Sunday, 26 September 2010

Consciousness and Kevin Brooks' 'Being'

 The tv series Being Human looks at the struggles of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost to create meaningful human lives in spite of their non-humaness.
Being, a young adult novel by Kevin Brooks, tackles a similar theme.The teenaged male protagonist, Robert, enters hospital for a routine endoscopy. He wakes, his body paralysed by anaesthesia, to find doctors cutting him open. The endoscopy has revealed that in place of human organs, beneath Robert's skin and bones is concealed a hard plastic shell containing materials that are definitely non-human. A man dressed in a dark suit and armed with a gun is barking instructions at the surgeon, another armed man guards the door.

The anaesthetic wears off and Robert escapes the hospital with some surgical supplies, a weapon and the tape from his endoscopy. He takes refuge in a motel, cuts himself open again and looks at what is inside him. Repulsed and shocked by what he sees, he neither understands nor recognises the alien parts inside his body. Viewing the tape of his endoscopy over and over again doesn't give him any more information.

This is an action-suspense novel with a twist. While Robert faces off against armed secret service agents, joins forces with a counterfeiter and escapes to Spain, he tries to understand what he is. He was fostered from birth, has few memories of his childhood and knows only that he has always healed faster than most people. He eats, drinks and shits. He thinks and feels guilt, love, embarrassment, fear, shame and sadness (although he can't cry). Isn't that enough to make him human, he asks?

What was I?
What could I be?
Where did I come from?
Was I born? Was I created?
Was I flesh and blood?
Or not?
And, if not, so what?
If I couldn't tell the difference, what difference did it make? What's the difference between complicated meat and complicated metal? What is a life? What makes a life?
History? Time? Memories? Senses? How do you see things? What do you see? How do you hear things? How do you feel? How do you do anything? How do you breathe? How do you grow? How do you think?
I wondered if I was going mad.

These questions about what it is to be human are threaded throughout the narrative. Robert struggles with what he is and what he might be. He does not know why secret service agents want him; he has no clue whether they know what he is either. In exile with the counterfeiter who becomes his girlfriend, he struggles with the truth and honesty of their relationship as they build a life together in a small village in Spain. How can he honestly explain to her what he is when he doesn't understand it himself? Isn't his lived life proof enough that he is human, or do the mysteries of the technology concealed inside his body condemn him to always being 'other'.

It would be interesting if Brooks had approached this topic from another angle, and had the protagonist Robert undergo a brain scan rather than an endoscopy. But although Brooks doesn't directly tackle the brain and its role in making us human, he does raise interesting questions about the brain/mind/body split, and what it is that makes us who we are, through Robert's internal and external struggles.

Being is a great example of a young adult novel that threads some big questions through a well-plotted, action-packed narrative. It can be read on the surface level as an action/suspense novel or the reader can choose to reflect on the nature of consciousness and humanity, trying to work out some of the 'big questions' along with the protagonist. Although the ending is not as satisfying as the rest of the novel, it leaves the way open for more questions about the mysterious Robert (and, possibly, a sequel).