THE ORIGINAL – Kowal and Sanderson’s hypermodern novella

Postmodernism began as a critical and democratising force, questioning the hegemony of the original over the copy. It proclaimed the aesthetic, ethical, political, and ontological superiority of the copy pushed to the point where the original was seen as itself just one copy amongst many, and not the ideal to which they must conform.

The aporia of postmodernism lies in its denegation of the real, a denial that is tantamount to a passive collaboration with the power relations that both constitute and conceal the real.

Hypermodernism is the intensification of this aporetic state, only relieved of its paradoxes. The real is no longer denied as such, but perceived to be uninteresting, in need of augmentation. The hypermodern subject perceives just enough of the real to be able to navigate it without bodily harm, and actively collaborates on its amelioration by means of multi-sensory overlay.

In the hypermodernist society, the real is acknowledged, but only as a basis for the democratised creativity of everyday life. Not only does the adapted subject of this society give power free reign, as did the postmodern subject, it actively participates in the surveillance and control technologies, and so enlarges and intensifies the ruling class’s power over the population.

THE ORIGINAL is an SF novella by Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal, published on the 14th of September in audio form. It makes use of music to immerse us in the world and the action, ironically employing in a nascent form the very techniques of augmentation and immersion that the novel describes.

At the start of the story, the protagonist Holly Winseed wakes up lying in a hospital bed with no knowledge of how she got there. Thus we begin inside a familiar SF trope, and we shall never leave them.

The book narrates the heroine’s voyage of discovery across a sea of tropes, concluding with the (self-consciously) failed and flawed subjectivity that constitutes the best outcome possible in hypermodern times.

Holly, who is both the protagonist and our only point of view character in this first-person narrative, learns that she is a “provisional replica” of her original, containing the memories and personality of her last back-up. She is a legal clone (replica) with an inbuilt life-span of only four days, created to track down and execute her previous instantiation (her original), guilty of murdering her (their) husband and of going into hiding.

We learn that in this society people are virtually immortal, their body is full of nanites that repair all injury and stop the ageing process. The nanites also permit the periodic backups of personality and memory that can be infused into a clone, in case of irreparable damage and death. The nanites are also employed to generate “themes”, modes of sensory perception of the external world – from bucolic to Gothic, from sober to garish augmented overlays.

A crucial problem is that these modifications to our sensoria are not limited to simple aesthetic overlays, but involve actual editing of perceived reality, to edit our violent actions that take place around us, to create a perception of being alone even though we are in a crowd, etc.

Holly has had her theming capacity turned off, and she has been edited to have strength and combat skills far beyond those of her original. She is told that her personality and motivations have been left unaltered. She begins to feel uncharacteristic tendencies towards violence. These are supposedly not implanted but a result of the disinhibition permitted by her new capacities.

Can a copy surpass the original, in what ways and to what extent? We see that memories and emotions are not enough to define the self, and that our capacities and circumstances contribute to this definition too. Nevertheless this multiplication of selves does not lead to postmodern relativism where each self is “equally valid”.

Far from seeing herself as “valid”, Holly-the-replica learns that her original is equally invalid, and that a choice must be made between selves that are equally flawed and failed. Despite all the plurality and plasticity of reality, real points of bifurcation exist where the choice is life-or-death. The real intrudes.

The book concludes with a flawed but satisfying ending, and one’s reflexion has been enriched by this enjoyable voyage across diverse science-fictional tropes, each given its own twist. Reality is composed of stereotypes, but the real is in the twists.