Science Fiction, LMC 3214, Summer 2014: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Day 2 of 2)

Georgia Tech: Engineering Great Minds.
Georgia Tech: Engineering Great Minds.

During today’s LMC 3214 Science Fiction class, I continued my lecture on the importance of the Biology of Mind to Frankenstein specifically and Science Fiction generally.

In the last lecture, I ended on a discussion of the empiricist vs. rationalist debates. Then, I turned to the questions, “How and why do we enjoy literature?” I discussed solving puzzles (finding solutions), feeding our imagination (the novum), deploying our theory of mind and observing theory of mind at play in the novel, recognizing how the brain is a virtual reality simulator (it simulates our experience of the world and our experience of imagined worlds in fiction–in both cases there is a divide between us and the world itself–even more so in the case of the epistolary novel form), and finally, understanding that each person’s experience of the novel will be different based on wiring, hormonal production/reception, memories, and associations (we discussed how we observe this in the novel and how it is important to Romanticism).

I ended the lecture on an etymology of hubris and nemesis and a discussion about how the novel is a critique of the Age of Enlightenment.

In the last half of class, I asked the on-campus students to lead the discussion and raise those points, passages, or questions that they were most interested in concerning the novel. Our discussion ranged from Jurassic Park connections to women’s biological rights to the Creature’s missed potential due to his undutiful creator.

There’s no class on Monday for Memorial Day or Wednesday due to a professional trip. Our class lecture for Wednesday (LS and QUP sections) will be available on T-Square under Resources as an MP4 video. In that lecture, I will discuss proto-SF, Voyages Extraordinaires, and Scientific Romances.We will continue our conversations on Twitter through this weekend and next week. We will resume normal classroom meetings and lecture recording on June 2.

Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole Episode on Consciousness

I sent this out to the Neuroscience and the Humanities Workgroup earlier today, so I thought that I would share it here, too.

Today, the Science Channel is running a marathon of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole pop science series. There is one episode that I wanted to share with you if you can spare 45 minutes to watch it on Youtube (it is divided into three parts):

The episode, “Is There Life After Death?” could have been alternatively named “What is consciousness, and what happens to it when we die?” There are good (albeit short) interviews with Stuart Hameroff (the anesthesiologist who collaborated with Roger Penrose on a quantum theory of consciousness), Douglas Hofstadter (Godel Escher Bach), and Steve Potter of Georgia Tech (he has built computer chips that interface with rat brain cells that control robots |

The discussions of anesthesia and consciousness might be the most enlightening ones for our recent conversation about consciousness.

Also, it is a good show. Freeman is a long advocate of science and education, and I believe that his series (he is executive producer) now in its second season demonstrates his commitment to these things.

I have written about Freeman’s Through the Wormhole series before here.

College Writing I Syllabus, Theme: Mapping the Brain, Writing the Mind

I am afraid that this syllabus for College Writing I, Spring 2011, “Mapping the Brain, Writing the Mind” lacks the special effects of my previous syllabi, because I wrote it on a Windows XP computer while I was in Taiwan after my iPad died (details here). I didn’t want to lose my work again as I had done with the review of Tron: Legacy for the SFRA Review. Nevertheless, I believe that this class will be exciting and fun for my students, and more importantly, it will address the goals and requirements of the first tier writing class at Kent State University. You may download a copy of my syllabus here: ellis-jason-collegewritingi-spring2011.

The Cognitive Game Panel at SLSA 2008, Notes on Consciousness, Cognition, and Neuronarratives

As you may have read on my CV, I am writing my dissertation on the potentially important work being done in science fiction on minds and brains. Specifically, I will read the works of several authors through the lens of cognitive cultural studies with the goal to establish the significance of science fiction to literary studies as well as cognitive science.

I have been long interested in the human mind. I wrote a 20 page paper in my high school psychology class on consciousness after reading Roger Penrose’s book The Emperor’s New Mind. At the University of Liverpool, I took part in a study on human facial aesthetics only after receiving the researcher’s promise that I could have a copy of my MRI dicom data so that I could look at my brain in the comfort of my own home.

Until recently, I had forgotten about a panel that I attended at the 2008 Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts conference in Charlotte, NC. Titled “The Cognitive Game,” the panelists discussed different aspects of cognition in and through literature. I remembered this panel only after browsing an old notebook about a week ago when I ran across my notes. This bit of happenstance is itself a hallmark of my mind and the way my memory works. So much seems lost to the past, but I can capture glimpses of the past through my notes. However, I honestly have very little memory of the panel even after reading through my notes. In a sense, it seems like I wasn’t really there, but I do know that the notes are mine. You may have noticed that I take copious notes in class or at conferences. Part of this is an attempt to help me remember things in the short term while maintaining my focus on what is being discussed. It is also my effort at recalling things at a later time–if I have a chance to go back and review my notes. Unfortunately, I do not always have the time to really go back through all of my notes–at least not as thoroughly as I would like.

As an exercise to help retrieve weak connections in my mind’s holographic memory, I copy my notes from “The Cognitive Game” panel below.


Saturday 10:30 panel

The Cognitive Game

Sarah Birge – “Paper Memories”

narrative identity theory

trauma disrupts narrative

loss of self without normal brain function


Richard Powers and Umberto Eco novels

how to compensate for these disruptions

Andy Clark

self as tool kit — Dennet

The Echo Maker – Powers

Capgras Syndrome

recreation of self and creation of self by others

liminal state of Mark

enforcement of stable sense of self in the face of trauma

issues of dignity and self-determination

this would be good to add to BSG paper [note: this did not happen]

The Mysterious Flame _________ – Eco

persistence of self through time

cultural memory

Yambo’s “paper memory” vs. personal memory

“notebook of his mind”

dispersion of self into cultural memory

self and certainty-> allow space for others’ narratives


Mark Clark – “Post-traumatic Experiential”

Nabokov – it is the re-reading that matters (?)

villanelle vs. narrative sense of self

Dylan Thomas – “Do not go Gently into That Good Night”

final words are a whisper

son is not finished project of the father

consider context of the words – respoken, altered meanings?

changing memory based on trauma


therapeutic endeavor


audience – reader and participant in narrator’s trauma aftermath


Pawel Frelik – “To Think or Not to Think”

begins with the novel that Sarah talked about

Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker

Antonio Damasio

Edelman and Tononi

Thomas Metzinger

D. M. Wagner


1) performance of subjectivity – PKD, terminal fictions, cyberpunk, surfaces

2) artificial intelligence – Maddox Halo, Galatea 2.2

3) cognitive processes problematized – Egan’s Oceanic, Moon – The Speed of Dark, Matt Ruff

intelligence vs. consciousness

alien narratives is one place this is engaged

morality or transcendence – imply consciousness

1) inescapably coupled – Dix and Williams, Echoes of Earth trilogy

2) possibly conflicting – Peter Watts – Blindsight

Echoes of Earth – ingrams of humanity

E.E. Smith – Lensman series

contrasts with Echoes of Earth


Blindsight – one of the most inventive novels of alien otherness in recent years

construct – “heaven”

third wave to make alien contact

“posthuman sociopaths”

Susan James – “gang of four” – multicore persona/ae

1) blindsight – brain lesions – see things without cognition

2) Chinese room – John Searle – 1980 – thought experiment

3) zombie – blindsighted zombies, consciousness is baggage that they have jettisoned, expand possibilities for the species

what about aesthetics

for humanity consciousness not landing on Earth

cruxifix glitch – vampires

downgrade humanity

reptilian ascendancy – also Power’s language



emotion and affect – importance to consciousness

subjectivity and the fragmented self

what about posthumanism and sentience

Earth: backwater, lucky for us, allowed us to survive

disability – ascendency for posthuman specialization

Suzan Jones – savage that we now don’t tolerate multipersonalities – in Blindsight, humanity accepts that – how to manage, utilize

scramblers – respond to stimuli, volition isn’t really addressed

Neuroscience, the Neuronovel, and Science Fiction

Several conversations with Tammy Clewell on the neuronovel rekindled my interest in the biology of the human brain. As a result, I have decided to do some research on the neuronovel and its relationship to science fiction. The neuronovel, with its emphasis on the hardware of the brain over the software of psychology, is arguably a hard science fiction topic (albeit most lacking an extrapolative element). Additionally, novels traditionally seen in terms of psychological explanation can be re-read with neuroscience in mind (pun intended).

I am building a list of science fiction novels and short stories that specifically addresses the neuronovel’s emphasis of brains over mind. What titles of novels or short stories from approximately 1950 to the present can you recommend that emphasize brains over mind, and the brain’s influence on one’s sense of self and understanding of the world. This would include brain trauma over psychological trauma, neuroscience over psychology, depictions of creating or developing brains and how that shapes one’s engagement with the world, introspection or internal dialog that might have a biological explanation rather than a psychological one, etc. Two sets of works that immediate come to mind are Asimov’s robots (they exhibit psychological problems, but there is an emphasis on those behaviors resulting from the way they are hardwired), and Dick’s VALIS novels (the author’s 2-3-74 events can be more simply diagnosed as the first in a series of unfortunate strokes).

This is a very rough sketch at this point, so please bear with me as a work through it. All suggestions are welcome and much appreciated.