I firmly believe that a reading diet of only genre fiction is bad for you. It’s the equivalent of trying to live off junk food. For a writer, it’s even worse, perhaps even dangerous – certainly, it’s detrimental to their career. I used to break up my consumption of genre with modern literary fiction novels, though I’ve increasingly found I much prefer postwar fiction, especially British – Lawrence Durrell, Malcolm Lowry, Paul Scott, and the like. But I do still read some of the better-known modern literary fiction authors, even if their novels have proven somewhat samey in recent years.
One of those literary fiction novelists is Sebastian Faulks. I recently finished his Human Traces (2005), which is about the early years of psychiatry. Sort of. It begins in 1876, with the introduction as boys of its two main characters, Jacques Rebière in France and Thomas Midwinter in England. The two meet when in their early twenties, become great friends, qualify in medicine, and open a sanatorium in southern Austria. Later, the two disagree over the direction the nascent science of psychiatry should take, beginning a feud which only ends after the First World War.
Human Traces is historical fiction. Its characters are invented but a number of real historical figures make appearances. It is about a variety of mental conditions, their historical diagnoses, and what we now know them to be. (Most asylums in the nineteenth century, for example, were filled with syphilis victims.) But Human Traces also contains at its core a very science-fictional idea.
Some three-quarters of the way through the book, Midwinter proposes a theory to explain why some people hear voices. It is his theory that psychosis is inextricably linked to self-awareness, and that it is the advent of self-awareness which created human beings. Early humans, he contends, heard voices as a matter of routine. In a speech given at his sanatorium, he outlines his theory:
… of how man, after he had learned language, had been able to conjure instructive voices in his head; and of how, after the invention of writing and under the influence of huge population upheavals, the ability to summon such voices had become rarer. (p 497)
This theory had been inspired by a number of things – not the least of which was Midwinter himself hearing voices when younger – but it was on an expedition to Africa that it began to gel:
But how could men without consciousness – a modern sense of time, and cause and other people – have done this? Picture your shepherd far away in the hills with no sense that he is a man, no idea of time in which he can visualise himself and his situation… How does he know he must keep tending his sheep? Why does he not forget what he is meant to do – as an ape would forget? Because under the anxiety of solitude, under the pressure of fear, he releases chemicals in his brain that cause not sweating palms, or racing heart, though perhaps those as well – but the voiced instructions of his king. He hallucinates a voice that tells him what to do. (p 450)
Midwinter contents that language was not a development of self-awareness, that self-awareness did not lead to civilisation; but that language and civilisation both came into being before humanity had consciousness. It was only the development of writing which led to self-awareness. He references a number of mythologies in proof – the Ancient Greeks in conversation with their gods, God speaking to Abraham in the Bible, and so on…
It’s not a conceit which sits well as the core of a realist novel. Nor is it one which really stands up all that well to scrutiny. It’s an interesting idea, certainly, but perhaps better suited to the sort of thought experiment for which science fiction is best suited. We know that writing developed in Mesopotamia around 8000 BCE. It has been estimated that Abraham lived around 1800 BCE, and the Greek pantheon has been traced back to sixth century BCE Greece. So writing had been around for several millennia before the examples Midwinter gives to demonstrate his thesis. And for those thousands of years, if his theory is correct, humanity had not been wholly self-aware…
It doesn’t really work. The weight of history stands against it. However, it would make for an interesting creation myth for a fantasy novel; or, perhaps, first contact could be the trigger from one state to the other for an alien race in a science fiction novel. Aliens of differing degrees, or variable degrees, of self-awareness have been used in sf before – in Peter Watt’s Blindsight, the aliens are not conscious; in the GDW role-playing game 2300AD, one of the alien races increased their intelligence from normally very low levels as their fight/flight reaction.
Having said all that, there’s perhaps an interesting idea to explore at the intersection of Midwinter’s theory and the City Burners. Between 1200 and 1150 BCE, the Late Bronze Age civilisations around the Eastern Mediterranean collapsed. From what little documentary evidence that has been found, raiders from the sea – known as the Sea Peoples or the City Burners – invaded a number of city-states and destroyed them, propelling civilisation back to illiteracy. Imagine if those Sea Peoples had been Midwinter’s unconscious humans, driven by the voices in their heads to destroy those civilisations who, through the widespread use of writing, could no longer hear the voices…
There’s a novel in there somewhere, if someone wants to write it.