The Big Idea: Caroline M. Yoachim

In the writing and collecting of the stories which comprise Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World, author Caroline M. Yoachim discovered the thread that runs through them. What’s the thread and how does it weave into each of the tales? Yoachim is here to explain.


When I was putting together Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, I noticed something about my short fiction: I write a lot of stories about brains. Not so much the neurons inside our skulls (although there’s certainly some of that), but an examination of what our brains do–the nuances of consciousness, the nature of the human mind.

In Philosophy there’s a thought experiment called Theseus’ paradox that asks: If you replace the boards of a ship one at a time until every board has been replaced, is it still the same ship? It’s a fascinating question because it gets at the nature of identity. What makes something the same ship–are the individual boards important? Does the rate at which boards are replaced matter?

It’s a fun problem to think about in the context of ships, but where it gets really interesting for me is when the thought experiment is applied to people. If a person replaces their body bit by bit, until every cell has been replaced, are they still the same person?

I love writing short stories because you can explore an idea from lots of different angles. What is the nature of human identity? There’s no simple answer to that, so my goal has been to revisit the question in a variety of ways. With science fiction I can deal explicitly with Theseus’ paradox. Several of my stories involve characters whose bodies are replaced, either entirely or only partially. In other stories, my characters abandon their biological bodies entirely or merge their minds into a collective consciousness. At what point do we draw the line and say ‘this is no longer the same person’ or even ‘this is no longer a human at all’?

I draw a lot of inspiration from my academic background in Developmental Psychology. Infants and young children change rapidly as they learn new skills and gain a better understanding of the world around them. I don’t have much in common with my 3-year-old self–the way I think about the world is different, I’m a different size, a different shape. Over the years, most of my cells have been replaced. But despite all that there is a continuity to my existence: all these changes have been gradual, so from one day to the next I am the largely the same person. Three-year-old me was similar to 4-year-old me, 4-year-old me was similar to 5-year-old me, and so on for over three decades…a continuous chain leading up to the version of me that is writing this essay–an essay that my 3-year-old self wouldn’t have been able to read or understand.

In my short stories I try to capture this interplay between continuity and change. When I’m writing fantasy, I often make my characters undergo drastic transformations–a girl made of bamboo rebuilds herself with driftwood, a sugar clown is dissolved in a cauldron and regrown from a seed crystal, a Lovecraftian fish-frog mermaid becomes a beautiful human. Writing about these kinds of transformations has been another way for me to explore what is (and isn’t) important to who we are.

The nature of identity is something that’s important to me on a personal level, too. I’m mixed race, and that’s an aspect of my identity that I’ve struggled with for a long time. Being half Japanese and half white I don’t feel like I fully belong to either group. There’s a degree to which I’m constantly reconstructing my identity, like a chameleon trying to blend in with its surroundings. I wrote a fantasy novelette, original to the collection, that tries to capture my longing to find the place where I fit. “On the Pages of a Sketchbook Universe” is set in a fantasy world where some people are made of watercolor paint and others are made out of pencils. I wanted to write a story that examines what happens when someone falls between those two categories, a character who is a blend of both pencils and paint.

I didn’t initially set out to write a themed collection, but the nature of identity is an idea that I return to again and again, often with more questions than answers: What makes us who we are? Is there some essential core that defines us as individuals? How much of ourselves can we replace before we become something entirely new?



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10 Comments on “The Big Idea: Caroline M. Yoachim”

  1. Another example of Theseus paradox is the species’ paradox.

    Take a look at Homo Sapiens. Then take a look at the common ancestor of all vertebrates. They’re very obviously different species. And yet, when you look at each birth in the long chains leading from that ancestor to you, each offspring was very obviously of the same species as his/her parents. No Homo Habilis gave birth to an Homo Erectus, no Homo Erectus had weird mutant Homo Antecessor.

    And yet here we are.

  2. For me, and probably many of us, the question started with Star Trek transporters. Unless that transporter beam transports the “soul” in a fictional universe without souls, it’s definitely a different person, full stop. Yet the debate continues…..

    Any sci-fi story dealing with this problem needs to meaningfully acknowledge the issue and not dismiss it with, “It’s a different person/conscious identity but nobody cares.” Dan Simmons played with exactly this problem–and exactly that explanation!–in his excellent Ilium and Olympos stories. In stories where it’s considered the same person/identity, the answer nowadays seems to invariably be, “Quantum magic–don’t worry about it.” Or else magic or religion.

    Can consciousness continue in an unbroken way without magic, or God, or quantum hand-waving? Would the slow, bit-by-bit digitization actually work? If so, would that slow effort go to waste at the first digital transfer into a different network or medium (transfer=copy=new identity)? Does consciousness exist in any meaningful way outside of our own heads? Does the “universe” care if it’s the same information? There’s so much. Anyway, I look forward to this new collection.

  3. The Star Trek question was the setting for “Spock Must Die!” by James Blish. Another series dealing with the same question is the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy by Richard K. Morgan – the central technology to the series is a cortical stack, which records and stores your consciousness and can be moved from body to body (which are called sleeves now). There are an astounding number of implications there and many are explored in that series.

  4. As regards identity and being mixed nationality, I like the solution of Peter’s family. (He runs J-list) Peter lives in Japan, married a Japanese. Had two children. He takes the children to visit their relatives in the States, timed for such things as Hallowe’en.

    He and his wife made this decision: To raise their kids as mostly Japanese, not half and half, so they would have an identity. (Now the kids are in post-secondary, I think the girl is schooling overseas in Australia, but I forget)

  5. strugglingwriter, I think “true copy” would be meaningless in that context. One might kill or otherwise dominate the others and get to declare himself ‘The One True King’, or maybe there would be contractual agreements regarding their rights and responsibilities, e.g., Stross’s copies in the Saturn’s Children series.

    Subrata Sircar, I haven’t read that story, but I like James Blish, so thanks for the recommendation! I’ve read three Takeshi Kovacs novels and I have mixed feelings about the “stacks.” To its credit, the series spends time exploring these questions. Further back, the issue really gained momentum for me with Iain Banks’s Culture novels, which explored, among other things, digital consciousness backups, digital afterlives, and copies that might as well be considered the original. I highly recommend all of them.

    One of the most daring–and dense–explorations of the topic is in Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief books, in which thousands of copies of individual consciousnesses are variously employed as rulers, adventurers, workers, slaves, and calculating components for machines, with different factions fighting over the rights and the appropriate use of the copies. Well worth reading.

  6. Doctors 1 through 12. Definitely different personalities – at least on the surface – each incarnation with its own quirks and preferences, let alone appearance, yet still the same being.

  7. There are so very many great speculative or science ficiton story ideas in that idea of ship or person identity that it could be enough for a whole writing career. — You got me to thinking of a couple of serious story ideas and one darkly comic short, all from the essay and the comments so far. Two of those had already been perking along in my subconscious or as story ideas written out, for a while now, but I think that just added key bits to them. Maybe even enough to write a full story. Dunno yet, I’ll have to try a draft or two.

    I would say that the ship, replacing it one part at a time, ends up as something in-between. It is and is not the same ship, simultaneously, in some quantum in-between state. Or else I’m just weaseling out of making a decision. If every part of your ship eventually gets replaced, it was in an in-between step part-way through the process, but it ends up, uh, an avatar of the original. It’s still the ship as long as you say it is, it has a known lineage from original to fully replaced version. It is and is not the same ship. As long as you say and feel it’s the same ship, as long as it’s some avatar of the ship, then I suppose it’s still the same ship. I think for an inanimate object, that’s sufficient enough.

    When you get into species-ness or person-ness or identity? All sorts of questions there. Really fascinating. Clones? Cyborgs? Biological and cybernetic and mechanical parts to a person? All sorts of things there. Moral/ethical, hardware/software, medical/biological, oh wow.

    In terms of species: Back in prehistory, a new baby who doesn’t look or act enough like what the parent(s) or group think of as their species could meet an untimely end. Not much survival value in that. So a successful new species baby would have to be enough like the old species norms to grow up enough to be on his/her own. Get enough of the new species babies from enough old species parents, and over time, the new species either branches off, or overwhelms the old species. If you get more than one offshoot species, then if they are compatible enough, their hybrids merge back into a new species also.

    But in modern times, we have these odd ideas about what our ideal human beings are. And we have lots of competing ideas on what that ideal human is, don’t we? Do we eliminate this genetic condition or that one? If we do, do we get rid of a survival option without knowing it? Do we get rid of some traits we don’t like as much, because they don’t fit some religious or political or cultural ideology, some pet theory? And oh my, the designer baby options. Who gets to decide on which models are the ideal human beings? Who gets to decide what is not human enough for them? Ouch. Or do we come up with the amazing idea that we could like a little diversity in there?

    If a new species started to emerge among modern humans, would we think they were undesirable, or would they have to be so adorable and irresistible that we’d never think of not treating them as our own species? (Oh, dang, I think I just stumbled over an idea there.)

    Some years back, I remember a short story that had a litle alien species some space explorer had found. The little creature was just irresistible. “Love me,” I think it may have actually said, or it gave a telepathic message like that. But the idea of the story was, the spaceman brought the little alien creature with him. And other people wanted one, because they were so darned lovable. Or the little creature was adorable to the spaceman, but he was afraid it would get taken away or harmed by other humans. So he protected the little being. The idea was, it might or might not be sentient. If I recall, it wasn’t made clear if the creature was sentient/sapient, or if it was even malicious in intent. But the idea was, it was so cute and lovable that at least that one spaceman, and maybe other spacement and women, might spread these little aliens around. — I don’t recall the author or title. I think it was from the 50’s to 70’s, and I think it was in an anthology. Dang, does anyone know the story? Now I want to reread the thing. It was a spooky but sweet but thoughtful idea on the risks and benefits, and whether we’d even see something as harmful, or if it was.

  8. “This, milord, is my family’s axe. We have owned it for almost nine hundred years, see. Of course, sometimes it needed a new blade. And sometimes it has required a new handle, new designs on the metalwork, a little refreshing of the ornamentation . . . but is this not the nine hundred-year-old axe of my family? And because it has changed gently over time, it is still a pretty good axe, y’know. Pretty good.” – The Low King, in The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

    For objects, identity can be assigned to me. The ship is still the same ship because we think it’s the same ship. Various bits of technology can be upgraded in our cars and they’ll still be the same car to their owners.

    For people, though, it’s much more of a continuum. Nobody would say you’re the same person as you were as an infant, but almost everyone would say you’re the same as you were yesterday. You might even be the same as you’ve always felt on the inside, but now the outside perceives you differently – think about people who cross-dress – or vice versa.

    If you think you’re a different person now, is that the final word? Is it a consensus of viewpoints, perhaps filtered by meaningfulness-to-you? Or is it something else?

    I’ll bet many of us have asked these questions (even if idly, on the edge of sleep) and our answers reflect both who we are and where we’ve been. I look forward to more good stories about these questions :<)

  9. Who we were, who we are, who we wanted to be, who we might be, who we still might become. Oh, yeah. And these are not always the same person, exactly.

    Even at 17, there were already differences in me from who I thought I was or who I thought was going to be. During college, that diverged more, due to my own personality and how I was raised and some events, family and larger world.

    In college, I thought I was going to have a certain kind of future, who I was, what I was going to be, how I’d get there, what I’d do. Oh, my, I had dreams in high school and college.

    Life had other plans. My own inner makeup had other plans. My family had other plans. The world at large had other plans.

    Some people manage to stay on a planned course, more or less, throughout their lives, and end up mostly where they wanted or how they thought they would. Some people do.

    I didn’t. The course of my life diverged, significantly in some ways, only slightly in other ways. My career path was not what I’d planned, but it was more similar than I knew at the time, or appreciated.

    My personal life diverged somewhat sharply, probably because I hadn’t been raised to accept that about myself and so I didn’t, for a long time, even though it was obviously there. This affected my stay in college, my personal and professional life, my family life, and everything.

    But just as I began to work out some of that — Life had other plans. My parents’ and grandparents’ health was affected. The economy changed. Natural world events (weather events etc.) changed.

    That meant my life took a long, radical course change I really wasn’t ready for and my parents had never expected either. By my mid-thirties, my parents were gone and I was taking care of my grandmother. And even if I had done fine in accepting myself and therefore had done fine the first time through college, their health still would have been like it was. If my parents had lived longer, I’d have had help with my grandmother, but they’d be at the point now where I’d be taking care of them.

    All this changed my outlook on life, my life experiences, and did away with my savings and what I’d gotten from my parents. And oh yeah, during that, major hurricanes and the global economy went bust in a way it hadn’t since my parents were born. At best, if I’d done a few things differently in planning for my grandmother’s care, I still likely would be close to the spot I’m in now.

    Well — But I have survived all that. I have not always been happy with it. But I’ve made it this far, and by now, I think I might somehow make it through the 20 to 50 years I might reasonably expect to have left in life.

    But this is not what I thought my life would be like. I don’t have a partner or even a roommate, and my budget’s awful and will be for years, and I have too few if any friends locally and few chances to make new ones…or pursue finding a nice guy, which, because I am still too blocked on that, has never had much progress.

    Much of this was beyond my control, and I didn’t understand that at the time. Some was because of (unintentional) mistakes and dysfunctions in my upbringing. I don’t like that my parents missed those things or made mistakes or had a pattern or two I only started to understand once I was adult and they were gone. — But they didn’t know they were messing up and didn’t intend it. They were a product of their upbringing, their times, their beliefs…and so am I. So…yeah, I wish it had been different, and I still carry around some “why didn’t you do differently?” but I also carry around some, “why didn’t *I* do differently either?” So we do what we do.

    The world has had drastic changes beyond what any of us expected, both in the natural world / weather, and in global human events (economy and politica and religion, etc.). That’s beyond any single person’s control.

    So…on the whole, although I am not the person I thought I would be, on the other hand, I am still, in a lot of ways, still the person I was. I have things about me that I liked better and handled better as a kid and teen. I have things accumulated as a young adult I really wish I could unlearn, unmake, and redo. But well, I have been through a fair bit, I have learned a thing or two (I hope) in all that, and…oh, heck, I am not perfect, I am not who I thought I’d be and not always who I want to be…but I am not so far away from the me I once was, I think, either.

    I just have to figure out how to get from this square of the game, through all the rest of it, improve what I can, and get where I need/want to be going. And yeah, improve my situation with new friends, a boyfriend/partner, and get a decent income, maybe actually be able to save something someday.

    My kid and teen self, that 17 year old self with all those dreams and plans of where he’d be going and what he’d do when he got there? That teen self and those younger selves might think I sure turned out way differently than they ever thought I would be. — But by the same token, my current self could wish I could somehow go back in time and make sure they got better messages, better preparation, some better ideas on how to handle the things they’d come up against. For sure, I’d want to be sure they could accept who they were and who they became, inside. They knew, even back then, that about themselves, but they didn’t know how to accept it, to cope with it, in a family and world that did not readily accept that. I wish I could change that for my younger self. But there is no science-fictional time-travel device that lets me do that, and…I am not sure what would be the exact thing to do and say that would solve that for those eariler selves. (Besides the self, how do you fix a cultural pandemic problem that, in real life, is taking generations to resolve?) — I’m gay. I had some idea of that, even at 11, and more so as I grew up. But like most guys in my time and place, I was not prepared to understand that about me. I grew up in my own way, questioning and conflicted, did not accept it well even in college, and it took years, until after my parents were gone, before I could come out and really begin to improve that part of my life. (The internet helped a great deal. Having access to other people’s views and experiences, research, stories, any of that, was a great help to me and has been, I think, to a lot of LGBT (etc.) people.)

    So…well, who I am versus who I was are quite different. But — I think I had to be different from that past self anyway. (Heck, if I’d had other people in my life then for another viewpoint, it would have helped also.) So I’m different, but I needed to be different. The me I was was in trouble and he didn’t know how or why or what to do about it.

    Hah, and given how things have changed so much, the rest of my life is likely to bring changes none of us saw comeing either. So…so I’ll end up someone different again. At least I think I’m a little more on track in some areas, even though I need to be a lot better on course in others.

    So identity, then and now and future and potential, are all a lot more different than we think. — And yet, on some level, I’m still that same person, very much so, in so many ways. And that’s fine, most of that is who I do want and need to be, I think.

    Yes, it’s a very personal, egocentric ancser, but I think it might illustrate one of the points of the Big Idea essay. — And wow, again, great ideas for an anthology and for books.

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