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Read Together: The Evolving Self Edition

A while back, I offered up a “taster flight” of dystopic visions of our future. I still intend to post some more taster flights, but today I have something a little different, more akin to a wine and cheese pairing. I have two short ebooks to recommend, both good reads on their own, but that when read together make something even better.

The common theme of these two books is technology that connects directly to- and is directly controlled by- a human brain.

This may sound like something that belongs firmly in the realm of science fiction, and indeed, the first book in this pairing is a science fiction novelette from John Scalzi. Unlocked is an oral history of the United States’ response to a terrible new disease. The disease starts with flu-like symptoms. For some subset of sufferers, the next phase is a meningitis-like disease, and for some subset of those sufferers, the next phase is lock in syndrome. These unfortunate people are trapped inside their own bodies, fully conscious but unable to move at all. The solution that is eventually found is to give the locked in people new, robotic bodies that are directly controlled by the recipient’s brain.

As far-fetched as this may sound, it is not actually something that exists only in science fiction. Early research towards similar technology is underway today, aiming to help locked in victims of strokes. This research is described in Jessica Benko’s The Electric Mind, interwoven with the story of one of the research subjects, a stroke survivor named Cathy Hutchinson. Many of us avoid stories like Hutchinson’s, because the idea of being locked in our own bodies is so squeam- inducing. However, Benko’s book moves us quickly past our horror at Hutchinson’s plight, and allows us to instead look at what the existence of locked in syndrome and the emerging technology to help people overcome it tells us about what it means to be human.

I am publishing this pairing this week in honor of the fact that Lock In, the novel for which Unlocked provides the back story, came out this week, and is now in my “to read” queue. It is in that queue because I found the world constructed in Unlocked intriguing, and want to read more about it (also, from early reviews Lock In sounds like it is a straight up great thriller). I only read Unlocked, though, because the hopeful tone of The Electric Mind got me past my squeamishness and made me capable of thinking about the wider picture of the relationship between body and self. We are used to thinking of our bodies as our selves, but as these two short ebooks show, that tight link may be up for a change as our technological capabilities advance.

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