Entry updated 5 December 2019. Tagged: Theme.
"Who am I?" "Am I who I think I am?" The unease inherent in such ancient philosophical queries has been exploited by sf authors in very many ways, ranging from melodramatic banality to genuinely subtle questioning of the nature of our sense of selfhood. Identity is lost or confused, usually temporarily, in Amnesia scenarios. It is juggled in stories of Identity Exchange and Identity Transfer, and eroded or sometimes enhanced by Memory Edits. Its uniqueness is threatened in a variety of Doppelganger tropes ranging from Clones (where the sinister import of a similarity no greater than that of identical twins tends to be exaggerated), artificially created doubles, Matter Duplication, self-encounter via Time Travel or transfer between Parallel Worlds, and Upload leading to the possibility of multiple software Avatars. Uncertainty about a Cyborg's true identity is central to Who? (April 1955 Fantastic Universe; exp 1958) by Algis Budrys; Gene Wolfe offers a thoughtful examination of the Clone identity issue in the first part of The Fifth Head of Cerberus (fixup 1972), the nature (and presentation, and concealment) of identity being indeed central to any Wolfe novel featuring a first-person narrator.
Some standard revelations of hidden identity have become Clichés through overuse. A protagonist may prove to be secretly a Robot, as in Philip K Dick's classic treatments "Impostor" (June 1953 Astounding) and "The Electric Ant" (October 1969 F&SF); an Alien, as in A E van Vogt's "Asylum" (May 1942 Astounding); or – very frequently – a Superman, as in van Vogt's The World of Ā (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948; vt The World of Null-A 1953 dos), whose hero also suffers from partial Amnesia caused by a Memory Edit. Roger Zelazny deploys most of these shifts, accompanied by a lecture on the frailty of identity, in an early scene of Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969).
Criminal personalities are destroyed and therapeutically rebuilt in Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (January-March 1952 Galaxy; 1953), Ralph Blum's The Simultaneous Man (1970) and Robert Silverberg's The Second Trip (1972); the latter's plot turns on the partial survival of the "bad" identity. Outside the realm of Crime and Punishment, further recreated identities feature in James Blish's "A Work of Art" (July 1956 Science Fiction Stories as "Art-Work"; vt in Science Fiction Showcase, anth 1959, ed Mary Kornbluth), in which the musician Richard Strauss (1864-1949) is artificially and temporarily reincarnated in the body of a volunteer; and Marcel Theroux's Strange Bodies (2013), one of whose similarly (but more cruelly and involuntarily) recreated personalities is that of Samuel Johnson. Both tales lead the victims to a desolating awareness of not being real; of possessing the mannerisms but not the essence of their originals.
Those who assume a false identity may find it becoming reality, as in Max Beerbohm's fantasy The Happy Hypocrite: a Fairy Tale for Tired Men (October 1897 The Yellow Book; 1897 chap), whose protagonist's debauched face is transformed by the (literal) wearing of a saintly mask. The flawed actor-hero who doubles for a politician in Robert A Heinlein's Double Star (February-April 1956 Astounding; 1956) ultimately grows to equal and replace his model. The Jewish hero looking for Christ in Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man (September 1966 New Worlds; exp 1969), the protagonist seeking a minor Victorian poet via Time Travel in Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates (1983; rev 1984) and the man searching for his lost religious mentor in Gene Wolfe's Book of the Short Sun (1999-2001) all find themselves standing in for, and in various ways becoming, the objects of their quests.
Some form of Cartesian duality, with identity somehow independent of the body that sustains it, is frequently assumed in sf – rationalizing the immortal-soul concept of most Religions. Clifford Simak's Way Station (June-August 1963 Galaxy as "Here Gather the Stars"; 1963), whose Matter Transmission is really Matter Duplication with travellers' surplus (and lifeless) bodies left behind, posits a future scientific proof that identity is indivisible and follows the transmitted body. Eric Frank Russell's Sentinels from Space (November 1951 Startling as "The Star Watchers"; exp 1953; vt Sentinels of Space 1954 dos) rationalizes the soul as the mature energy-being of which our corporeal existence is merely the larval stage; Bob Shaw similarly imagines human survival in energy form as "egons" in The Palace of Eternity (1969) – leading in both cases to the possibility of purely rational Reincarnation.
Splitting or fragmentation of identity is dealt with in many more or less metaphorical sf/fantasy stories, perhaps most famously Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), where the split is achieved through Drugs. A more literal split, with personality fractions occupying separate physical bodies, is found in Italo Calvino's Il Visconte dimezzato ["The Cloven Viscount"] (1952) and Robert Sheckley's The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton (December 1958 Galaxy as "Join Now" as by Finn O'Donnevan; vt "The Humors" in Store of Infinity, coll 1960; exp 1978; vt Crompton Divided 1978). Conversely, Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" (August 1954 F&SF) portrays a single deranged personality flickering between two individuals, one an Android, and Brian Aldiss's "Let's Be Frank" (1957 Science Fantasy #23) imagines a growing subset of humanity whose single personality is scattered through many bodies as a linked Hive Mind. Multiple identities (see Psychology) share the body on a rota system in Wyman Guin's "Beyond Bedlam" (August 1951 Galaxy), emerge under pressure of Torture in Lois McMaster Bujold's Mirror Dance (1994), and are cultivated as useful mental enhancements in Walter Jon Williams's Aristoi (1992) – where a rogue identity that refuses to join the hero's internal consensus proves to be his salvation. Identities are routinely split and merged in such Upload-aware fictions as Greg Bear's Eon (1985), David Brin's Kiln People (2002; vt Kil'n People 2002), Cory Doctorow's "I, Row-Boat" (Fall 2006 Flurb) and Greg Egan's Incandescence (2008). Identities are systematically eroded into products of a pervasive Media Landscape in Ray Loriga's Rendición (2017; trans Carolina de Robertis as Surrender 2019).
Nigel Dennis's Cards of Identity (1955) is a dark comedy based on the notion that identity is fragile and that charlatans can impose new identities on their victims by sheer persuasiveness. Thomas M Disch's "The Asian Shore" (in Orbit 6, anth 1970, ed Damon Knight) charts the unexplained transformation of an American's identity into that of an undistinguished Turk. Identity is directly modified by electrical or electromagnetic intervention in Vincent Harper's The Mortgage on the Brain (1905), in Jack Chalker's The Identity Matrix (1982) and – plausibly and unpleasantly – in Scott Bakker's Neuropath (2008). Greg Egan has written several disturbing explorations of the theme; these include "Learning to be Me" (July 1990 Interzone), which focuses in detail on the process of Upload, "Mister Volition" (October 1995 Interzone), which deconstructs the very concepts of identity and free will, and "Reasons to be Cheerful" (April 1997 Interzone), whose protagonist becomes able to program his own emotional states. Peter Watts's Blindsight (2006) draws extensively on neurological research to mount (as does the already-cited Neuropath) a strong attack on the comforting sense that identity and self-awareness are central or even useful to our existence. John Scalzi's The Ghost Brigades (2006) and The Last Colony (2007) feature an imperfectly Uplifted alien species which has been given intelligence but not self-awareness: in the second book they acquire a prosthetic sense of identity via brain/computer interfacing. A similar problem, here unsolved, afflicts the highly intelligent Robot Villain of Barrington J Bayley's The Rod of Light (1985). [DRL]
- Daniel C Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter, editors. The Mind's I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul (New York: Basic Books, 1981) [anth: stories and essays: hb/René Magritte]
- Douglas Hofstadter. I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books, 2007) [nonfiction: hb/William Frucht]
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