“The Concept of Mind in Science Fiction”

The review series on Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds continues.

Review: “The Concept of Mind in Science Fiction“, Brian Stableford, ca. 1976.Opening Minds

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.

14 thoughts on ““The Concept of Mind in Science Fiction”

  1. Joachim Boaz June 6, 2017 / 5:07 am

    I’ve been enjoying this series of write-ups! As I am not finally back in the States I’ll be able to give them a proper read through 🙂

    • marzaat June 6, 2017 / 6:49 am

      Glad you’ve liked them. I was afraid it would be one of those series of posts nobody would read.

      • Joachim Boaz June 7, 2017 / 9:26 am

        That should never stop you! I’d simply review all the so-called classics if I wanted people to actually read the reviews…. *bitter* (haha)

      • marzaat June 7, 2017 / 11:23 am

        And you never can tell what people want to read. It often is not at all correlated with the effort you spend on a post.

      • Joachim Boaz June 7, 2017 / 1:22 pm

        I’ve found that people like to read about authors they already know — and they like to see their own views corroborated. And lists, SF readers LOVE lists…. Of course, there are exceptions but my absolutely most popular reviews/posts are for classics, a few old art posts featured by wordpress, and various lists I made early on before I had even read enough to make them!

      • marzaat June 7, 2017 / 2:36 pm

        Well, I like your cover posts too. I guess I’ve probably been wary of exceeding my media storage on WordPress to post more than the cover of the book I read.

        Yes, people like their lists. I’m probably too hide-bound to do them. The nagging thought is “Yes, but you haven’t read every book in this category, so how can you make a ranking list? And what criteria for inclusion.”

        And then, if popular, you get the comments by people who don’t pay attention to the criteria even if you stated it. I was reminded of his when I looked at Andrew Fox’s list of science fiction responses to 9/11.

        I would have thought people like seeing reviews of books they’ll probably never read but, at least, get some sense of through a review. But, as you said, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

      • Joachim Boaz June 7, 2017 / 3:56 pm

        The recent cover posts have been far less popular as they delve into more esoteric things/artists. I’ve losted about 1,500 readers a month over the last two years as I narrow in on lesser known material (the guest post reviews series didn’t help either). I’ve thrown up my hands and plowed on! haha.

      • marzaat June 7, 2017 / 4:00 pm

        I thought the guest posts thing was a good idea.

        Yeah, I know the feeling. You’re excited about blogging on an author no one else seems to have done in the Internet age. And the response? Nothing.

        I’m way behind in keeping up with my reading of favorite blogs (in fact, I’m catching up slowly), so I hope to be making my contribution to your viewer stats shortly.

      • Joachim Boaz June 7, 2017 / 4:05 pm

        The first series was a success (Michael Bishop). Apparently I and the reviewers I asked are the only people who care about Kate Wilhelm’s SF other than her Hugo/Nebula-winning novel Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. And the last series (short stories by women authors pre-1969) received the worst reception of the bunch (I suspect as it focused on short stories)…. I’m not sure what my next one should be. Perhaps a theme — like trauma or memory or metafiction.

      • Joachim Boaz June 7, 2017 / 3:57 pm

        I’ve lost* (oops, no idea where “losted” came from)

  2. Joachim Boaz June 7, 2017 / 3:58 pm

    I’ve been reading towards a “my favorite 15 novels (or 20) of the 1970s” list — but the frustration such lists cause among readers who don’t find their favorite books makes it a less than appealing activity….

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