The Ghost in the Machine . . . (a guest post by Aldous Mercer)

The Ghost in the Machine, Descartes, and the difference between SF and Fantasy
Aldous Mercer

Talking about what makes a book Science Fiction or Fantasy does feel, to some extent, like flogging a dead horse. Pretty much everyone agrees that spaceships and aliens do not SF make—“Star Wars” is a work of epic fantasy, regardless of the genre retconning attempted by the midichlorians. Similarly, feudal societies and dragons do not automatically mean Fantasy—Anne McCaffrey’s Pern (even in the first two books) is SF regardless of the world’s sword-and-bard trappings.

Readers do have a “gut feel” for which camp a work of fiction falls into. And not a s’mores-and-rafting type of camp either, but a military one from which soldiers strike out to do battle. Make no mistake, there is a battle, and always will be a battle—at the heart of them, these two genres are inherently inimical to each other, for all that they are found together in Amazon’s fiction-categories and bookstore shelves. It’s not a question of shades of grey, or “future-looking” vs “past”, or scientific progress vs. post-apocalyptic regret for a golden age; this SF vs. Fantasy question is just another subset of the most divisive and important questions that humanity has yet to answer.

It’s a question of whether there is a Ghost in the Machine, or not.

The champion of the Fantasy army was none other than Descartes, of Cartesian coordinate and “I think therefore I am” fame. Rational Descartes, logician and patron of the natural sciences, was still a Dualist; for Descartes, the mind (or the soul, or the spirit) was something other than Body, something more, an inhabitant and a controller.

Science Fiction’s star warrior is less well-known. The stalwart Gilbert Ryle coined the phrase “The Ghost in the Machine” to describe Descartes’s worldview, and dismissed it out of hand as “speculative”. Neuroscientists and philosophers and psychologists today are overwhelmingly critical of the dualist approach, and firmly convinced of consciousness as a property of the body and not apart from it, and many are even of the opinion that consciousness itself is not a thing in and of itself but merely an emergent sensation, an inward-looking version of the same mechanisms that give us taste, and smell, and touch. Research continues.

Science Fiction and Fantasy are great fun, but they are also a form of gedanken experiment through story, a philosophical device that was old long before Plato imagined his cave. SF & Fantasy books are simulations, if you will—in a universe where the gods actually answered prayers, what would the people be like? What would define their loves, their losses?  In a universe where we had absolute control of our genome, who would we want to fuck?

I really don’t think an SF or Fantasy writer can write a book without first answering the mind/body dualism question. They may not be conscious of answering it, and they may do it but indirectly, yet the very foundations of their world are a consequence of choosing a side in the matter. Mystical Dune is very firm on the fact that the Kwazich Haderach is simply one possibility of many that we carry in our own genomes, that prophecy is a construct, and that destiny itself is simply a drug-induced hallucination, a self-fulfilling prophecy generations of gene-manipulation in the making. Pragmatic Song of Ice and Fire, where the most gut-wrenching conflicts are born of men and their base, body-based, compulsions, is nevertheless held helplessly in thrall of the Other—spiritual and mystical forces independent of the laws of experiential reason or biological truth.

I was very careful to call The Prince and the Program a work of “Science Fantasy”. I couldn’t answer the mind and body question—research is still being conducted, as I mentioned. And so I made a battleground of my characters. Alan is the Ghost in the Machine, a mind and soul devoid of bodily causality. Mordred is simply the logical consequence of his sensory experiences and viral biology, a biological simulation, an organism, propagated for a thousand years. And he knows it.

I really didn’t intend to write a love story when I started out—the ghost of Alan Turing and the bastard son of King Arthur working at a Canadian tech startup? They were supposed to be a battleground of conflicting opinions, gedanken experiments given voice. But when Mordred defined himself as a soul, and Alan became convinced of the sovereignty of body, I knew I was in trouble. Research continues, and I’m looking forward to the results obtained in Book Two (should I ever finish writing it).

From: M Penn <>
Date: Tue, Jul 31, 2012 at 2:33 PM
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Machine Loving

Dear Alan,
Love is one soul recognizing another

From: <>
Date: Tue, Jul 31, 2012 at 2:35 PM
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Machine Loving

Dear Sceptic,
Souls can be programmed.
From: M Penn <>
Date: Tue, Jul 31, 2012 at 2:36 PM
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Machine Loving

Dear Genius,
I dare you to try.



About the Author

Aldous Mercer likes to create worlds, then populate them. You can read his flash fiction and short stories at, and he can be reached for questions, comments and vitriol at mercer[at]technomance(.)com, @technomance on twitter.


About the Book

The Prince and the Program
by Aldous Mercer

Mordred Pendragon, the Bastard Prince, has done a Bad Thing—again. Exiled to Canada for seven years, he has to find a job to pay his bills. For reasons he refuses to reveal, Mordred decides “Software Engineer” has a nice ring to it. And though experience with “killing the Once and Future King, my father” and “that time in feudal Japan” makes for a poor résumé, he is hired by a small tech startup in Toronto.

In the midst of dealing with a crippling caffeine addiction and learning C++, Mordred thinks he has finally found someone to anchor him to the world of the living: Alan, the company’s offsite lead developer. Except that Alan might not be a "living" entity at all—he may, in fact, be the world's first strong AI. Or a demon that mistook a Windows install for the highway to Hell. Or, just maybe, the ghost of Alan Turing, currently inhabiting a laptop.

Mordred's attempts to figure out his love life are hampered by constant interference from the Inquisitors of the Securitates Arcanarum, corporate espionage, real espionage, a sysadmin bent on enslaving the world, and Marketing's demands that Mordred ship software to the Russian Federation. Then Alan gets himself kidnapped. To save him, Mordred must ally himself with the company’s CEO, who will stop at nothing to rescue her lead developer so he can get back to work. But the Prince doesn’t just want to rescue Alan, he wants a Happily Ever After—and he will travel beyond Death itself to get one.

Too bad Alan is perfectly happy as a computer.


  1. I do think the two are separate. The body is just a temporary vessel for the consciousness, which does live on after the body is gone.

    1. It is a very intriguing thought (not to mention comforting)...makes pretty much every Fantasy series into the "universe next door" and not just a figment of our imaginations :)


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