The Big Idea: Robin C. M. Duncan
Writers often use what they experience in their lives in their fiction; for Robin C.M. Duncan, a particular medical issue gave him an insight that informed his novel The Mandroid Murders. What was it and how did it have an impact on the writing? Read on.
ROBIN C. M. DUNCAN:
I began writing my novel The Mandroid Murders in 2016, with the emergence of my main characters from a “Writing Excuses” writing prompt about a dead-drop from three different viewpoints. The novel’s main theme materialised from recent changes I observed in my behaviour, but I could not have known then how that choice of theme presaged a traumatic personal event.
The interface between humans and their technology has defined the development of Humankind, and its impact on the Earth, for millennia. From rocks to rockets to microprocessors, tool use remains humanity’s driving force. The question of how far and where that might take us has exercised Science Fiction writers for over a hundred years, but my interest is less about how those tools affect the world (a dire and depressing subject), but how their use affects the user, and the user’s much older and more spiritual interface with the physical realm.
As human tools have become increasingly complex, arguably, the scope of their impact on the psyche has increased. Recent research demonstrating a dramatic reduction in attention spans appears to have been debunked, but I believe there is still ample proof that our smartphones do disrupt our relationship with the physical world. I believe this simply because that is what those devices are designed to do, to insinuate themselves between us and whatever is in front of us, be it a person across a dinner table, the physical book we are reading, or yes, even our TV or computer screen.
This infiltration of our psyche is achieved by tactile, auditory and visual means, sometimes all three at once, and each time we succumb to the lure, we receive the reward of a screen free of little red notification dots, and a smack of dopamine from the app in question. However, this is at the cost of our physical interactions, our social relations, our attention spans (I would continue to argue), and our sleep. But, what if our consciousness became part of the machine itself, with all physical filters and barriers removed? What impact might there be then on the human psyche and our ability to interact with the real world; how might any given consciousness react when physical accountability is removed?
As the title of my novel suggests, androids play a big part in my vision of Earth in 2099. These droids (proprietary name, syRen®) are somewhat Asimovian, operating broadly under his laws of robotics, although supplemented by technical bureaucracy, and with what I call pseudo-AI, not “full” AI. While Virtual Reality enables humans to see through android eyes, and experience their actions, Androicon develops technology to put human consciousness into an android, enabling a human to operate it. Because that’s bound to be a good idea, right?
The story follows the trail of Gregor Callan, a quadriplegic, who volunteers to participate in Androicon’s testing of their new tech. Callan was paralysed in a terra-forming accident. Synaptic Mapping (the tech in question) enables him to experience the physical freedom that most of us take for granted, but when the link to his body is severed, Callan finds he is no longer accountable to his physical form. There are signs that he was unbalanced even before his original accident, but the chip on his virtual shoulder is given freedom to roam, and the consequences are less than optimal, shall we say: private detective Quirk is called in to find Callan and stop him.
Callan’s viewpoint is one of increasing dissociation with the world and the people around him. He is in a desperate situation to begin with, but, on escaping his damaged body, finds that he needs something else to cling to, an imperative beyond mere physical survival. The course that Callan’s psyche draws him down has severe implications for the settlement of Lunaville. The story is not intended as an exploration of what it means to be human, but more what it means to be accountable to society. How would an individual behave if that accountability was withdrawn, if—in their mind at least—it evaporated? To some extent we are in The Invisible Man territory here, although there are limitations on the antagonist’s ability to roam at will through an unsuspecting population, all the while becoming increasingly more detached from it. But how does this relate to my own traumatic event?
In April 2021 I had my first COVID vaccination. Shortly afterwards, I began to lose sensation in my hands and feet, and my mobility decreased alarmingly quickly. I was admitted to hospital in June. At the point of treatment starting I could not support my own bodyweight, nor feel much of anything from feet to knees, in the groin, rear and stomach, in my hands and or in my mouth. I was diagnosed with Guillain Barré Syndrome*. In a nutshell, the immune system attacks the nervous system, destroying the nerves. It’s a very treatable condition if caught early enough, but the effects are unbelievably scary. Thankfully, I improved immediately upon treatment starting, and have since regained 95% of mobility and nerve function (Stoopid feets!). I feel very fortunate: some are far more debilitated, can be completely paralysed; the condition can be fatal. The care I had, and still have, from Britain’s National Health Service is amazing, and I will be forever grateful to live in a country with a public healthcare system.
Okay, I did not go “the full Callan”, but this event put a great deal in perspective for me, and afforded me a lot of time to consider how I interface with the world. I was, quite literally, able to feel the grass beneath my feet again. Hours of physio strengthened my ability to walk effectively, I regained stamina, I felt in touch with the world again. What it must be to lose that connection permanently does not bear thinking about. My episode reminded me how important it is for us to treasure our connection to the physical world, which is doing its best to nurture us, despite Humankind’s persistent depredation of our one and only home, in the name of narrowminded corporate objectives (another theme of my novel). So, remember to feel the grass beneath your feet, to treasure your loved-ones, to marvel at and respect the world around you; do not take these things for granted. They are all finite.
*Sometime later, after a relapse in October 2021, my diagnosis was updated to one of Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP), a chronic form of GBS.