Second Person, Present Tense (2005)

Free will is just an illusion, self just a complex narrative after the fact. Modern theories on consciousness can be pretty daunting. But Daryl Gregory’s story effortless tackles these themes and integrates them into a compelling, personal account of someone who has to live with the aftermath of an unique identity crisis.

Basically it’s about a new drug that widens the gap between your actions and how your consciousness perceives these actions. Widen that gap enough, and you basically disconnect your consciousness, producing a philosophical zombie (wiki it if you’re interested). But not for long, as from this void a new identity rises. Same body, different personality.

What makes this story so fascinating beyond having an interesting idea is the human element. How do you deal with a new personality who inhabits someone you knew. How does the new personality deals with the people who still expect her to be someone else. Daryl Gregory’s writing captures the emotional situation of the main character perfectly, with the added tension of her being a teenager trying to cope with parents who aren’t hers, at least on the mind-level.

Despite this being a thought experiment that ties into some modern ideas of what consciousness is, Gregory manages to make it feel like something much more compelling than merely an intriguing setup. It’s universal appeal comes from the basic question the story asks, just what makes you you (nature, nurture, luck, …). The answer is elusive, but the emotional baggage that goes along with it feels all too real, something most of us have felt at one point or another.

If there’s one downside to the story, it’s that the ending leaves you wanting for more. It does read like the first chapter of a novel, despite providing a proper conclusion.