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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Living Soul


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To purchase A Living Soul

Title: A Living Soul
Author: P.C.Jersild
Genre: Novel
Written: 1980 (Eng. 1988)
Length: 211 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: A Living Soul - US
A Living Soul - UK
A Living Soul - Canada
Mon âme dans un bocal - France
Stielauge - Deutschland
  • Swedish title: En levande själ
  • Translated by Rika Lesser
  • En levande själ was made into a (short) film, directed by Henry Moore Selder (2014)

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Our Assessment:

B : breezy tale that integrates philosophical and psychological issues well but isn't too concerned with scientific fundamentals

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       A Living Soul is a sort of thought-experiment: the novel is narrated by a disembodied brain, now 'living' in a sort of aquarium in a scientific laboratory, and Jersild uses this premise to consider questions about -- among other things -- identity, being, and ethics. A doctor and member of the (Nobel Prize (Physics, Chemistry, Economics) awarding) Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Jersild is, somewhat surprisingly, not overly concerned with scientific realism in this story, giving a goofy aspect to much of the novel (including a disembodied hand cameo not too far removed from the silliness of Oliver Stone's so-bad-it's-classic film) but allowing for more action than a more realistic depiction would permit.
       The disembodied-brain concept is, of course, a well-worn one in science fiction (see, for example, io9's taxonomy, The 6 Types Of Brains In Jars). In A Living Soul the narrator vaguely recalls and understands that he was, in fully human form, entirely paralyzed, and let himself be convinced that a procedure to remove and sustain his brain while tossing his otherwise useless body was a good idea. In fact, they did keep some appendages: one eye dangles, still attached to the brain, so he can see -- and they left him his ears, so he can hear and has some mobility (since, with some effort, he can wiggle them and propel himself around his holding tank). (As noted, scientific realism is not the highest priority for Jersild here.)
       The brain is in a laboratory run by a private company, Biochine Medical Corp. They call him Ypsilon -- and he realizes that the fact that he hasn't been named after the first letter of the Greek alphabet suggests that his isn't the first brain they've done this to. He won't be the last, either .....
       Cutting away all the fat, as it were, apparently also allows the brain's full intelligence to unfold, and so his IQ is now far beyond regular mortal genius levels. His life expectancy is also through the roof -- though of course the hazards of possible lab accidents make that a bit more iffy (especially in this lab, where all sorts of animals are also often present -- i.e. there's limited concern about and attention to even basic sanitary conditions).
       Communication is a problem, and though Ypsilon is observant, he has trouble making sense of what the scientists are up to and what they want from him. Their research protocols are certainly pretty shoddy -- but at least eventually they get around to trying to figure out how to communicate with Ypsilon. In fact, Ypsilon proves to have some telepathic abilities (of course ...), so at least he can communicate (at close range) with hot lab assistant Emma, whom he develops a crush on. She spends much of her time reading from shopping catalogues to him (they don't want him exposed to anything that could rile him up, like the news or even fiction), and she develops a rapport with him -- to the extent that they have exchanges such as:

     - Don't be sad, Yspilon. To me you are no machine ! To me you are ...
     - What ?
     - Just like any other human being !
     - Am I ?
     - At the very least. Actually you're also my buddy.
     - Nothing more ?
     - Don't be silly now.
     We look deep into each other's eyes for a while, then she starts to grin. I like her best when she's happy.
     - You know what, Ypsilon ?
     - No, what ?
     - It's a pity it's not time for your bath. I would like to bathe you, and then I would put you in a towel and hold you in my lap a long time. And then dry you off very, very carefully.
       (That is probably the worst (and certainly the ickiest) scene in the book -- silly though it is, most of it isn't this silly. Though that image of her with the brain in her lap, its eye presumably dangling to the floor, wiggling its ears in pleasure as she towels it off .....)
       For much of the novel Biochine's plans for the brain are unclear. One thing they do want to do is erase his memory of his more human past (though stray bits and pieces linger -- though not even enough for him to have much of a sense of his previous identity). They explain to him:
In order to give you a fabulous future we were obliged to wash away your past. We had to liberate your cerebral cortex from a mass of old recollections, so that you will be able to assimilate new skills.
       Or, as they put it more bluntly when he expresses some concern (at a point when he is also known as 'Clever'):
     - Don't drive me out my mind ! I say.
     - That is exactly what we're trying to do, Clever. It's your mind we need. Not you.
       The question of identity -- of what sort of 'you' Ypsilon is -- is of course central to the novel, a point hammered home here even more strongly by the use of an alternate name that is an adjective rather than a noun.
       One of the 'friends' he makes is a monkey, who can get around more in the building. The monkey steals Ypsilon's official file and offers to show it to him (the monkey can communicate but can't read) -- but that idea scares the hell out of Ypsilon: he doesn't want to know all that he's forgotten. Instead, the monkey tells Ypsilon his life-story, hoping the brain can hold onto it even if and when he is gone (readers can see this coming: good move).
       Electroshocks also help rattle the brain -- or at least rid Ypsilon of some more memories, and it takes him a while to get his bearings again. A disembodied hand that he finds he can (sometimes) control (yes, he gets it to crawl and climb around the lab, and even plans to utilize it in his ingenious escape plan) as well as, eventually, another brain (Omega) are also added to the mix.
       Meanwhile, the humans prove to be all-too human. While Emma and one other researcher, Curt are supportive (Curt even wires him into the closed-circuit TV feed, so Ypsilon can get some more perspective -- though that unauthorized experiment gets Curt fired), the rest are either mad or petty scientists. And, eventually, what they've been preparing for is also revealed -- human experimentation going even further (though, as it turns out, the business model is almost immediately outdated: "You have become obsolete by technological advances", the final incarnation of Ypsilon is told ...).
       Jersild makes a lot too easy for himself -- giving his protagonist sight, some mobility, and even the ability to transfer thoughts -- but that does help make for a novel that is surprisingly lively, considering it's told entirely by a disembodied brain with essentially no memory of who he was. The philosophical and psychological issues are fairly well-presented, from Ypsilon's pining for Emma to the most fundamental questions of identity, though scientific ethics certainly come off looking very poorly here. Among the underdeveloped (and/or discussed) issues is that of abortion, as Emma has one (which she covers up), and aborted foetuses figure prominently in Biochine's business plan (the squeamish probably left the book at the point where the floating eye appeared but there's a lot more here which is, to put it mildly, unsettling).
       A Living Soul is a very odd novel. Yes, it's consistently engaging and, on some level(s), cerebral -- but so much of the science (and the ridiculous lab) is straight out of a B-horror flick that one can just giggle. Ypsilon's voice makes for a surprisingly rich and convincing character, but much that is around him (human and otherwise semi-animate) borders on the cartoonish -- as are then also his interactions with them, especially the dialogue.
       Jersild is surely aware of some of the sillier aspects of the novel; indeed, he seems to make an effort to make the book humorous, to lighten what could otherwise be a very dark and possibly dreary story. It works, to some extent -- A Living Soul won't bore many readers -- but also undermines its more serious intents.
       Worthwhile -- and memorable -- if not quite the novel it could have been.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 January 2014

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A Living Soul: Reviews: A Living Soul - the (short) film: P.C.Jersild: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author and doctor Per Christian Jersild was born in 1936.

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