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?