The way the story goes is that after Adam and Eve screwed up and committed “Original Sin”, humans were gifted with something called “Free Will”. In a lot of ways it was akin to God giving humanity enough rope to hang themselves. The deal was you could follow my rules, live a good life, and end up in heaven after you croak, or you can be a sinner and go to Hell. It was a very convenient way for the Church, and those in charge of the various dominions to ensure their subjects toed the line.
It gave everybody the impression they were free to do as they chose to do, when in actual fact they were being programmed to live according to certain social, moral, and political standards that suited those who dictated what constituted good and evil. It’s much the same today, as most of our laws and social codes are aimed at ensuring the few in charge are able to control the many who aren’t. After a couple thousand years of this code dictating our behaviour, most of it’s so ingrained that it’s second nature. We have developed what we consider natural inhibitions that prevent the majority of us from deviating very far from the accepted norm.
Our society isn’t unique in this; all societies develop codes of behaviour that are geared toward sustaining the status quo and keeping order. However it’s not only learned behaviour that dictates our actions. Feelings, like the love a mother has for her children, may not tell us how to behave directly, but because they are a part of our overall matrix, they colour every decision we make, whether we are aware of it or not. Who hasn’t considered feelings important in their lives before doing something like accepting a new job, or even deciding on going out after work before heading home?
There are always people looking to turn the way our brains work to their advantage. If you have any sense of awareness, you know that these days you are continually being bombarded with information that’s designed to manipulate the way you think. Commercials, political speeches, and anybody with an opinion continually try to trigger reactions in your brain that will make them seem favourable to you. Like Pavlov and his famous dogs, the commercials, and everyone else, are trying to train you to drool for their particular bell.
While that’s insidious enough when you think about it, wouldn’t it even be worse if a means were discovered where surgically activating or deactivating certain parts of the brain could manipulate human behaviour? What if you could convince somebody that when they felt pain they were feeling pleasure, or trigger them to be continually terrified? In his latest book, Neuropath, published by Penguin Canada, Scott Bakker postulates that very horrifying reality.
Professor Thomas Bible teaches psychology at Columbia University in New York City. His marriage has just ended. He’s trying to deal with the repercussions of that, and maintain a relationship with his two young children in spite of the limited access he has to them through the custody arrangements. When his old friend from University, Neil Cassidy, turns up at his door unexpectedly one night he’s thrilled to see him. As the night wears on, and Neil describes the work he’s been doing for the government, Tom becomes more and more disturbed.
Neil had gone into the practical side of working on the human brain, and become a neurosurgeon. Instead of going into surgery, though, he had taken to researching the brain and how it worked: what parts controlled what aspects of a person’s behaviour. Eventually his research attracted the attention of the National Security Association and they set him to work on devising new and better ways of “interrogating” terrorist suspects. As is always the case when there’s a military application, unlimited money and resources were at his disposal, and he could now trigger almost any reaction he wanted in a person by manipulating parts of their brain.
While this is disturbing enough on its own for Thomas, the worst is yet to come. Leaving Neil sleeping off the booze they drank, Thomas heads into work the next day to find three FBI agents waiting for him. They show him a videodisc that had been mailed to their office, of someone who has had their brain re-wired in such a way that she couldn’t differentiate between pain and pleasure. It’s only after they’ve shown him the disc that they tell him that Neil is their prime suspect. He vanished from NSA a couple of weeks earlier, and when the disc showed up at FBI headquarters, two and two were added up to make Neil.
They’ve come to Thomas to ask the big question: Why the hell is he doing this and what is he hoping to accomplish? The answer is that he is proving to the world that free will doesn’t exist; the brain does what it wants, not what we want, and we have no control over it. Environment, outside stimuli, and anything else that triggers a reaction among our synapses does so because of the brains construction, not because of us exerting any “will”. As more discs are mailed to the FBI showing people doing things that they obviously have no control over, it becomes obvious that Thomas is right.
For those of you who’ve read Scott Bakker’s previous work (The Prince Of Nothing trilogy), Neuropath will come as a shock, as it’s a substantial change of pace from epic fantasy. This is a taut and nerve wracking psychological thriller that is not only spine chilling, but also intellectually challenging. Is it really possible that we don’t have any control over anything our brain does? That everything we do and say is merely the mental equivalent of an electronic pulse produced by a spool of copper wire conducting energy generated by random flashes of lightening?
What’s especially unnerving is that the technology being utilized by Neil to carry out his experiments doesn’t even seem very speculative, and there’s no reason to believe that some government agency somewhere isn’t carrying out these same experiments even now. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t put it past most security services in the world to try and do some of things Neil described doing while he worked for the NSA. (In an author’s note, Scott Bakker points out that there is now technology available that allows doctors to predict a patient’s choices before they are conscious of making them).
Neuropath is not set in the future, nor on some other planet where another race has access to advanced technology that allows it to control humanity. It’s set right here, right now, in a world populated by people who are every bit as believable as you and me with pretty much the same technology that we have available to us. That’s what makes it so frightening.