Charles Soule’s recent science fiction novel Anyone was published in 2019, but I only got around to reading it in early 2020. If I had read it in time, I would certainly have included it in my roundup of my favorite science fiction of the year. Anyone has a brilliant premise that is worked out through an exciting thriller plot. I won’t go into the details of the narrative, except to say that it is quite exciting, with lots of surprising twists and turns. But I do want to think through the implications of the novel’s central premise or novum, and that requires a certain amount of plot summary, including a consideration of the (amazing) ending. Therefore I have a WARNING: there are SPOILERS in what follows; I cannot really discuss the book without them.
The novel’s premise is an old science-fictional idea, but it is worked through in a fresh and highly original way. The idea is: transferring your mind into somebody else’s body. In the book, this technology is extrapolatied from the actually-existing practice of optogenetics, in which neuroscientists use flashes of light to manipulate the brain. In the novel, if you see the right sequence of flashes, you suddenly find yourself in somebody else’s body. Your own body enters into a coma, or a vegetative state, until your mind returns to it. The person whose body is inhabited loses consciousness, and only regains it when the intruder departs; they have very little sense of what is happening when somebody else is acting and experiencing with their body; they retain no memory of it when they awaken. This technology is, unsurprisingly, called the flash; the company that markets it is called Anyone, since the promise of the procedure is that you can become anyone at all.
This set-up might seem, at first glance, to be a Cartesian, dualist one: mind and body are entirely separate. But it’s not that simple. Mind never exists separately from body; your consciousness needs to be embedded somewhere, embodied in an actual brain. If the body you are in dies before you can transfer somewhere else, then you die mentally as well. Your mind is never entirely free and unconstrained; it is both limited and shaped by its physicality. The body you find yourself in makes a difference to what you can do, and how you think and feel. When you transfer, you always have to make adjustments, because the body you newly find yourself in is shorter or taller, older or younger, heavier or lighter, and perhaps differently enabled and/or differently gendered, than your “prime” (your original body).
This means that inner and outer cannot be cleanly separated. On the one hand, a character reflects that every person “had his [sic] own secret self that came to the surface no matter which body he was wearing.” There are tell-tale signs that signal your mental presence, no matter which body you inhabit at the moment. But this is only true to a certain extent. At the same time, your facial expressions and physical gestures just feel different when you are embedded in a different body; the way they come out is subtly but unavoidably changed.
This ambiguity is inherent to the nature of consciousness. Gabrielle White, the scientist who discovers or invents the flash, reflects that “the self-model was utterly complete and bounded in the human mind — a person’s sense of themselves was a conceptual object, transferable from one brain to another relatively intact.” But this is only a limited observation; since the novel also insists that your identity is more than just your self-model. Who you are also depends on the body you have (or should I rather say, “the body you are”?). Your personhood is mediated by gender, bodily habits, aging, disease and injury, and so on: that is to say, by factors that are at once physical (rather than exclusively mental) and that are socially mediated (rather than being entirely innate). Gabrielle also quickly realizes that,
even after only ten minutes inside another physical self, it was obvious to her that a great deal of human experience had nothing to do with the brain. It was the body. Each parcel of flesh and its particular configuration of pluses and minuses created a unique reality. In other words, it wasn’t just the software — it was the hardware too.
When you flash into another body, you retain psychological continuity with your past self; but you also inhabit the world differently (something that will not surprise the phenomenologists). And this happens in ways that you could not have predicted, let alone understood, in advance. All this makes me wonder if Soule got the term “self-model” from the philosopher Thomas Metzinger). For Metzinger’s whole point in using this term is to point out that the “self-model” is in fact a model of who one is, rather than being the entire content of who one is. I use my self-model to navigate the world, but it remains the case that who and what I actually am, as a physical and animal being in a physical world, leaks out far beyond the boundaries of the self-model. The self-model is a representation that does not fully contain, and does not fully map on to, that which it represents. Metzinger draws the nihilistic conclusion from this that the “self” does not exist; but I am rather inclined to think that Metzinger’s argument in fact gives us clues to a positive understanding of what the “self” actually is, as a limited and finite, but entirely positive, entity. It is not a question of debunking the mind’s powers of self-reflection and meta-reflection, but rather one of situating these powers.
In any case, I think that this latter alternative better explains what is going on in Anyone. As the novel recounts it, my self-model can continue to exist in a different body from its initial one; but adjustments are always necessary due to the physical nature and social positioning of the substitute body. A corollary of this is that not all bodies are equally suitable. Soule does not flinch at this prospect. The novel goes so far as to imagine horrific scenarios in which human beings have their minds flashed into the bodies of rats, and in which an adult’s mind is flashed into the body of an infant. In these cases, you find yourself in a body whose neural architecture is inadequate to the mental capacities of your self-model. The result is a sense of suffocating imprisonment. The characters who are flashed into rat bodies have terrifying experiences; they suffer full-fledged psychotic breakdowns once they are restored to their primes.
The novel reaches out from these metaphysical speculations in order to consider the social, ethical, and political implications of the flash. Gabrielle initially has utopian hopes for the technology. It has the capacity to change social attitudes on a vast scale. Everyone could experience, from the inside, what it is like (in Thomas Nagel’s famous phrase) to have a body that is differently gendered, aged, or abled from their own. At the same time, the technology would prevent us from categorizing other people on the basis of first impressions, which is to say judgments about gender, race, and so on:
If you can’t tell who’s inside the skin of the person you’re talking to, maybe you can’t judge them so quickly based on the color of that skin… Black, brown, white, gay, straight, boy, girl, trans, young, old, disabilities… none of that would work as it does now, with the world putting you in a box from day one just because of your face, your hair, whatever.
The novel suggests, however, that these hopes are, well, a bit naive. This is because the potentialities unleashed by any technology are themselves dependent upon, and tied up with, the ways in which the technology is implemented. In Gabrielle’s case, she doesn’t own the rights to her own discovery. A venture capitalist has funded all her research, and he gets to control all the results. Gabrielle at first tries to hide her discovery of the flash from him. She wants, not to make money from it, but to develop it further; and she rightly fears that the venture capitalist will not do this in the right way. But this only ends up making things worse. Gabrielle is unable to escape either the ironclad provisions of “intellectual property” law, or the violence of the venture capitalist’s hired thugs.
The novel is divided between two plot strands. The first one, set roughly in the present, tells the story of Gabrielle’s discovery, and how she loses control of it. The second is set 25 years later, and shows us a world in which the flash has become the dominant technology, and changed world society in all sorts of ways. Some of the consequences are unequivocally good: the climate crisis has been alleviated, because people have largely abandoned air travel and other fossil-fuel-intensive technologies. Why bother halfway around the world, when you can just flash into the body of somebody who is already there? Others are more ambiguous: there does seem to be a reduction in racism and sexism, if not to the entire extent that Gabrielle had hoped for.
But monopoly ownership of the flash technology has its downsides as well. Some of these are reminiscent of the ways that, today, the liberating potentialities of digital technologies have been compromised by corporate control. The Anyone corporation (also known punningly as NeOnet Global) does not charge exorbitantly for its flash services, because it wants everyone in the world to use the technology. But much like Google et al. today, only even more so, it engages in full-time surveillance of everything that takes place over its network, and as a result it owns immense quantities of data about everyone. (There is also an illegal, underground “darkshare” flash economy, in which the technology is used by criminals and others who want to do things undetected; but the police’s top priority, in collusion with NeOnet, is to suppress this). Anyone also extends its control over users by enforcing limitations to the flash technology:
The first of the Two Rules of the flash: if one dies, both die.
The second: no multiple jumps. If you’re in a vessel, you can’t move to a second without flashing back to your prime first.
The Two Rules are supposed to apply to everyone; people are told that they are intrinsic to the flash technology. But in fact this is not the case; they have only been added on arbitrarily. Certain people are secretly exempt from the Rules: they are, in effect, able to live indefinitely, perhaps forever, by continually jumping from one body (once it is injured or gets too old) to another. Stephen Hauser, the CEO of NeOnet, reserves this unlimited use of the technology for himself, for his chief thug/enforcer, and for a global elite known as the “Centuries.” He bribes prominent people with the prospect of immortality, in order to get them t0 serve his interests (and he can take the gift away again, if they don’t cooperate).
There is also the crucial question of the flash’s one-way structure. What happens to somebody whose body is taken over by another mind? It is actually a vampiric process. Usually, the “vessel” is just unconscious for the interim; they awaken once the occupation is over, without a clue as to what the user of their body did — but with whatever physical injuries might have been incurred. The question is why anyone would consent to this in the first place? Though the novel doesn’t go into great detail on this, it is evident that the answer is economic. If I am affluent, I can take a vacation by paying to inhabit someone’s body in a distant location. But if I am poor, my only hope of earning money may be by renting out my body to the rich tourist. Labor seems to operate in this way as well: skilled workers are flashed to a workplace, where they inhabit the bodies of unskilled locals, who are paid even less than they are. It’s even worse with the victims of the Centuries: a older person takes over a younger, healthier body, and never gives it back. The ultimate form of exploitation is murder. Flash technology seems to perpetuate, and even intensify, economic and colonial exploitation — a situation that is far indeed from Gabrielle’s utopian dreams.
In all these ways, the flash technology ultimately works as a kind of dystopian panopticon — much as the contemporary Internet already does, only even more so. And it sets in place a power structure that is almost impossible to dislodge: there is really no way to touch either the corporation as a structure, or Hauser and the other individuals who run it. In the first, near-present plot strand, Gabrielle is definitively dispossessed when the venture capitalist not only takes the technology from her, but also uses it in order to imprison her consciousness in the body of her infant daughter. In the second, 25-years-in-the-future plot strand of the novel, the now-grown-up Gabrielle-in-her-daughter’s-body looks for a way to disrupt the tyranny that she has inadvertently created. There are lots of great plot twists along the way, but the upshot is that she cannot do it. In one particularly notable sequence, she manages a media takeover. She demonstrates, in real time, over the network with billions of people watching, that the Two Rules are lies, and that it is possible both to flash into a succession of bodies, including into a new body when your prime dies. But despite her demonstration, nothing happens. The very next day, her stunt has been entirely erased from the media archives, and nobody else remembers that it happened.
Fortunately, the book does not leave us just with the bleakness of this unsurpassable impasse. But the sheer, brilliant extremity of how the novel ends testifies to how difficult it is to disrupt the control society, and to unleash the liberatory potential of (actually-existing, as well as extrapolated) digital technologies. In the novel’s final pages, everything that we have understood so far is pretty much blown to smithereens. Gabrielle manages to radically alter the flash technology, so that now it works in both directions. Everybody finds themselves in somebody else’s body. You no longer render somebody else unconscious when you flash into their body, because they simultaneously flash into yet another person’s body as well. Everyone becomes someone else. And this is a completely random process: “Everyone would be a traveler, everyone would be a vessel. At random.” Gabrielle’s final stroke of genius abolishes the restricted, vampiric, capitalist economy of flash usage, replacing it with a sort of Bataillean general economy — or perhaps with something like Nietzsche’s Eternal Return as re-interpreted by Pierre Klossowksi. The world is opened up to a universal promiscuity of circulation and exchange. There is no restriction and no control; no stability, and no foreknowledge of who you will become. This also means that there can be no mechanism for payment, or for the accumulation of wealth:
Lawyers become soldiers. Dancers become farmers. Men become women. Young become old. Women become men. Old become young. More than seven billion people, all over the world, become someone new…. *All of humanity is all of humanity*. There is no rich, no poor, no light, no dark, no young, no old…
Instead of the naive (or merely wishful) utopianism of Gabrielle’s initial thoughts about the flash, we get at the end of the novel a much more radical utopianism, one in line with Fredric Jameson’s dictum that “utopia is not a positive vision of the future so much as it is a negative judgement of the present” — and a disruption of that present. Or as Soule’s narrator puts it: “It may not last, but it begins, and that is something.”
There is one important corollary to this vision. Even as she frees the world, Gabrielle abolishes her own selfhood, sending her mind (or her self-model) to the flash equivalent of /dev/null in Linux. This final stroke is a gift to the future.For it allows Gabrielle’s daughter, whose body she has used as a mere vessel for twenty-five years, to awaken and become fully conscious and fully embodied on her own — as she had not been since infancy. We learn from this final twist that when you are reduced to being a vessel, your consciousness isn’t entirely absent; the daughter’s consciousness has existed for all this time in a virtual, nascent state. She is now an adult mentally as well as physically, by virtue of having for so long observed everything that her mother has thought and done. Now this consciousness has finally been actualized. The last line of the novel reads, referring to the daughter: “You are you.” The identity of the self-model is only achieved through the radical contingency of bodily exchange. Where can she go from here? Nobody knows, and that is the novel’s achievement.