To Live Again by Robert Silverberg

The SF Gateway is open! And for a while, recently, I’ve been feeling the urge to re-read Robert Silverberg’s To Live Again, a book I first read in the rush of sci-fi enthusiasm that followed on from attending the 1987 Worldcon, Conspiracy (a rush that also led to me reading Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and Tiger! Tiger!, two of my favourite SF novels). In fact, To Live Again, a book about a near future in which human personalities can be electronically downloaded into living human brains as additional personas, is quite an apt choice for a first purchase from a service that seeks to preserve, and offer for download in a variety of ebook formats, the entire back catalogues of as many SF authors as it can sign up.

To Live Again was first published in 1969, and manages to blend a cultural mix of the occult faddishness of the 60s (the persona-storing Scheffing process has led to a revival of interest in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as well as the building of techno-savvy lamaseries in the hills of Los Angeles) with the more hard-nosed, slick corporate high life of the 70s. Silverberg’s protagonists are all picked from the highest level of the business world of his future USA, including members of the mega-rich Kaufmann family, and their main rival, the upstart magnate John Roditis. The story starts after the death of super-businessman and family patriarch Paul Kaufmann, with the question of who will have the honour of receiving his persona as yet undecided. Only two people in the world are deemed of strong enough personality to withstand the presence of such a powerful man. The trouble is, Mark Kaufmann, new head of the Kaufmann empire, is barred from taking his uncle’s persona, and he will do anything he can to stop his main business rival, John Roditis (the only other viable candidate), from gaining the advantage of his uncle’s advice.

The main danger in the Scheffing process is that an implanted persona will “go dybbuk” — oust the host and take over as the controlling personality. One of the novel’s main characters, Charles Noyes, who works for Roditis, is in constant battle with a secondary persona that’s a little too strong for him to control; elsewhere in the novel we meet a rich man with far more money than sense, whose desire to impress everyone with the number of personas he’s had implanted has blinded him to the fact that he’s only partially in control of his own body. But in the story of Risa, daughter of Mark Kaufmann, who wheedles her father into allowing her to get her first persona implant, we see some of the advantages of the Scheffing process — having a slightly older secondary persona in her head gives her a new perspective on the world, enriches her life, and rids her of some of her immaturities.

As a novel, it’s a bit like a Jacobean drama, as we get to follow the stories of a bunch of scheming, wilful, powerful individuals who are likely to stop at nothing to achieve their ends. This is, despite the lip-service paid to Buddhistic ideas of reincarnation, an irreligious, amoral world “where reincarnation is a practical fact” (at least for those few who can afford it), and where the “sum of a human soul—hopes and strivings, rebuffs, triumphs, pains, pleasures—is nothing more than a series of magnetic impulses”. (Though perhaps it’s some lingering sense that the “sum of a human soul” is a little bit more than so many “magnetic impulses” that has led to the rule that only one instance of any single persona can be active in the world at any time. Though the novel itself proves that this isn’t an actual, practical limitation.) Some of Robert Silverberg’s novels of this era have an interest in the spiritual or moral awakening of their protagonists (Downward to the Earth, for instance), but here (except, perhaps, for the weak Charles Noyes), there’s none of that. To the Kaufmanns and Roditises of this world, the grafting of Buddhistic ideas onto the scientific wonders of the Scheffing process is so much populist nonsense:

“We’ve adapted all that Oriental foolishness to our own purposes. And our own purposes don’t include nirvana at all. To be swallowed up in the cosmic all? To be born no more? That’s not our object at all. To live again, that’s what we want. Again and again and again.”

It’s interesting how one idea (the grafting of one human mind or personality onto another’s) can be taken in so many directions. To Live Again is an SF version but there’s also of course horror (Ramsey Campbell’s The Influence, one of my favourite ghostly horror novels), and even comedy (All of Me, in which Steve Martin accidentally finds the soul of a millionairess thrust into his skull, with romantic-comedic results), to choose just a couple of examples. It may seem to be one of those science fictional concepts that will never be realised, but just think, how many fictional characters do you have, right now, living in the hidden corners of your brain? And are any of them likely to go dybbuk?

Conspiracy ’87

This year, for the first time ever, the World Horror Convention comes to the UK. In two weeks’ time, in fact. Also for the first time ever, I am going to the World Horror Convention. One of these events, obviously, is more momentous than the other. Anyway, I thought I’d prepare by writing my next few blog posts on Me & Horror — why I at first didn’t read it, why I started reading it, and why I still sometimes do read it. But before that, a blog post on SF. On one particular SF convention in fact.

Like this year’s WHC2010 (not to be confused with the World Hovercraft Championships 2010, which jostles for top billing on a Google search), Conspiracy ’87 was held in Brighton. Unless Games Day ’86 counts as a convention (I’m not sure on that point), Conspiracy ’87 was the first con I went to. It is also, up to now, the only con I’ve been to, meaning there’s been a gap of 23 years between going to my first con and going to my second. This isn’t at all a measure of how I felt about Conspiracy ’87, because I enjoyed it very much. It’s more a measure of the fact that I’ve never really got round to going to another one till now. (The only reason I went to Conspiracy was because Garen wanted to go, so I went along — for which I’m extremely grateful.)

So, here’s me outside the main conference centre in Brighton, wearing my Fantasy Archives t-shirt, with a just-visible Hannes Bok illustration (for Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model), which I must have bought at the con dealer’s room:

Me outside Conspiracy 87

That dealer’s room was massive, to my eyes anyway, and like nothing I’d seen before in terms of sheer range of SF & fantasy books. I recall seeing the cover of some comic I’d never heard of, called Watchmen, on a dealer’s table, and hearing that this comic was beginning to generate something of a buzz at the time. I bought (and got signed) Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry & Wild Romance, and also bought Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove’s Trillion Year Spree. I must have bought more than that, but those are the only two I remember. Both important books for me, as they led to me reading a lot of other books mentioned between their covers. I’ve re-read both several times.

My main memory of the con itself is of masses of people milling about, and huge halls filled with people listening to SF authors. I don’t remember anyone really being in costume, though I do remember a fully-functioning radio-controlled K9 someone had brought along. I don’t have many photographs, as I’m not great at taking photos. Here’s one from a talk panel on the launch of the Tales from the Forbidden Planet anthology. The chap with the mic is Ramsey Campbell; not sure about the lady next to him, but after her there’s Iain Banks (or I suppose that should be Iain M Banks), then Tanith Lee, then I think it’s Roz Kaveney (the editor of TFTFP), and Harry Harrison on the end:

I also remember Terry Pratchett, at a panel on “SF clichés”, where someone stood up and complained about SF stories where people have normal Earth names, till it was pointed out that there’s no reason why Earth people shouldn’t still be called Mark, Paul and David and so on in a couple of thousand years’ time, as we’ve had those names for at least that length of time ourselves. Then there was an interview with William Gibson, where someone with, I think, a French accent, asked me, pointing at the stage, “Excuse me, zis is William Jibson?”

But the main panel I remember, and the main reason I’ll always be grateful for Garen getting me to go to Conspiracy ’87 was one called “So You Wanna Be A Writer” (or something similar). The only author I remember being on the panel was Robert Silverberg, and the only advice I remember him giving was “There’s two sorts of wannabe writers. Those who say, ‘I wannabe a writer’, and those who sit down and actually do it.” That made me realise I had to sit down and actually do it, and it remains the best bit of advice I’ve ever heard with regards to writing.

My only regret about Conspiracy ’87 was not going to the Hawkwind concert, where they did a reprise of their Chronicle of the Black Sword show. Ah well. I’ve seen them a couple of times, since. I also recall my first experience of that post-con gap you get in the days afterwards, where you feel as though ordinary life is lacking something important in contrast to those few intense days of being surrounded by like-minded souls. I plugged that gap, of course, by buying books by the authors I’d seen, or (in the case of Alfred Bester, who was either too ill to come to the con or had just died, but was a Guest of Honour) almost seen. Many of them remain favourites to this day: Mythago Wood, The Demolished Man, Tiger! Tiger! (aka The Stars My Destination).

Mmm, must go to another SF con sometime.