Mind and Body -- I Sing the Body Electronic, I Interfere with the Body Extraterrestrial
Change the body, and change the nature of human existence. Change the body's means of sustenance, and change the delicate balance that exists within a particular society. These are the two scenarios presented in the science fiction novels, that of Necromancer by William Gibson, and Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Both novels underline the importance of the physical state of individual bodies in shaping society. A body can be surgically altered with computer technology, or a body's nutrition and reproductive rate can affect the ability of another populace to exist. However, Gibson presents a vision of the world where the body is rendered unimportant, while Russell suggests that the delicate cultural, ecological, and political balance of a sustainable economy on another planet underlines the importance of the body in maintaining a livable world. Both books, however, have the central thesis that modern humanity denies the effects of the body upon the mind and society at its peril.
The 1984 novel Necromancer by William Gibson seems unusually prophetic in its treatment of many of the issues that grip the modern, Internet-obsessed world in terms of its treatment of the body, mind and identity. Gibson's protagonist hacker Case uses his computer skills to make an illegal living. Case enjoys his work because it essentially allows him to feel as if he is disassociated from his body, or his "meat," his base, physical essence. (Gibson, 1984, p.3) In Gibson's future world, people are so disconnected from their bodies that they make use of things called "simstim" decks, when engaging in fun, existing always in some kind of virtual reality machine to simulate stimuli," rather than to experience real life. (Brians, 2005) true product of his society, Case does not feel like he truly exists outside of the computer world. However, Case has been subject to a terrible fate. Case is deprived of access to his favored matrix of computers, after he fences some of the goods he steals on behalf of his employers, violating his agreement with them. In retaliation, his employers use Russian mycotxin poison to kill his computer talent, using a poison that acts upon Case's physical essence, eliminates his ability to become a part of the matrix, and deprives him of his livelihood.
This punishment suggests that the body under the influence of technology is like a machine, specifically a computer warehouse of data, and can be altered by an outsider's physical control. But unlike a computer, Case can feel regret at his loss of the ability to exist as part of a computer matrix. He actually becomes severely, emotionally depressed after losing the rush, of the high of being involved in his computer world. Case is physically addicted because he is still human, but to regain the rush of feeling that he has transcended all of his physical needs, he must become part of a computer. Case's body outside of the matrix is something "which he treats as almost an alien entity with which he is not friendly terms" -- a kind of entrapment of his mind, of use only to fuse with in cyberspace, "no more significant in itself than the case of a computer CPU." (Brians, 2005)
After knowing what it is like to live outside of bodily constraints in the matrix Case can never feel, 'alright' in his body's natural state again. Rather, he feels as if he is missing something when it is outside of the world of computers: " It's like my body's developed some massive drug deficiency," says Case, of the two long years he has been deprived of the pleasure of the matrix. (Gibson, 1984, p.3)
Much like the novel Sparrow inveighs against external interference and influence, in Necromancer, the influence of computers means that the living body is actually more dependent upon outside and artificial control, and upon external influences (in this case, computers) to survive. Case is tormented by the loss of his endorphin rush when he is just an ordinary body and mind in reality. (Brians, 2005) The intoxicating ability to manipulate the body through scientific means is underlined throughout the text, as memories are created by actually attacking and attaching technology to the body, such as dermatrodes that attach to the skin and allow the user to experience virtual reality. The naked, ordinary body is, in this model, unimportant -- rather it is the person's perception or mind, how the person experiences reality -- much as on the Internet, the impressions and images on the screen are more important to the user in virtual space, than the physical appearance of the person in real life.
Later, when Case encounters Molly's body in a virtual vision: "Case stared, his mouth open. But it wasn't Molly; it was Molly as Riveria imagined her. The breasts were wrong." (Gibson, 1984, p.135) The mind can change the flesh, with the force of human desire, through the use of computers. In the novel, this is not simply true in terms of created images, but also surgically -- Molly's tear ducts are rerouted, and also, less fancifully, Japanese women get their eyes surgically changed, to appear more Western. The characters freely use heroin, a drug that alters the mind by affecting the body. Change the body with technology, change the mind's need for a rush -- body and mind are interconnected, and the future human is constantly subject to physical interference.
In Mary Doria Russell's Sparrow, the novel depicts an alien, primitive world that is interfered with by outside forces. Once the delicate balance between two warring tribes on another planet is upset by outside influence, chaos breaks loose. Also, the novel's main character is initially subject to another kind of physical alteration, because he is priest. The novel is concerned not simply with how the individual natural body is impinged upon by technology and changed, but also by how the interference of celibacy affects the mind and body -- by withholding the body's natural functions through attempted improvement, more harm may be done. It shows how a community of priests is created on earth characterized by physical noninvolvement, and also how the priest's involvement in the environment of another world changes that world.
This shows how religion, much like technology alters the functions of the human body, and how introducing too little or too much reproduction through artificial means can affect the ecosystem. Ideology about the ways people should physically behave can change the way persons live and the ways that persons treat their core, physical essences. At the end of the novel, the central character of the novel is Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, suffers even more than an ordinary person, because his faith in good is lost. He wonders if "God" led the explorers to Rakhat or if he Sandoz is "responsible" for what happened? (Russell, 1994, p.396)
The priest is among the first encounters of a new, alien civilization known as the Runa on the planet Rakhat. Sandoz and the Jesuits began the secret expedition when they first began to see signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life. At first, the priests live happily, side by side the peaceful Runa. However, in the interest of doing the Runa a service, and improving the bodies of these organisms, the priests inadvertently do harm by interfering with nature and the ways the Runa eat and reproduce. When the Jesuits began to improve the diet of the Runa, and their birthrate increase, the opposing forces of the Jana'ata attack and kill and devour the priests and the Runa. Sandoz escapes, but his belief in human goodness is shattered. He loses his chastity, and his belief in his scientific ability.
When Sandoz is first found after he returns to earth, he is a physical wreck. His body is transformed: "the man's whole body was bruised by the blooms of spontaneous hemorrhages where tiny blood vessel walls had breached and spilled their contents under his skin. His gums had stopped bleeding, but it would be a long while before he could eat normally. Eventually, something would have to be done about his hands." (Russell, 1994, p.3) His body is literally a testimony to the horror of his experience of trying to transform the physical life of the Runa, although he did so with good intentions. "Tinkering often destabilizes things, and societies can shatter very quickly. Repression is bad, but chaos, civil war and economic collapse can be lethal. Tinkering often destabilizes things, and societies can shatter very quickly. Repression is bad, but chaos, civil war and economic collapse can be lethal," noted Russell in an interview about her book. (Gevers, 1999)
The authors Gibson and Russell, representing mind and body seem most distinct stylistically. Gibson's cyberpunk world adopts elements of the future, such as virtual reality and technology, and uses catchy phases, to create a slang-infused world where the body is seemingly infinitely mutable through technology. Russell creates a primitive landscape,…