Neuroscience Is Inspiring Some Amazing Sci-Fi

Daryl Gregory’s collection Unpossible features several short stories inspired by neuroscience, including “Digital,” in which a man’s consciousness migrates from his head into his finger, and “Glass,” in which sociopaths are “cured” by activating their mirror neurons.

“It’s great to have a job where you get permission to feed your hobby and buy as many books as you want, and so I keep buying neuroscience books,” Gregory says in Episode 484 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I’m endlessly fascinated by that stuff, and so I’m always looking for ways to make that into stories.”

In his story “Dead Horse Point,” a genius physicist suffers from a strange condition that causes her to disappear into her own mind for weeks at a time. Gregory says the story was inspired by a friend of his. “He wasn’t completely dysfunctional like the character in my story, but he was a really gifted mathematician, and when he was working on a hard problem, he would—for days at a time—he would drift around, he would eat automatically, he would barely talk to people,” Gregory says. “He had to stop doing that when he had kids, because you can’t just walk away from your children and come back three days later and see if they’re OK.”

One of the most fascinating stories in the book is “Second Person, Present Tense,” in which a teenager takes a drug that disrupts the connection between her conscious mind and the rest of her brain. “She overdoses on this drug,” Gregory says, “and then a new consciousness sort of steps in, and she knows exactly what happened—she has access even to the old person’s memories—but her identity does not feel like that person. She feels like a new consciousness.”

Gregory thought the idea was complete fiction, but later learned it’s something that can actually happen. “I got an email from a guy who’s a professor, and he’s like, ‘I read this story, and this happened to me, except it wasn’t a drug, it was a motorcycle accident. When I woke up in the hospital, I knew I was a different person, but I wasn’t as brave as your protagonist—I kept faking my way through it,’” Gregory says. “He just was trying to get by, even though he knew he had nothing to do with that previous person who had the motorcycle accident.”

Listen to the complete interview with Daryl Gregory in Episode 484 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Daryl Gregory on his story “The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy”:

“[Gordon Van Gelder] did me a great service on ‘The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy,’ which is in the collection, and which Gordon published. … He actually said, ‘Look, this is not actually a science fiction story. It’s a mainstream story about science fiction. So I just can’t take it, I can’t buy the story.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ But I said, ‘You know, I really hope that people in science fiction would read it, because it’s about me as a reader, growing up.’ I went on to write other stories for Gordon, and then he came back to me and said, ‘Look, I can’t stop thinking about that story. Let’s run it.’ And he did run it, but with a disclaimer—not for sex or violence, but for the disturbing lack of genre content.”

Daryl Gregory on his novel Revelator:

“I’m really interested in the idea of gods that aren’t quite gods, demons that aren’t really demons. So like in this new book Revelator, there’s a family in the Smoky Mountains, in the 1930s and ’40s, and for generations they’ve been worshiping their own private god, and they’ve declared it a god, but what is it really? One of the mysteries of the book is, ‘Well, what is this thing? We’ve sort of made it into a god, and it’s doing things, and it seems to be supernatural, but is there another, science fiction explanation for it?’ … One of the secrets of the book is that it’s a crypto science fiction novel. I wrote it in such a way that it feels like horror and fantasy, but there’s a scientific explanation for every single thing that’s going on in the story.”

Daryl Gregory on Roger Zelazny:

“I grew up reading people like Roger Zelazny who would mix science fiction and fantasy. … Zelazny wrote this great novel that had such an influence on me called Lord of Light, where it’s basically a science fiction space opera about a far future civilization that crash landed—we learn later they came in a ship—but their high tech, for some of the original crew members, makes them into gods, and they assume aspects of the Hindu pantheon. It’s fantastic. It blew my mind when I read it sophomore year of high school, and when you read something at that age, it can carve a deep groove into your brain. And so part of me still, years later, wants to be Roger Zelazny more than anything. I want to grow up to be him.”

Daryl Gregory on his novella The Album of Dr. Moreau:

“I thought, ‘OK, all the suspects are going to be these human-animal hybrids—there’s a bat boy and an elephant boy, and all of them are going to be suspects.’ … I had these five guys who were born on a secret science barge and raised by evil genetic engineers, and they’d spent all this time together, and so finding out how they would talk to each other, like brothers, and how each of them would have a distinct personality, that was the most fun of the book. So before I ever started really any of the plot, I would sit and let them talk to each other—I would just keep typing, trying to come up with dialogue — and that’s where I found the book, was in these five guys, the way they would bicker, and how each of them would be funny in a different way.”

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