Feb 5, 2010

O happy dagger!

Romeo and Juliet. Source.
I was amazed and pleased when Isaac Asimov linked many of his novels into a coherent "future history". In Foundation's Edge Asimov mentioned the idea that "Eternals" had used their time travel technology to select a Reality in which humans would spread through the galaxy. The Start of Eternity is a fan fiction story that explores the relationship between Asimov's time travel novel (The End of Eternity) and his Foundation Saga.

The main character in The Start of Eternity is a genetically-modified Neanderthal named Gohrlay. Originally I wrote a 2,700 word "teaser" that was intended to be the only part of the novel showing Gohrlay. It might at first seem strange that the protagonist of a novel would only appear in one short scene, but mind transfer is an important element of the story and Gohrlay's mind continues on after her death.

In popular culture minds get transferred between bodies as easily as we might put on someone's hat, but The Start of Eternity attempts to be a bit more realistic about the technical challenge of mind transfer. Our human minds are produced by our biological brains. Our minds depend on the physical structure of our brains. In order to transfer Gohrlay's mind into a new body, a means must be found to reveal the details of her brain's structure. Sadly, the crude "brain scan" technology developed by Neanderthal scientists on the Moon destroys brain tissue while it scans the structure of neural networks in a brain.

As the story is told in The Start of Eternity, the brain scanning technology has existed on the Moon for hundreds of years, but nobody volunteers to have their brain scanned and destroyed during the process. It is not at all clear that it will be possible to instantiate the scanned mind in a new body. The plan is to make a copy of the scanned brain structure in the form of "positronic brain circuits", but the lunar roboticists have no way of knowing if the copied brain circuits will actually produce a functioning mind. All they know for sure is that after the brain scan, the person who has their brain scanned will be dead.

assembling R. Gohrlay's body
Gohrlay "volunteers" to have her brain scanned. Is this suicide? Is The Start of Eternity in danger of "glamorizing suicide"? As discussed here, I don't view Gohrlay's death as conventional suicide. She has been guided towards participation in the mind downloading experiment by the crafty Anagro, a robot of alien design. Every time Gohrlay has doubts about participating in the experiment, her thoughts are adjusted by nanorobotic devices that swarm through her brain and control her behavior.

Does Gohrlay have "good reasons" for participating in an experiment that will end her life? Gohrlay is a criminal who has had large parts of her memory disrupted by the nanites that swarm through her brain. She no longer has memories of her family and friends or the details of her crime. She remembers that she grew up with a desire to be an Observer and study Earth, but she is now forbidden from having any contact with the Observer corps.

Is it wrong to depict suicide in fiction? For me, one of the most memorable depictions of suicide in science fiction is in Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (see this review). The story is told from the perspective of Push-Button Officer X-127, who robotically pushed the button that kills not only himself but all of humanity. Do such fictional accounts of suicide encourage or discourage suicidal behavior?

I have not seen Avatar, but as discussed here, it seems to stand in the long line of movies where the "hero" is ready and willing to die for some "good reason". Depending on the outcome of the battle, which culture you come from, the tone of the press coverage and who writes the history book, the "warrior hero" might either be viewed as a suicidal maniac or the heroic father of his country.

Does The Start of Eternity "glamorize" suicide by showing Gohrlay's mind living on in robotic form as the mother of tribe of positronic robots? Is someone reading The Start of Eternity in danger of thinking, "I'm going to kill myself because Gohrlay did"? I don't think so. I think the message in The Start of Eternity is that Gohrlay has been manipulated by Anagro. The reader sees that a crafty alien is taking advantage of the fact that humans do make life and death decisions. Anagro creates a "tragic scene" for Gohrlay in which those around her respect her decision to participate in the mind downloading experiment. Everyone has been pushed towards accepting Gohrlay's death by Anagro's manipulations.

A theme that arose in Asimov's fiction is intuition. Several of Asimov's characters were depicted as simply knowing things, without knowing how it was possible that they knew. The culture that Gohrlay finds herself in was created by aliens and is controlled by aliens. Gohrlay has latent "mentalic" abilities that help her sense that it would be better to die and be "reincarnated" as a robot than continue living as a puppet of the aliens.

There is a similar situation in Asimov's story "The Mule", first published in 1945. Ebling Mis is under the mental control of a man who has "mentalic" powers and who is driving Mis to his death in an effort to learn the secret location of the Second Foundation. Was it irresponsible to depict Mis as uninterested in life and willing to die, just as long as he could learn the secret? The only "onlooker" who is not under the mentalic control of the Mule was Bayta Darell. Was Asimov irresponsible for showing that Bayta kills Mis in order to keep him from revealing the great secret?

I think it is no more likely that a reader will commit suicide after reading about Gohrlay than a reader is likely to commit murder after reading about Bayta Darell.

Related reading: does Gohrlay actually die in the brain scanner?

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