The review series on Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds continues.
Review: “The Concept of Mind in Science Fiction“, Brian Stableford, ca. 1976.
Science fiction tends to deal with the same wishes and anxieties over and over. Only the enabling technology and scientific theories used by the writer to rationalize their fantasies changes. Invisible men use to drink liquids. Now fiber optics and microprocessors and smart fabrics do the same. No more brain transplants for immortality. You record the information in the brain and move it to a new media. And so forth.
Given the increased activity in the area of consciousness studies, artificial intelligences, and information technology, this essay could stand some serious updating since I think this is one of the few areas where science and technology have actually led to new wishes and anxieties.
Stableford starts out by noting that, however much Descartian dualism, that there’s a “paramechanical ghost” rattling around in our heads, isn’t really plausible or consistent, it’s the default setting for most science fiction that centers around the brain. (And, again, I think this is changing with advances in science and technology.)
Its uses are many and often seem like rationalized versions of folktale and religion.
The “paramechanical ghosts” can become disembodied entities, that pesky flesh scrapped off by millions of years of evolution.
There are the numerous tales of demonic possession cast as possession by body snatching aliens. The two types of these stories are the horror of having your body possessed by an alien, your consciousness displaced or constricted, and that such a psychic dispossession may have occurred to someone around you: friend, lover, family member, or leader.
There are bodyswitching stories, more often seen in horror, weird, and straight fantasy than science fiction, where some ghosts in the machine trade places. There are the numerous tales of a sort of mental symbiosis (and not the parasitism of bodysnatching) between human and alien minds in the same body or two human consciousnesses.
The creation of a telekinetic is just an extreme extrapolation of the paramechanical ghost’s power. After all, if it can, through some non-material way, control the body why should its control of mass stop there?
Extending the argument of “Science Fiction and the Mythology of Progress“ that post-World War Two science fiction became interested in moral and spiritual progress, Stableford sees that interest in the mind as utopian optimism about the future having to go when technology couldn’t sustain the faith in technology bettering humanity.
He sees that “optimism and hope” leading to interest in “a new mythology of human evolution, in ecological mysticism, and in new attitudes to the concept of alien intelligence”.
Forty years on, I think transhumanism and stories of the singularity are definitely part of the “mythology of human evolution”. Ecological mysticism seems to have at least held its own since the 1970s with nature worship and calls to duty for Mother Gaia being annoyingly present even among those who profess no religious belief. I sense, though, that belief in alien intelligence — at least the communicating sort — is waning.