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The Chemistry of Character

Some readers may wonder if I have trouble distinguishing between personality and neurochemistry. It's a fair point, but don't blame me: blame the scientists who can't let a week go by without reporting yet more evidence that personality is just another word for biochemistry, albeit written in an exceedingly complex font (e.g. Hannuk Yaeger's propensity for violence, rooted in his monoamine oxidase levels[23]). Unless you're one of those Easter-bunny vitalists who believes that personality results from some unquantifiable divine spark, there's really no alternative to the mechanistic view of human nature.

A central tenet of the whole rifters sagaintroduced in Starfish, and expanded in Maelstrom and Behemothis that false memories of abuse can cause neurological changes in the individual every bit as real as genuine memories can. That was pretty speculative when Starfish first came out, but recent research has added empirical evidence of this effect[24, 25].

Details on the care and feeding of sociopaths were largely taken from the work of Robert Hare[26] and others[27]. ssehemoth's musings regarding the adaptive value of sociopathy in corporate settings may not be entirely off the mark, either [26, 28, 29]. (And as these references should make clear, neither Ken Lubin nor Achilles Desjardins are sociopaths in the classic sense. More goes into such creatures than a mere absence of conscience.)

Maelstrom established that Guilt Trip took its lead largely from the genes of certain parasites which could alter the behavior of their hosts. The actual mechanism by which this occurred was not known when that book came out, although some had speculated that it occured right down at the neurotransmitter level. I hung Guilt Trip's hat on that hypothesis, and am now relieved to report that the gamble paid off: at least one such parasitic puppet-master works by screwing with its host's serotonin-producing neurons[30].

Alice Jovellanos's denigration of the ethical impulse takes its lead from recent studies which establish that moral reasoning is not reasonable at allit occurs primarily in the emotional centers of the brain, resulting in inconsistent and indefensible beliefs about whether a course of action is right or "wrong"[31]. An accompanying commentary article gives a very nice summary of the so-called "Trolley Paradox", not to mention an airtight rationale for pushing people in front of trains[32]. Jovellanos's arguments may be simplisticthe prefrontal cortex, after all, seems to play at least some role in moral decision-making[33, 34, 35]but then again, Jovellanos was a bit of a zealot. For which she paid a price.

Speaking of moral decision-making, Lenie Clarke's passion for revenge earlier in the rifters saganot to mention Ken Lubin's unacknowledged passion for same later onare not merely overused dramatic tropes. We appear to be hardwired to punish those who have slighted us, even ifand this is the counterintuitive biteven if our acts of vengeance hurt us more than those who have trespassed against us[36]. I like to think the reason the world gets another chance at the end of this story is because, as Lubin speculates, Spartacus disabled the vengeance response in Achilles Desjardins at the same time it destroyed his conscience. He may have been a monster. He may have been sexual sadist. But in that one retrofitted corner of his soul, he may have been more civilized that you or I will ever be.

And finally, the most disturbing real-world echo of this imaginary hellhole comes from the Village Voice[37], reporting on ongoing research towards an "anti-remorse pill" a drug developed to cure post-traumatic stress syndrome, which would soothe the torturer as well as the tortured. Such neurochemical tweaks would work by short-circuiting guilt itself, making it that much easier to get a good night's sleep after mowing down crowds of unruly civilians protesting unpopular government policies. Yes, I called my version Absolutionbut people, it was supposed to be ironic


Seppuku | Behemoth | Here, the Maelstrom just moved outside