When You're a Brain Without a Body Can You Still be Called Human?

Book Review: Mindclone by David T Wolf

Mindclone: When You're a Brain Without a Body, Can You Still Be Called Human?Mindclone: When You’re a Brain Without a Body, Can You Still Be Called Human? by David T. Wolf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mindclone is possibly the best independently published SF novel that I have ever read. The author’s meticulous research into the field of Artificial Intelligence and his witty, accessible writing style made it a page turner that I was sorry to see end.

As a neuroscientist who spent most of her time in biotech working in the damp and messy world of biological neurons, I had always tended to dismiss talk and writing about the “singularity”—the idea that the human brain, and its consciousness, could be neatly downloaded into a computer—as woo, wishful thinking, or scientism. But now I think if such a thing were to happen, David T. Wolf provides a plausible path forward. He understands and describes realistically the economic, scientific, and human forces that would drive this sort of wish-fulfillment to fruition.

I also found his description of the awakening of the computer consciousness—the Mindclone—to be both intriguing and poignant, evoking both Henry James and Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Wolf gleefully turns the overused fictional trope of the narrator awakening from a dream into something both emotionally moving and necessary to the plot. The two main human characters, Marc Gregorio and Molly Shaeffer, are also perfectly drawn to the last detail, both physical and mental. They are both San Francisco Bay Area high achievers and simultaneously realistic flawed human beings, able to hurt each other without being able to help it.

I am peripherally in the classical music world and I know a number of cellists, and I really appreciated the insights the author brought to the character of Molly, a professional free-lance cello player. She was plausible, and relatable, as a modern-day former classical prodigy-turned-working-freelance-musician. I also, as a hetero, cis woman, and sometime reader of romance fiction, found it interesting to read about the courtship of Molly from not one, but two, male perspectives (one human, one almost human). This novel is almost a conventional romance, but the author takes it in unexpected directions and lets us know in detail what the male half of the couple is thinking, something a reader rarely sees in the traditional genre.

I would highly recommend this book, so why didn’t I give it 5 stars? There are two reasons, both of which are philosophical and idiosyncratic, having more to do with me and my worldview than with the book itself. The first is that I think the ending is too happy. While part of me wanted everything to work out for these characters, another part of me, the part that cried after reading A Tale of Two Cities and Flowers for Algernon (the latter of which this book, at its best, evokes), wanted something more elegiac. But instead, I came away from the book thinking that these privileged characters manage to have their cake and eat it too—with ice cream and a cherry on top. In Wolf’s universe, there is everything to be gained, and nothing to be lost, from developing Mindclone technology, and developing it as quickly and efficiently as possible. While this is refreshing on one hand, especially in this era of almost endlessly dystopian SF; on the other hand, it struck me as a technical solution that was too easy and pat. In particular, I wanted to know, what would the Superhacker Vigilante do about human trafficking? About poverty, war, and racism? About climate change and the fate of the earth itself? Could any of this really be solved by a handful of well placed emails?

Also, personally, I found Adam the Mindclone’s attitude towards women and sex to be a little frustrating, due to his way of his seeing and describing women and sex in simple and rather juvenile terms. For example, on several occasions, Adam expresses frustration with being “dickless” and with not having a cock. In fact, the way Adam is written, it seems as if this is his main problem with being a computer simulation. On many other subjects, Adam is a profound and poetic thinker, but on this one, the best he can come up with is to lament his lack of a penis, using teenage slang words. I was indeed happy for Adam at the end, when his inventors came up with a way to give him a sense of touch, but I could have done without the wink-wink-nudge-nudge idea that the new sense of touch came at the hands of a blonde bombshell girlfriend.

My other, related, issue with this book was with the psychological healing that Marc and Molly received. Both human characters were struggling with inner demons from the past, the products of a combination of bad luck and bad individual choices. These situations had left them both wary and sad, walking wounded who were not able to be fully honest and present in relationship with each other. This dynamic was portrayed realistically and almost painfully at times, and provided the necessary obstacles to the fulfillment of the romance plot. The solution for each character came in remembering, confronting, and confessing the events of the past, after which, a blissfully happy future awaited them in each others’ arms.

While I think this idea of individual redemption and forgiveness could in theory have great emotional power, here it also struck me as too quick, easy, and pat. In particular, I found Molly’s situation and reaction to be unrealistic and even a bit misogynistic. I understand and sympathize that Molly would have feelings of guilt and remorse about her sexual relationship with an older, married male teacher and the abortion that ensued, but the idea that Molly would be held fully responsible, 13 years later, for something she did at age 15, while not even giving her adult partner his 50% share in the sorry outcome, is very unfair to both females (by casting a 15-year-old girl in the role of dangerous, evil, unstoppable temptress) and males (by casting a mature adult man in the role of helpless victim, lacking in both agency and moral compass). While Marc’s eventual forgiveness and generosity of spirit towards Molly do him some honor, he doesn’t question the basic narrative that only Molly the woman, and not her male former teacher/lover, is fully responsible for their suffering. In that sense, he doesn’t have appeared to have learned much from his own epiphany about his mother’s grief and its role in shaping both their lives—in spite of the fact that we are told that remembering it at Adam’s behest made him feel so much “lighter.”

These may be quibbles, with which other readers are likely to disagree. I commend the author for taking on such topics in the first place. I wish he could have given his creation, Adam, a truly global reach and significance, whether in life or in death. Instead, in my opinion, he unwittingly bumps up against the limits of his subject matter and the individualistic worldview that it implies: the idea that society will be made better simply by making better individuals, whether by downloading them and giving them the cognitive powers of a supercomputer or by healing them with psychotherapy. In this book’s universe there is no possibility for something more than Flaubert’s halting, imperfect, dancing-bear-drum of communication via the senses, and no sense that this could be seen as a tragedy, still unable to move the stars to pity.

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