Neuroscience and Science Fiction Literature

I am compiling the following chronological list of science fiction literature that focuses on the biology of the brain over the psychology of the mind. These stories as a whole or in significant scenes pivot on some aspect of the brain, neurology, neuroscience, or evolutionary psychology.

So far, there is no agreed upon term to describe these kinds of brain-focused SF stories. In 2000, Harvey Blume coined the term “neuro-narratives” as the title for his article describing a shift from psychological underpinnings to neurological underpinnings in contemporary fiction (“Neuro-Narratives.” The American Prospect 11.13, 22 May 2000, https://web.archive.org/web/20001021064245/http://prospect.org/archives/V11-13/blume-h.html). One of his discussed examples is William Gibson’s All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). In 2009, Marco Roth coined the term ‘neuronovel’ (“Rise of the Neuronovel: A Specter is Haunting the Contemporary Novel,” n+1 magazine 8, 14 September 2009, https://nplusonemag.com/issue-8/essays/the-rise-of-the-neuronovel/) to describe the neuro-turn in contemporary literature, but he does not look specifically in the direction of SF.

Predating “neuro-narratives” and the “neuronovel” is a term that has come up at least three times to describe science fiction with an emphasis on brain over mind: “neuroscience fiction.” It was first used by Joseph D. Miller in 1989 and again in 2009 to describe science fiction literature that focuses on the biology of the brain. In 2004, Annalee Newitz used the term to describe brain-focused SF films (“Brain Damage: Neuroscience Fiction Movies Are Colonizing Our Brains,” Other 5, October 2004, https://web.archive.org/web/20070808175956/http://othermag.org/braindamage.php). More recently, Sharon Packer uses “neuroscience fiction” to describe also SF films with an emphasis on neuroscience topics in her book Neuroscience in Science Fiction Films (2014). In each instance, it seems as if “neuroscience fiction” was independently coined.

Considered more broadly than film, neuroscience fiction is a possible label for these kinds of stories—SF or not—but it seems an imperfect term, because despite neuroscience’s vast interdisciplinarity, the neurosciences in general tend to promote a quantitative viewpoint over a qualitative viewpoint, which neuroscience fiction, if we are to use the term, seems to promote a bridging of the two cultures. Nevertheless, neuroscience fiction is a cool merging of brain and SF much like the many plays on words bound together in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984).

The stories focus on the brain, its biology, or interventions on it by science, technology, or medicine. More specifically, the topics featured in these stories include: the human brain, neuroanatomy, neurons, neurological structures and networks, neurochemistry, neurotransmitters, hormones, molecular and genetic effects on neurons, psychopharmacology, brain injury, neuropsychiatric disorders (autism, ADD, ADHD, schizophrenia, etc.; DSM-5), neurotoxins, brain health and disease (Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, the aging brain), agnosia, synesthesia, processes of cognition, nanotechnology and the brain, brain-computer interfaces (BCI), brains in vats, brain transplantation, brain as quantum computer (Penrose), speculative effects of the brain (telepathy, telekinesis, etc.), and overlap with psychology (psychology as a discipline, the talking cure, psychologists, psychoanalysis, Freudianism).

In terms of the history of SF, neuroscience and SF stories range from the genre’s origin, through proto-SF, the pulps, Golden Age SF, the New Wave, cyberpunk, Technological Singularity stories, and contemporary SF.

Below, I have the list of neuroscience fiction literature first and the list of related secondary literature after.

Neuroscience and Science Fiction Literature (updated May 14, 2015)

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, 1818, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/42324/42324-h/42324-h.htm (anatomical assembly of a monstrous human-like being, “brain” noted once in Frankenstein’s observations in vaults and charnel houses of the passage of life to death, “It was with these feelings that I began the creation of a human being. As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large. After having formed this determination and having spent some months in successfully collecting and arranging my materials, I began.” Infusing life: “I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”)

Edward Bulwer Lytton, “The Haunted and the Haunters, or the House and the Brain,” 1859, http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/14195/pg14195.html (one passage explaining hauntings–mesmerism, technological apparatus for conveying thoughts from one person to another, psychokenesis)

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, 1895, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/35 (evolutionary psychology, the changing human brain over time: Eloi, Morlocks, and the eventual degeneration of human beings in the far future, remember: evolution does not mean progress)

H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1896 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/159/159-h/159-h.htm (surgically enhancing animals into beings with human-like intelligence, “A horrible fancy came into my head that Moreau, after animalising these men, had infected their dwarfed brains with a kind of deification of himself.” “Then I took a gorilla I had; and upon that, working with infinite care and mastering difficulty after difficulty, I made my first man. All the week, night and day, I moulded him. With him it was chiefly the brain that needed moulding; much had to be added, much changed. I thought him a fair specimen of the negroid type when I had finished him, and he lay bandaged, bound, and motionless before me. It was only when his life was assured that I left him and came into this room again, and found Montgomery much as you are. He had heard some of the cries as the thing grew human,—cries like those that disturbed you so.” “But it is in the subtle grafting and reshaping one must needs do to the brain that my trouble lies.” “I have some hope of this puma. I have worked hard at her head and brain”).

Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Master Mind of Mars, 1927 (brain swap)

Captain S. P. Meek, Stolen Brains, 1930, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29882/29882-h/29882-h.htm (menthium–a pseudosubstance extracted from the brain for injection in others for improved cognition)

David H. Keller, “The Ambidexter,” April 1931, https://archive.org/details/AmazingStoriesVolume06Number01 (grafting brain tissue to enable ambidextrousness, unexpected consequences)

Anthony Gilmore, “Hawk Carse,” November 1931, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30307/30307-h/30307-h.htm (character origin story–sets up what follows but

Anthony Gilmore, “The Affair of the Brains,” March 1932, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29310/29310-h/29310-h.htm (a neurosurgeon villain who alters the brains of his henchmen and extracts information from the brains of his foes)

Anthony Gilmore, “The Bluff of the Hawk,” May 1932, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29298/29298-h/29298-h.htm (more of Hawk Carse’s adventures)

Anthony Gilmore, “The Passing of Ku Sui,” November 1932, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30303/30303-h/30303-h.htm (more of Hawk Carse’s adventures, brain transplant) (these stories fixed up into Space Hawk novel 1952)

Edmund Hamilton, “Intelligence Undying,” 1936 (brain imprinting)

Alexander Beliaev, “Professor Dowell’s Head,” Russian 1937, English trans. 1980, (head transplantation, keeping heads/brains alive separate from the body)

Alexander Blade (Heinrich Hauser), The Brain, 1948, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/32498/32498-h/32498-h.htm (neurosurgeons help construct mechanical brain, lots of biological metaphors applied to the machine)

Bernard Wolfe, Limbo, 1952, (“neuronography, strychninization, the firing of certain key areas of the cerebrum with this potent excitant in order to trace the pathways from the brain’s jellied rind to the hidden cerebellum, the thalamus, the hypothalamus”, injections, mapping, neurosurgeon Dr. Martine, cybernetics, lobotomy)

Poul Anderson, Brain Wave, 1954 (technological dampening of biological intelligence, heightened intelligence)

Arthur C. Clarke, “The Ultimate Melody,” 1957 (in Tales from the White Hart, EEG, brain waves, effect of music on the brain, no effect on tone deaf technician)

Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon, short story 1959, novel 1966, (surgical intervention increases the IQ of mice and men)

James Schmitz, Agent of Vega, 1960, (fixup of earlier stories, telepathic interventions with discussion of perception within the brain, neuron influence, major misconception of much fiction about telepathy—you would likely not know or realize of intervention, because the brain creates conscious perception—you are not an outsider looking in as in the case of Data on STTNG who can flip bits and access memory pathways within his positronic brain)

John Brunner, The Whole Man (aka Telepathist), 1964, fixup, (discussions of the brain and its information processing, telepathic communication and control)

Isaac Asimov, Fantastic Voyage, 1966, (travel into the brain to repair a blood clot from the inside)

Michael Crichton, A Case of Need, 1968, (published as by Jeffery Hudson, primarily a mystery novel about who had performed abortions when illegal, discussion in key passages about studying the brain and related endocrine system postmortem)

Philip K. Dick, “The Electric Ant,” 1969, (about a robot, but its control tape system perfectly describes how we cannot know how our ontology and memories change when the change is effected on our brain, we do not have a constitutive outside from which our perception operates—our perception is determined by our brain for good or ill without our knowing the difference in most cases, the robot’s control tape can be a metaphor for discussing how we perceive the world)

Philip K. Dick, A Maze of Death, 1970, (brain-computer interface, hallucination, generating sense perception)

Michael Crichton, The Terminal Man, 1972, (brain pacemaker, treat seizures with a computer-controlled device of electrodes deeply implanted in the brain)

Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly, 1977, (Substance-D splits the hemispheres, damages the corpus callosum, two minds)

Robin Cook, Brain, 1981 (remove cells to stop seizures, larger plot of brain-computer interfaces)

Philip K. Dick, VALIS, 1981 (see Exegesis)

Philip K. Dick, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, 1982, (issues of perception, “brain prints,” personal ontology created by the brain and imagination)

Spider Robinson, Mindkiller, 1982, (neuroscientists, neuroanatomy, implants to produce pleasure response, addiction)

Roger Zelazny and Fred Saberhagen, Coils, 1982, (“CAH-NMR (computerized axial holography via nuclear magnetic resonance) scan of my brain. Unlike the earlier X-ray mediated mappings, this technique, which had come into use during the past several years, produced a holographic image of the organ upon a small staging area,” neurologists, persistent vegetative state, brain and spinal cord damage)

Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Inheritor, 1984, (psychics, paranormal, discussions and tests from neurological and psychological perspectives—attempts at finding a rational, scientific explanation)

Madeleine L’Engle, A House Like a Lotus, 1984, (not SF, neurosurgeons, describes similarities between octopus/squid neurological systems with that of the human)

Kim Stanley Robinson, “Ridge Running,” 1984, http://www.baenebooks.com/chapters/1597801844/1597801844___2.htm (brain damage after accident, regrowing, regeneration, effects of replaced neurons on self, behavior, recovery)

Stephen King, “The End of the Whole Mess,” 1986 (chemical found in water supply found to reduce aggression, unforeseen side effect > dementia or Alzheimer’s disease-like symptoms)

Isaac Asimov, Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain, 1987, (not a sequel, obtain information directly from within a person’s brain by tapping into neurons directly and using sophisticated computer software)

Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes, The Legacy of Heorot, 1987 (effects of suspended animation—space sleep—on brain cells—degenerative)

Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, The Healer’s War, 1988, (Nebula 1989, Vietnam War, magical realism, works on neuroward, brain and head trauma of soldiers and civilians)

Frederick Turner, Genesis: An Epic Poem, 1988, (Chris Pak says: “neuroscience metaphors dotted throughout” and “Turner actually talks a lot about neuroscience, in his poetry and in his non-fiction work. I interview him in the SFRA Review here: http://www.sfra.org/sfra-review/307-308.pdf and reference this article of his: Turner, Frederick, and Ernst Pöppel. ‘The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time’. Joel Orr’s World of Technology. 2001. Web.)

Greg Bear, Queen of Angels, 1990, (neurotransmitters, neurons, discussion of how neurons work, nanotechnology intervention, neurologists)

Greg Egan, “Learning to Be Me,” 1990, (mapping the brain over time with the embedded “jewel,” questions about who is “you,” neurons, biochemistry)

Ted Chiang, “Understand,” 1991, (brain damage, regeneration of neural tissue with hormones, side effects, c.f. Flowers for Algernon, 2 competing supermen)

Larry Niven and Steven Barnes, Achilles’ Choice, 1991, (neurotransmitters, neurons)

Charles Sheffield, “The Feynman Saltation,” 1992, (glioblastoma, tumor in the brain, implanted drug release system, difficulties with crossing the blood-brain barrier)

Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George, Interface, 1994, (biochips, feed information into the human brain)

Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2, 1995 (simulated human intelligence, AI, memory)

J. D. Robb, Rapture in Death, 1996, (by Nora Roberts, brain imaging, brain lesions, neurological terminology, “a burn in the brain”)

Kate Wilhelm, For the Defense, 1997, (is this SF? Brain swelling, edema, seizures, EEG, long term brain damage, gender differentiation of study of the brain: Reid/male/brain physiology and Gail/female/psychology?)

Tad Williams, River of Blue Fire, 1998, (“they had tested her neurocannula and her shunt circuits,” Tandagore Syndrome, brain generates experience of the world based on sensory information or information delivered by the shunt, short-circuit sensory information, hindbrain)

William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties, 1999, (character: Silencio, autistic savant)

Vernor Vinge, A Deepness in the Sky, 1999, (engineered viruses, brain diagnostics, mindrot, “neuropathic curiosity,” glial cells, cognitive enhancement, neuroactives)

Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, The Light of Other Days, 2000, (limbic system, electromagnetic stimulation of the brain, brain structure discussion, brain chemistry, evolution of the brain)

Joan Slonczewski, Brain Plague, 2000, (from Joan via email: “The book accurately represents the molecular basis of addiction and treatment. The microbial aspect is even more relevant today, as we learn how the microbiome regulates the brain.
Sherri Vint has a nice literary analysis.)

Walter Mosely, Futureland, 2001, (collection, some stories have neurologist characters, mention neurons, brains)

Connie Willis, Passage, 2001, (near death experience, dying brain, research psychologist, artificially generate NDE, brain scans, cf Flatliners film 1990)

Darrell Bain, Ultimate Suggestions, 2002, (neuro hypochondriac, brain scans, compounds/chemicals acting on the brain)

John Darnton, Mind Catcher, 2002, (neurosurgeon, transcranial stimulator-receiver (TSR), implantation of stem cells into the brain)

Maureen McHugh, “Presence,” 2002 (Alzheimer’s Disease)

Elizabeth Moon, Heris Serrano, 2002 (omnibus of three books in series 1993, 1994, 1995; Institute of Neuroscience, neurology, neurotoxins, neuroactive drugs, space opera)

Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark, 2002 (autism)

J. D. Robb, Purity in Death, 2002, (by Nora Roberts, “skull saw,” brain swelling, pathology, medical examination post mortem)

Walter Jon Williams, “The Millennium Party,” 2002 (downloaded/stored brains, “he slotted the brain labeled Clarisse/passion, the brain that contained memories of time with his wife”)

J. D. Robb, Portrait in Death, 2003, (by Nora Roberts, brain tumor, effects on personality and behavior)

Daryl Gregory, “Second Person, Present Tense,” 2005, (different types of neurological disorders, Oliver Sacks-type cornucopia in fiction)

Darrell Bain, MindWar, 2005, (neurotoxins that mirror disease, brain structures, Broca’s Area)

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End, 2006 (Alzheimer’s disease, regenerating neurons, treatment for degeneration of the brain, new brain wiring from new, multimodal technologies in the future, metaphor of the library book scanning/destruction)

Peter Watts, Blindsight, 2006, http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm (brain surgery, surgical interventions, epilepsy)

Helen Collins, NeuroGenesis, 2008, (AI, psychology, sociology, some reviews reference Asimov’s psychohistory as an analog or possible inspiration)

Daryl Gregory, “Glass,” 2008, http://www.technologyreview.com/article/411026/glass/ (mirror neurons, psychopharmacology)

R. Scott Bakker, Neuropath, 2008, http://www.tor.com/stories/2009/11/lemgneuropathlemg-chapter-four-by-r-scott-bakker (this chapter from the book explains difference between neuroscience and psychology)

Cory Doctorow, “Ghosts in My Head,” 2010, http://subterraneanpress.com/magazine/summer_2010/fiction_ghosts_in_my_head_by_cory_doctorow (fMRI miniaturization, evolutionary psychology, tech-enabled hallucinations)

Kathleen Ann Goonan, This Shared Dream,” 2013, (neuroplasticity, education)

James Morrow, “Thanatos Beach,” 2012, http://www.tor.com/stories/2012/03/thanatos-beach, (brain tumor, accurate descriptions of diagnosis, imaging, study, octopus/squid)

Ramex Naam, NEXUS, 2012, (cognitive enhancement and cognitive impairment with tailored nano-drugs, part of a series)

Kathleen Ann Goonan, “Bootstrap,” 2013, http://www.technologyreview.com/twelvetomorrows/13/ (neuroplasticity)

Kathleen Ann Goonan, “Sport,” 2013, http://www.arcfinity.org/arc21.php (synesthesia, from Goonan: “about a synestete girl recruited to work for the NSA at the Utah Data Center.”)

Nancy Kress, “One,” 2013, http://www.tor.com/stories/2013/07/one (brain injury, integrated information theory)

Ramez Naam, CRUX, 2013, http://www.tor.com/stories/2013/08/crux-excerpt (Nexus 5 is nanotech that studies the brain from the inside out and transmits information between brains, technical explanations, c.f. Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage—beneficial vs. harmful use of tech, part of a series)

Kathleen Ann Goonan, “Girl In Wave:Wave In Girl,” 2014,  in Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Positive Future, http://hieroglyph.asu.edu/story/girl-in-wave-wave-in-girl/ (from Goonan: “HIEROGLYPH is Neal Stephenson’s project, in conjunction with ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination, to link sf writers with government agencies, NGOs and corporations through “hieroglyphs” that depict chronic problems and possible solutions, or templates for big projects. “Girl In Wave” is about generating solutions to dyslexia, dyscalcula, and other common problems which impact learning through the new brain initiatives in the U.S. and Europe.”)

S. Kay, “Neurotech Light and Dark,” 2014, http://www.scq.ubc.ca/neurotech-light-and-dark/ (collection of two sentence long neuroscience-based SF stories)

Eric C. Leuthardt, Red Devil 4, 2014, (neurosurgeon writes near-future thriller about a neurosurgeon, cognitive augmentation sounds like Air by Geoff Ryman)

Ramex Naam, Apex, May 2015, (conclusion to series about Nexus nano-drug, cognitive enhancement)

 

Secondary Sources (updated May 14, 2015)

Miller, Joseph D. “Neuroscience Fiction: The Roman à Synaptic Cleft.” in Mindscapes. Eds. Slusser, George E. and Rabkin, Eric S. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989. pp.195-207.

Stableford, Brian M. “Neurology.” in Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2006. 329-330.

Johnson, Jenell. “To Find the Soul, It is Necessary to Lose It : Neuroscience, Disability, and the Epigraph to The Echo Maker.” in Intersections: Essays on Richard Powers. Eds. Burn, Stephen J. and Dempsey, Peter. Chamapign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2008. p. 215-218.

Shinn, Christopher A. “On Machines and Mosquitoes: Neuroscience, Bodies, and Cyborgs in Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome.” Melus 33.4 (Winter 2008): 145-166.

Miller, Joseph D. “Neuroscience Fiction Redux.” in Reading Science Fiction. Eds. Gunn, James E., Marleen S. Barr and Matthew Candelaria. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. p. 199-211.

Reid, Luc. “Future Brains: Neuroscience Fiction versus Neuroscience Fantasy.” Clarkesworld Magazine 42 (March 2010). (http://www.clarkesworldmagazine.com/).

Brogaard, Berit. The Mad Neuroscience of Inception.” in Inception and Philosophy: Ideas to Die For. Ed. Botz-Bornstein, Thorsten. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2011. p. 25-38.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Greg Egan’s Quarantine and Teranesia: Contributions to the Millennial Reassessment of Consciousness and the Cognitive Nonconscious.” Science Fiction Studies 42.1 (March 2015): 56-77.

Packer, Sharon. Neuroscience in Science Fiction Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015.

5 comments on “Neuroscience and Science Fiction Literature
  1. HWHall says:

    Four items that may interest you:

    Greg Egan’s Quarantine and Teranesia: Contributions to the Millennial Reassessment of Consciousness and the Cognitive Nonconscious

    Hayles, N. Katherine

    Science Fiction Studies 42(1): 56-77. March 2015.

    Neuroscience Fiction Redux,

    Miller, Joseph D.

    in: Gunn, James E., Marleen S. Barr and Matthew Candelaria, eds. Reading Science Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. p. 199-211.

    Neuroscience Fiction: The Roman à Synaptic Cleft

    Miller, Joseph D.

    in: Slusser, George E. and Rabkin, Eric S., eds. Mindscapes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989. pp.195-207.

    Neuroscience in Science Fiction Films

    Packer, Sharon

    Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. 287 p.

  2. Dear Hal,

    Thanks for these suggestions! I know about Packer’s new book (I have a review of it coming out in the next SFRA Review), but I didn’t know about the others.

    Best, Jason

  3. Audrey F says:

    Octavia Butler’s Parable books also explore brain science. Butler was inspired by Oliver Sacks’ case studies.

  4. Dear Audrey,

    Thanks for this lead! I found Butler responding to a question about Oliver Sacks in this SFS interview after reading your comment:

    http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/interviews/potts70interview.htm

    Best, Jason

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Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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