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Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
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May 26, 2011

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bookshelves: fiction, mystery, science-fiction
Read in May, 2011

I have a really hard time with bodyswap. I will suspend my disbelief for unicorns first, let’s put it that way. It’s just that it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking science or magic, it does not make sense. Assuming there actually was some incorporeal you that could be lifted out of your body and popped into someone else (which I don’t assume, but we’ll come back to that), if you got popped into someone else’s body, you would not be you anymore. Because the whole thing is a fallacy, and there isn’t an incorporeal you that can be moved, because you are your brain. The two are indistinguishable. Anatomy is identity. Well, the pattern of electrical currents running through that anatomy is identity, but you get my meaning. And you can’t just swap physical brains, either, because brains don’t work in isolation, and they aren’t always in charge – there’s the adrenal system and the endocrine system and let’s not even get started on the sex hormones. And all these things are part of the youness of identity, that emotional centerpoint that says this is me, and makes decisions and feels things and remembers things.* So even assuming someone could isolate that pattern of electrical currents and extract it, trying to run it on someone else’s brain would be like me trying to run my iPhone software on my Blackberry.

This book is kind of about that. It’s a far future scifi noir mystery about a criminal brought to earth and “resleeved” in another man’s body for *gestures* reasons and stuff, and then he solves crime. And the book is partly about the dislocation of that, the dysmorphia of rapid transitions, and the way the biology of the new body leaves a residue of emotion for the new occupant. Our protagonist doesn’t just pick up the body’s smoking habit, but he also has an instantaneous, literally chemical awareness of the body’s lover.

But Morgan falls short for me. He hasn’t quite thought this stuff through, though to be fair he was writing before some of the more recent work on body identity issues came out. He could have sold me this book with its twisty mystery hook if he’d sold me on the technology. But his technology is basically just running personalities in bodies like software on hardware, and I don’t think he quite gets his teeth into it. So to me, it’s just bodyswap, even though he’s come up with some cool and plausible psychological consequences. I acknowledge this would not be a problem for, um, pretty much everyone else I know. And it is a cool book.

Huh, you know, I have finally figured out why Gender Identity Disorder and Body Integrity Identity Disorder and the dysmorphias – all the ways people feel that they do not fit in their skin, that this body is not “me” – are so fascinating. It’s because they offer the single counterfactual voice to the mounting evidence that our bodies are our thinking. Even if it proves only that sometimes the brain and the endocrine system can be wired to different places on the gender spectrum, it speaks to the resilience of self. Whereas the rest of the scientific literature is a flood of data informing us that “self” is whatever the body damn well tells it to be.

I think this is what this tremendous article is getting at, if elliptically, somewhere in the discussion of how we construct identity around the things are bodies want as a biological tick, and how some mental disorders with biological roots also have...cultural memes to spread themselves. (Seriously, read that, you will not forget it for a long time). Identity is a property of meat. It's how we explain what the meat is doing -- how the guy in the anecdote from the article thought his porn obsession was just "part of him" until his brain chemistry was altered and it went away, and suddenly it felt like a copulsion, an alien outside thing. But we haven’t even begun to deal with the fact that for some people, the identity that arises from meat knows the meat is the wrong gender. How the hell does it do that?

*And we are actually very bad at knowing what is us, anyway – there is increasingly overwhelming evidence that our impression of choice and volition is largely false, because the thing we think of as me is just the clueless frontman for the real thinking we have no access to.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (last edited May 26, 2011 08:17PM) (new)

Holy wow. I just read that article. Aroooo! Semantic contagion! Aroooo! That's definitely some food for thought.

Maybe ten years ago a friend of mine worked at a used bookstore, and a book about voluntary amputation came in. It duly went the rounds of the employees, freaking them out in turn. I'll have to ask her the title. I think it was self-published.


Lightreads I bet it was this one? (Aww, I'm the only person on goodreads who has rated it, how...cute is that). It's not a very good book, but it was incredibly useful to me in writing a paper about this a couple years ago.

If you liked the article, it's reprinted in a collection of his called Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream, which is more of the same history/philosophy of medicine, with a focus on how we change our bodies. But not in the dumb way. I picked it up because of a bit on how people with physical disabilities conceive of their adaptive tech like wheelchairs as part of their bodies, as a "piece of me", then got totally distracted by the rest of it. There's this whole bit where he delves into antidepressants and how after taking them so many people say "I got me back," and have this real, vital sense that they were not themselves until some chemicals changed. How that might actually work. Very cool stuff.


message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

Maybe it's that. Did it have pictures? Everyone luridly went for those. I never saw the book myself.

That's fascinating. I have a friend who's bipolar, and it was a big struggle for him to accept the normal of the medicated him versus the normal of the unmedicated one. The unmedicated him is not functional, but it's him.


Lightreads I bet it did have pictures -- I had an old OCRed scan, so not sure. But it would.

The unmedicated him is not functional, but it's him.




Right, exactly. You'd think, logically, you're always you, every second, in whatever altered state. But that just isn't true, because we've all felt like "not me," to various degrees. It's why so many people believe in the ghost in the machine that I don't, I bet. But a good biological explanation for how a brain can look at itself and go "this is not me," I do not have it.


message 5: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Fantastic review.


Steve Stuart Great review. While I absolutely loved Altered Carbon as fiction, it did require some of the same suspension of disbelief that you couldn't summon. While reading it, I kept being reminded of Thomas Nagel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" (which I first ran across in Hofstadter & Dennett's The Mind's I).


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