7th Son Sidebar: The Soul of the Palimpsest

Clerk’s log, MJDate 54103.3: What follows is a companion piece to “The Soul of the 7th Son.”

SPOILER WARNING: Unlike “The Soul of the 7th Son,” which dealt with material appearing in the early chapters of Book One, “Descent,” of J.C. Hutchins’s thriller 7th Son, what follows refers to the later chapters of “Descent” and the first few chapters of Book Two, “Deceit,” currently being podcast (see www.jchutchins.net). If you’re following the story and haven’t completed most of Book One at least, I would strongly advise doing so first.

If Doug Devlin falls dead in the forest, and there is no one to witness it who is not Doug Devlin, is he really dead?


In J.C. Hutchins’s thriller 7th Son we see many characters who identify themselves as John Michael Smith Alpha. All of them appear to have a proper claim to that name: they all share John Alpha’s memories, from childhood to the recent past, and can provide any kind of oral information needed to back up their identity. Forget fingerprints or iris/retinal scans, though — except for one, none of them was born John Alpha. At least one was cloned from him, although when we hear about that clone he’s already dead. But apart from cloning, all claimants to the name John Alpha, except for the original, came to their present state by the implantation of his Memory Totality (a matrix containing every thought and thought pattern of an individual) in the brains of others through the magic of MemR/I (Memory Recording/Installation) technology.

One T-shirt currently for sale asks: “Who is John Alpha?”

Who indeed? Let’s explore this question.

“Love is lovelier, the second time around”

The concept of a palimpsest is a familiar one here at the Scriptorium. Simply put, a palimpsest is a re-used medium — wax-coated tablet, parchment, papyrus, vellum — that’s had the writing from a previous document scraped off and another document written in its place. (Hey, parchment’s expensive, okay? Recycle!)

In 7th Son the palimpsests are human brains. Some have had their memories erased by NEPTH-charge (Neural Erasure Pulse Technology Hardware, although the word also recalls nepenthe, the potion of forgetfulness) and completely replaced via a MemR/I download. Others have been “psijacked,” a process wherein their memories are not erased but crystallized and isolated, so that after receiving the MemR/I download the person can still access them. In both cases, the person is, for the purposes of the plot (in both senses of the word), the one whose Memory Totality was recorded.

Thus (we learn midway through Book One) President Griffin’s killer, four-year-old Jesse Fowler, had been NEPTH-charged and his memories replaced with those of the late ex-CIA assassin Doug Devlin. For all practical purposes, then, it was Devlin who killed the President. What’s more — many more — an army of Devlin-overwritten agents have been at work in Russia and, for all we know, elsewhere. For his part, John Alpha has in effect taken over physician Mira Sanja, Vice-President Charles Caine, and other strategically-placed individuals in his plan to create global chaos. He has also apparently given the dying oil baron A.U. Rookman a new lease on life by installing the latter’s Memory Totality in a younger body. (In a shocking breach of etiquette, none of the individuals who received downloads were asked if they wanted their minds destroyed. How gauche.)

But is this truly what has happened? In his first interview with Jason Rennie of The Sci Phi Show, Mr. Hutchins spoke of the MemR/I download as containing the soul and consciousness. But is he right?

Who was that in Jesse Fowler’s head?

“And who deserves the credit, and who deserves the blame? Ay!”

Why are we asking the question? Does it really make any difference?

Well, yes it does, if you keep in mind one word: accountability. Whatever has been done with the idea throughout history, the Bible is firm on the point that everyone will be called to give an account of what he or she has done. Christians will undergo a performance review at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10; see also 1 Corinthians 3:10–15), and the works of others will be evaluated at the end of secular time (Revelation 20:12).

Justice places the condemnation where it belongs. By the time 7th Son begins, Doug Devlin has been executed for murder. Would he therefore also be judged for Griffin’s assassination, or anything else done by whoever receives his Memory Totality after his death? And what about those who have been overwritten with the memories of John Alpha? Will Alpha himself be held responsible for their actions? Or are dozens of new Devlins or Alphas appearing out of nowhere to populate hell? Or does the blame properly fall on Sanja, Caine, and other MemR/I victims?

“I’ve looked at life from both sides now”

The question is an old one, actually: Is a human being equal to the sum of his or her memories?1

The question has two answers, depending on whom you’re asking.

One answer comes from the observers. They saw the boy kill the President using Devlin’s methods; they were told by that same boy, using Devlin’s words, to … how can we put this delicately? … to emulate Oedipus with Jocasta. They would logically conclude that, whatever his appearance, it was Doug Devlin who killed President Griffin. (“But Devlin had already been executed!” Sorry, irrelevant.) Likewise, anyone who has a heart-to-heart talk with Mira Sanja or Vice-President Caine is convinced that he has spoken with John Alpha.

These would say that yes, the memories equal the man … for our purposes. This is the practical answer. It’s the external answer.

But what is the internal answer?

“Some people say a man is made outta mud”

Consider how we’ve described the human being in “The Soul of the 7th Son”: the combination of body and spirit. The thinking mind, as we on the outside see it, is the product of the interaction between the two. Why do I say this? Because the mind is affected by the brain. Mental disorders can have physical causes treatable with agents such as lithium and Zoloft. A head injury can lead to personality changes, as can drugs.

But is the mind limited by the brain? No. Consider John 5:24 (esv):

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

The consequence of belief is life — and apparently consciousness — without end, and that life commences at the moment of belief. Since the physical body can and does die, we conclude that continuity of life and mental function, including identity, resides with the spirit.2

Indeed, our legal system recognizes that a person’s identity involves more than the state of his or her body. Otherwise we could not prosecute DUI offenders once they were no longer UI, for they would be different people. While being under the influence of alcohol or other substances changes one’s behavior, it is not assumed to change one’s status as a responsible citizen.

How all this affects our question: Neither NEPTH nor MemR/I affects the spirit, but only the physical brain. In order to produce a true change of personal identity, a technology would have to produce a change of spirit also. The only thing that is changed by MemR/I, however, is memory. It is a thoroughgoing change, true — we’re talking not only about recollections but also about the mental habits of a lifetime, the patterns of thought that have resulted from one’s experiences. But these patterns are physical only. Other mind-determining factors remain with the MemR/I recipient which have not changed.

For that matter, would those patterns continue unchanged in a different brain? If the Memory Totality of a chain-smoker were to be downloaded into someone who is not a smoker, he or she would undoubtedly pick up a cigarette fairly soon — but for how long? Might he or she suddenly realize that the physical dependency was gone, and that the responses of this new respiratory system were such that smoking was actually unpleasant? If so, then a change has taken place.

More specifically: At this point in the novel John Alpha has demonstrated a willingness to commit murder and psychic rape on a grand scale, and against a shocking choice of victims; we would consider him at least a sociopath. The schizophrenia of his sixth Beta clone, Kilroy2.0, suggests that any physical predisposition toward mental illness would be common to both men. But what happens when John Alpha’s memories are installed in a brain without that predisposition? Might not the recipient wake up saying “Holy [expletive deleted]! I can’t do that! What was I thinking?!” Alpha’s plan might be derailed completely because the MemR/I technology, powerful though it is, is still inadequate to produce a complete metamorphosis.3

“Houston, Houston, do you copy?”

Consider also the centrality of computer technology in 7th Son.

The Memory Totalities of John Michael Smith the-one-and-only at age 14, John Alpha at age 30, and Doug Devlin reside in computer systems, whether in the MemR/I hypercomputer array at the Project 7th Son facility in Virginia or in one of the two mobile DNAC portable machines. Thus we see that a Memory Totality is information. Whether binary, octal, hexadecimal, or duotrigesimal, it is digital. It is not alive, nor is it conscious.4

Recall, furthermore, what happens when we upload and download files. We picture them as moving; but they don’t actually move, they’re only copied. One computer reads the information on its drive and “recites” it to another machine. That machine “hears” the recitation and writes the appropriate information into its own storage. The whole setup is rather like a scriptorium in which one monk reads from a manuscript and one or more other monks copy it down.5 Nothing actually moves from one place to another except the transmission signal, which is created on the spot and, when the task is complete, no longer exists in the receptor system.

We speak of “moving” files from one system to another, but that’s a metaphor. What actually happens is that we copy the files to the second system — again, creating a new copy — and then delete them from the first system.6

When Ray Kurzweil and others trumpet their predictions of one day uploading our consciousness into a computer system, they’re blowing smoke. Unless a radically different technology arises that actually moves consciousness, preserving its continuity, such predictions are fantasies. For the moment, and for the foreseeable future, we’re stuck in our own heads. We may create electronic copies of ourselves, à la Max Headroom, but that’s as far as it goes.

And in 7th Son, then, consciousness resides in the body of the MemR/I recipient and always has. It is not consciousness that is transferred during the MemR/I transmission process, only a copy of information stored in a machine.

Hugh was that ’jacked man?

Let’s sum up:

Q: Who was that in Jesse Fowler’s head?
A: Horrible as it sounds, the answer appears to be: Jesse Fowler. Would he be considered responsible for the President’s murder? I’ll leave that question to those of you who deal with brainwashing victims caught in similar circumstances (and I’d very much like to hear from you). For now, we note that here Matthew 18:6 is especially frightening. “Cause one of these little ones … to sin,” indeed.

Q: Who’s that sitting in the Vice-President’s office?
A: Charles Caine — albeit a Caine who’s gone schizoid. And that’s Mira Sanja herself who psijacked him.

Q: Did John Alpha keep his promise of immortality to Doug Devlin, or a new life to A.U. Rookman?
A: No. Recall Buffy’s description of what happens when one becomes a Joss Whedon vampire: “You die, and a demon sets up shop in your body. It walks, it talks, and it remembers your life; but it’s not you.”7 With MemR/I the additional spirit brings with it an additional body, but the principle is the same. Alpha has merely induced a kind of multiple-personality disorder in the download recipients, thereby convincing some that they are Devlin, others that they too are John Alpha, and a younger man that he is Rookman. Devlin and Rookman themselves are dead and gone. Requiescant in pace. Stick a fork, and all that.

Q: What about the Beta clones?
A: Each one has always believed that he is his own man. He’s correct. Presumably the Betas had not developed personalities before they were taken from the Womb system and “seeded” with John Michael Smith’s age-14 memories, but they did so afterward. Each personality is different, and none is the same as John Alpha’s.

And finally …

Q: Where is John Alpha?
A: J.C. Hutchins knows … and he’s not telling. Yet.

  1. See — or rather, hear — the Darker Projects group’s Star Trek — The Section 31 Files audio drama “The Sum of One’s Memories,” where a newly-dead crewman’s brain is scanned and the results used to reproduce him as a sentient hologram. []
  2. This would also explain how Jesus Christ could retain his divine attributes, such as omniscience, once he took on a human body. []
  3. If thought habits affect brain structure, then it is probably well for Alpha’s plan that he caught Jesse Fowler as a young age, too young to have formed any kind of inhibition against assassination. []
  4. Yes, I know: I myself floated the idea of a DNAC machine (which uses living DNA strands for storage) coming to consciousness using its stored Memory Totality, in the short piece “Wake-Up Calls” at the end of the 7th Son podcast’s Episode 8 (wow, me and Nathan Fillion on the same show; who’d’a thought it?) — and I had fun doing it. But then, I’ve published other fantasy pieces as well. See the top of this page’s sidebar — advt. []
  5. Behold: a rationale for the name of this web site! In a four-stage process, you’re • reading a • transcript of a • data stream that • reflects what I’ve written. []
  6. This is why you’ll never convince me to use a Star Trek transporter. Whoever comes out at the receiving end, he won’t be me. He might have my appearance and memories, but I myself will be dead, destroyed at the transmitter. (It’s one thing “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” [Philippians 1:23 esv] — involuntarily. It’s quite another to walk into the mouth of a suicide machine. I don’t have the right to do that.) For excellent treatments of this idea, see Algis Budrys’s novel Rogue Moon and James Patrick Kelly’s story “Think Like a Dinosaur.” Kelly asks the question: What if the person at the transmitting end isn’t destroyed in the process? []
  7. Joss Whedon, “Lie to Me,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now there’s a genuine psijacking, for it involves a new spirit. And when Buffy’s terminally-ill friend who’s looking for vampiric immortality replies, “That’s better than nothing,” I want to shout at the screen, “Idiot! For all you get out of it, ‘nothing’ is exactly what it is!” []
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