, Ann's debut novel, will be published on October 1, 2013 by Orbit.
Who are you? And how do you know who you are?
Some questions look simple, almost pointless. On the surface, it's obvious who you are. "I'm Jane Doe," you say, and your friends and neighbors and family all say, "Yes, I recognize her, she's Jane Doe." You know, without thinking, what's you and what's not you--your body is you, and all the things inside, and the mind that's doing the thinking (What a stupid question!) and the recognizing (Yes, that's me in the mirror all right.)
But little questions chip away at it. What's your body and what's not? Proprioception--your ability to know where various body parts are and what they're doing at any given moment--has as much to do with what your brain is doing as what the rest of your body is. Losing a limb, famously, doesn't always erase your brain's assumption that it's there and doing something. And super cool (and kind of creepy)--recent research suggests
that when you use a tool a lot, your brain actually updates its map of your body to include the tool.
Much more creepily, a head injury, or, say, a stroke can result in Somatoparaphrenia, where the patient insists that some part of their body isn't actually theirs. When asked they might say the arm really belongs to their doctor, or to their dead parent.
Similar in some ways, but not exactly the same, is Alien Hand Syndrome:
In this paper, Goldstein described a right-handed woman who had suffered a stroke affecting her left side from which she had partially recovered by the time she was seen. However, her left arm seemed as though it belonged to another person and performed actions that appeared to occur independent of her will.
The patient complained of a feeling of "strangeness" in relationship to the goal-directed movements of the left hand and insisted that "someone else" was moving the left hand, and that she was not moving it herself.
Except, of course, she was
moving it herself. Who else would be?
And that's not the only way messing with the brain can mess with the sense of identity. Strokes or brain damage can sometimes cause Cotard's Delusion, where the patient is convinced that they're actually dead. Or there's the case of Suzanne Segal
, who describes her experience herself in her book Collision with the Infinite: A Life Beyond the Personal Self
"I lifted my right foot to step up into the bus and collided head-on with an invisible force that entered my awareness like a silently exploding stick of dynamite, blowing the door of my usual consciousness open and off its hinges, splitting me in two. In the gaping space that appeared, what I had previously called 'me' was forcefully pushed out of its usual location inside me into a new location that was approximately a foot behind and to the left of my head. 'I' was now behind my body looking out at the world without using the body's eyes.
Things didn't stay that way. Eventually her entire sense of herself disappeared. There was a body, that did things and said things, and even thought things, and people recognized that body as Suzanne, but there was no self there, no identity. She did not exist. She died in her forties of a brain tumor, which is a bit suggestive.
Incidentally, one of the things I find very valuable about Ms Segal's account is that it's just that--a first person account of her own experiences. Very often we're reading case studies or essays by doctors or researchers whose assumptions can filter or distort the view they're giving us. Ms Segal had her own assumptions, and her own filters, yes, but she's left us her own story in her own voice. It's important to have that, a woman telling her own story and not just a summary, a case study. An oddity.
The thing is, while the experiences of split-brain patients, stroke victims, or people like Suzanne Segal are extreme, they demonstrate something about typical brain function. Identity is fragile. Your sense of who you are is rooted in your brain, and if the way those parts of your brain works changes, so will your sense of you
The narrator of my novel Ancillary Justice
is an artificially intelligent ship, the troop carrier Justice of Toren
. The vast majority of those troops are ancillaries--human bodies slaved to the ship's AI, arms and legs--and eyes and voices--for the ship. They have no identity of their own, they are
The narrator of my novel Ancillary Justice
is a twenty-body unit of ancillaries.
The narrator of my novel is a single ancillary, separated from the rest of the ship, from the other bodies that used to be part of it.
Who is my narrator? How would it be possible to lose your own identity that way, and what would it be like to have an identity that stretched over tens, hundreds, even thousands of bodies? To lose all of them and be left with only one? I realized pretty quickly that this would be a difficult character to write, and in my quest for information that would help me, I discovered just how tenuous our identity is. We often behave as if the question of who anyone is has an obvious answer. But when you look close, you realize it doesn't.
But Ancillary Justice
isn't meant to be deep or philosophical. It's meant to be a space opera, with all the shiny space opera things I could fit into it. It's just, once you start asking questions like, "So who is this person, anyway?" it's kind of hard to stop.
. Her story “Hesperia and Glory” was reprinted in
edited by Rich Horton.
receptionist, a rodman on a land-surveying crew, and a recording engineer. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband, children, and cats.