Ever since Bo Burnham rhymed “disassociation” with “derealization” in his song “That Funny Feeling” back in 2021, I’ve been noticing sci-fi stories—passionate, urgent stories, all recent—built around these two concepts. Disassociation (or dissociation) is the separation of parts of the self, and derealization is a feeling of unreality permeating one’s surroundings. Within a year of “That Funny Feeling” dropping, we’ve also gotten the world-weary Matrix Resurrections and the mordantly funny office thriller Severance. Bo-Young Kim’s short fiction, newly available in English, exposes the fundamental gaps in our conceptions of both the human self and objective reality. Unreality is having a moment, and considering the many shortcomings of our lived reality—considering the cruelty and waste wrought by a pandemic and climate change and ascendant white supremacy—it’s not surprising to see a growing body of speculative fiction that considers what it might be like to opt out of one reality, one version of the self, and trade up for something better. Or at least, something less painful.
Conscious Designs, the debut novella by Nathanial White, is a layered and unsettling addition to this body of work. The story follows Eugene Wallace, a wealthy supervisor at an organ excision company, who lives with paraplegia and chronic neuropathic pain. Ten years after the spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down, Eugene is depressed, feeling estranged from his spouse and sometime caregiver, Corina, and battling suicidal ideation. He’s also contemplating the purchase of a Second Self, a digital copy of his consciousness that can live within a virtual community of Second Selves, without pain or paralysis, functionally immortal.
I should disclose here that I know a version of White who exists on computer screens and between lines of prose, no less real for being incomplete. We met via an online writing class, during which we took a liking to each other’s work. We’ve never met in person, only over Zoom, and while we don’t correspond regularly, I sent him a brief congratulatory note on learning about this book, after which he asked if I'd be interested in reviewing it. I was. White himself has experienced the long-term effects of a spinal cord injury, and his novella makes the urgency of Eugene’s plight, the persistence of his pain and the tedium of his depression, oppressively clear. White also builds outward from Eugene’s woes to depict universal themes concerning human suffering, the price of escape, and the nature of personhood.
Would a digital copy, living in a virtual paradise, still have a claim to being the real Eugene? Early on, White positions this as a question central to the book and to Eugene’s decision. But almost immediately, Conscious Designs begins taking this question apart, suggesting that the very definition of a “real Eugene” is more complicated, more evasive, than we might assume. As one character, Nina, opines: “Our selves are not products but processes, or rather trajectories through space, physical or virtual, and time” (p. 23). Nina is a satisfied customer who exists both as a physical body in the material world and as a Second Self in the virtual one. Both Ninas consider themselves one entity possessed of two diverging consciousnesses. As they put it, “… it is like we are a path that has forked” (p. 24).
If the nature of the self proves hard to pin down, so too does the nature of reality. Some of the most engaging thoughts on this come from Ashcroft, a salesman for the eponymous Conscious Designs company, which sells and maintains Second Selves:
You are assuming, Mr. Wallace, that you are perceiving the physical world as it is. This is incorrect. In fact, your brain has been evolving for millennia to see the world not as it is, or what we call the noumenal world. This is a world that we will never know, if it even exists at all. What you and I are experiencing is the phenomenal world, or the world that has been filtered through all kinds of different things: values, associations, memories, ideas of beauty, etc. We are already experiencing a simulated reality in a sense. In some ways, a simulated world, such as the world inhabited by our Second Selves, is a more natural environment for the human mind. There is no harsh ontological barrier between what is and what seems. (p. 17)
This is a seductive idea, to be sure. If our world is defined by how we perceive it, why couldn’t we exercise limitless control over our quality of life? As Eugene reasons, “Pain, after all, must also be nothing more than just information” (p. 13).
Ashcroft, as you may have inferred, is positively giddy to talk through the philosophical implications of his work. He shares this quality with the novella itself. The bones of the story are a series of existential discussions like the one sampled above, and if such discussions—or words like “qualia” and “connectome”—cause nervous sweat to appear on the reader’s brow, White is usually considerate enough to define his terms for Eugene’s benefit and ours. In Ashcroft’s case, White never lets us forget that we’re listening to a sales pitch, with all the bloodsucking capitalist hunger that entails. There’s a tension animating Ashcroft’s patter, a feeling that we’re not getting the whole story. The utopian language creates its own sense of unreality, in the service of a company that profits from unreality.
White’s own enthusiasm for the most nakedly philosophical sections of the book is obvious, however. If his style in Conscious Designs hearkens back to the ideas-forward approach of old-school sci-fi writers like Dick and Asimov, he has also inherited from them a willingness to use some unwieldy, infodump-heavy prose and dialogue to explore his ideas. Here, for example, is the book’s second sentence: “The motor command center of his robotic ambulating exoskeleton had been malfunctioning, so he had reverted to the old wheelchair from when he was first paralyzed over ten years ago” (p. 3). We’re getting a truckload of information almost immediately, but none of it is in a voice that sounds like Eugene’s. Instead of grounding us in Eugene’s frustration, then, the sentence distances us from him.
Luckily, White overcomes this tendency when he’s writing about the inner lives of his characters. His descriptions of Eugene’s near-constant neuropathic pain, for instance, are brutally convincing:
He closed his eyes and saw these pain receptors exploding like little firecrackers, little electrical jolts. His mind trying to force sleep. The pain manifesting in dream worlds. He was bound to a large wooden pole where men in robes lit a fire at his feet that began to course up through his legs, searing his skin. The smell of burned flesh stinging the nostrils. And then two blond children came, a boy and girl, with pliers, laughing as they pulled out his toenails, starting with the pinky toes and making their way to the big ones. They were child versions of himself and Corina. There was a symmetry to the whole thing that he almost found beautiful. (pp. 45-46)
The only element here more shocking than the imagery is the matter-of-factness, the way White takes us from waking into nightmare without so much as a paragraph break. Eugene’s agony is nigh unbearable, and yet for him it’s routine. There are an overwhelming number of images, dizzyingly close together, that together evoke the unrelenting nature of the ordeal. There’s a hint of religious iconography (is Eugene being martyred as a heretic, or burned as a witch?), and a moment of transcendence in which Eugene begins to glean some pattern or meaning from his own suffering. The prose is still detached, but thanks to the vividness of the images this reads as Eugene’s disassociation rather than authorial distance.
White disconcerts in a subtler way by seeding a sense of unreality in both Eugene’s and Corina’s alternating point-of-view chapters. As alienated as Eugene and Corina are from each other, their inner monologues are linked by parallel feelings of derealization, and by imagery of palimpsests, mirrors, imitations, and copies of copies. Corina drives a replica of a now classic twentieth-century Camaro. Eugene laments the high-modernist-revival architecture of their suburb. Memories from life are confused with memories of VR melodramas. Corina draws variations on a sketch of her own face. Eugene compares things to poems and books, then reflects that he doesn’t read poetry and has never held a physical book. Corina sees her reflection in the polished surface of an imitation wood table. Corina and Eugene both watch the setting sun in the surface of the same building at different times, seeing radically different sunsets. These glimpses of the uncanny create an earned sense of unease throughout the book, and a growing poignancy as White draws Eugene’s and Corina’s lived realities alternately closer together and further apart.
Amidst the alienation, there’s also a winning tenderness to Eugene and Corina’s story, particularly in some brief scenes that depict the strange intimacy of being both a partner and a caregiver. “[T]o share in suffering,” says Corina at one point. “That’s what makes us human” (p. 82). Because we see Corina and Eugene sharing in care and vulnerability and sex and yes, suffering, their relationship becomes the most human and affecting part of White’s deliberately off-kilter world.
There are, however, some thematic ideas that are alluded to without being fully explored: a technologically advanced civilization that declines to accommodate disabled people; questions about how much consent is required when dealing with digital personhood. Details about the book’s near-future society are sketchy: mandatory autonomous driving, anti-aging cream, pollution-green sunsets, a Ligotti-esque anti-natalist movement. They’re all colorful brush strokes that don’t quite add up to a full picture.
None of that is fatal, though, to the novella’s purpose. The further Conscious Designs progresses, the more its structure surprises and discombobulates, furthering White’s deconstruction of selfhood and reality. The journey we take with Eugene is, ultimately, as poignant as it is discomfiting. Using the storytelling tools of SFF, White captures the creeping sense of unreality that makes it so painful to be alive today. And he reminds us that our pain is the surest sign that we, too, exist.