future unknowable.

Ray Kurzweil—director of engineering at Google, inventor of a half-dozen clever machines, and promoter, in a series of popular books, of “trans-humanism”—has claimed in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near that human brains will be uploadable by 2045 and that, around this time, artificial intelligence will claim consciousness for itself. He even wants to bring his father back by way of a DNA sample and his own memories of him, a project that The Procedure tackles from a different angle. (See “So You Want to Live Forever” by Charlotte Allen, May 12.)

The broader culture knows something is afoot. Last year’s film Her nods to both the issue of when AI becomes indistinguishable from human intelligence (the so-called Turing Test) and the impulse to embody AI in a human. The film’s popularity, moreover, speaks to audiences’ inchoate interest in these issues—and in the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Charles Stross’s 2005 novel Accelerando, about The Singularity and the centuries (!) following, also considers the issue of moving minds between different bodies—even to animal bodies.

Kurzweil and many of the sci-fi novels that deal with these issues often take for granted the need to defeat death, and there’s a last-moment plot twist in Strange Bodies that suggests Nicholas may be able to accomplish the feat not just once but twice. Still, he muses, as his end comes upon him: “And the dead are dead for good reasons, profound reasons, that we ignore at our peril.”

Strange Bodies is an astounding work that grows in power as it unwinds its surprises. It also tackles, head-on, the ultimate questions about identity, personhood, and the human condition that many contemporary novelists dodge with irony.

Ann Marlowe is a writer in New York.