Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Thu Jul 25 16:00:14 EDT 1991

Raymond's Reviews #130

%T Brainrose
%A Nancy Kress
%I Avon
%D July 1991
%O paperback, US$3.95
%P 319
%G 0-380-71015-3

One of the advantages of SF is that its license to set up counterfactual premises permits one to grapple with psychological, ethical and philosophical questions from unusual and illuminating angles. Kress has built a novel about the consequences of a treatment which allows one to access the memories of previous incarnations, backstopped by a plausible and startling future social background. On the psychological level it succeeds brilliantly, but it exhibits a distressing failure of vision on the ethical and philosophical levels that causes the ending to trail off into incoherence.

In 2022, three people have arrived at the Institute for Previous Life Access Surgery --- a haunted socialite, an idealistic lawyer and a con man looking for his shot at the big time. Outside, a plague that destroys the ability to form memories, coming on the heels of the great AIDS panic, has turned society inward and paranoid. The three turn out to be connected through past lives in a way that forces them to confront the unacknowledged failures of their present lives. The lawyer and the socialite begin to grow a little, and perhaps to grow together. The con man's relationship to them both is the key.

So far, so fine, so good. But the book goes off-trail when Kress begins to draw the link you've been expecting between the mechanics of past-life recall and the memory plague. There comes a point at which, apparently in order to make a valid ethical point about the interdependence of human beings, Kress follows a very implausible revelation with a serious logical error. The book goes downhill from there.

In detail: the lawyer character is a man with a rigid personal ethic built around the power and sacredness of individual choice, one in which will and responsibility and the right to fail if one so chooses are central (in this he is presented as a typical product of his `neo-libertarian' times). He is presented with the implausible revelation that the accidents of a person's future determine his choices in the present (or, at least, that they are correlated in some way outside of normal causality that argues for some sort of predestination). His world-view is shattered, and he spends the rest of the book groping his way towards something suspiciously resembling the most fashionable warm fuzzy collectivist pieties of the author's 1991.

The logical error here is the assumption that a reason- and choice-based ethical philosophy could be invalidated by the revelation that we may never have objectively "free choices" at all. Kress simply assumes this to be the case, but it ain't so. Even in a rigidly deterministic universe, one might still argue that such an ethic represents the human experience best, and that it leads to better predictive and behavioral consequences than the alternatives. More basically, determinism may be a true hypothesis but irrelevant because we can't do the calculations to use it --- that human beings have something predictively indistinguishable from "free will" within the universal clockwork because no one can know how the gears will turn next. Thus, choice is still powerful from any human or finitistic perspective even if it's an illusion from a God's-eye view. These arguments carry over to a quantum or chaotic universe.

The fact that Kress's character never grapples with any of this, even if only to argue against it, damages the last half of the book very badly. It makes him look like a straw man and the ending like a contrived authorial sermonette. Overall, despite fine writing and excellent characterization, the result is a disappointment.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Thu Jul 25 16:00:14 EDT 1991

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>