Nineteen-year-old Kit works for Shen Corporation as a phenomenaut – a person who projects their consciousness into the bodies of animals bred for research purposes. This is the strange and intriguing premise of The Many Selves of Katherine North. Author Emma Geen tells gr about her fascinating research into embodiment and Embodied Semantics, which explores the scientific reason why reading can give you goosebumps and make your heart race…
What is a phenomenaut?
A phenomenaut (in the world of my novel!) is a person whose ‘consciousness’ is ‘projected’ into lab-grown bodies for the purposes of research. In The Many Selves of Katherine North, this is mostly carried out to try and better understand other species.
How would you describe your character, Kit?
Kit is a stubborn and intelligent 19-year-old girl, traits that suit her well for a career as a phenomenaut. Yet, like many her age, she’s yet to quite work out who exactly she is, let alone how to fit in as a human.
What do you mean by ‘embodiment’ and how do you explore the concept in your novel?
Embodiment is a term used by philosophers and psychologists to refer to the body as it’s lived and experienced, as opposed to the body as a physiological entity. That is, body is my foot of flesh and bones, while embodiment is how I’m a clumsy klutz and just managed to kick a chair leg, then hopped about a bit and I’m still aware of my foot throbbing like mad. The other important part of embodiment is that it’s the body in relation to its world and as directed through meaningful action (I kicked the chair when I was in the process of walking across the room to get cookies).
All this means that the novel is a great medium for exploring embodiment because it allows you to write about the body as first-person experience set within a meaning-laden narrative arc. I tried to go deeper into the idea in The Many Selves of Katherine North by sending Kit into the body of different species, which brings her into radical awareness of her new, alien, embodiments and how they change her.
‘Sometimes a body is all the language you need.’ (p. 18). How did you go about imagining how a human consciousness would operate in the bodies of other animals?
That’s a tricky one! I feel like I should have a really sharp, insightful answer but it essentially came down to imaginative projection of the same sort I’d use to inhabit the skin of a human character but intellectually modified by my reading into psychology, zoology and philosophy. Though I did try to experience the other embodiments as closely as I could, within my limited human frame. I’ve never quite lost the trait many children have of mimicking any animal they see; if there’s no one around to observe, I will quite happily hop around and flap my arms if I see a bird or gambol and bound if I cross a bunny. I see it as a kind of empathy – a very limited kind but better than nothing!
On your website you write ‘… narrative thrives only in the flesh and stories are written on the skin.’ What do you mean by this?
Ah, you’ve stumbled into my PhD thinking there and everyone knows that you should never ask a PhD student about their thesis if you value your sanity, but I shall try to keep my answer short! Basically, I believe that narrative gains reality through the reader’s body. For instance, books are experienced as scary because they cause the reader’s heart to race. Indeed, I recently saw a paper by a research group that has been measuring how much readers are ‘moved’ by a piece of fiction by recording the number of goosebumps that appear on their arms. There’s also a school of neuroscience called Embodied Semantics that argues that reading employs the same movement centres of the brain as if the reader were actively carrying out the action they were reading about. Moreover, stories, even when in the third-person, are always told from an embodied perspective, with certain kinds of senses and qualifiers that allow for story objects to be considered hot/cold, large/small, near/far etc, therefore implying a relative perspective to a specific type of embodied existence. To my mind, the power of fiction is almost psychosomatic.
Was it a conscious choice to ground your story in science rather than magic?
Yes. Stories about humans becoming other animals are as old as story-telling itself and they’re an established trope in contemporary fiction, so the original slant I hoped to offer through The Many Selves of Katherine North was to seriously consider it through the perspective of modern philosophy and psychology – to fully follow the realism rabbit down its narrative hole, so to speak. Though fantasy can, of course, also be a wonderful vehicle for exploring realistic psychology, it’s defined by exhibiting physical laws and bodies of knowledge that are fundamentally different from those we know.
Science fiction, meanwhile, tends to be about projecting our current ideas of science into the future and was therefore far more suited to my aspirations of realism. Though the science and technology behind phenomenautism is currently far out of our reach, I believe that they are, in theory, completely possible.
What kinds of research did you undertake to write The Many Selves of Katherine North?
Aside from my research into psychology and philosophy to shape my thoughts, I read lots of papers on animal ethology, physiology and psychology. Even small details like ‘what colour would this embodiment perceive grass as’ required trawling through paper after paper, only to often find out that no one has a clue. I also acted out swimming like a polar bear, sniffed pavements, licked raw seaweed, and generally embarrassed and disgusted myself in whole range of odd ways.
There’s a long history in literature of anthropomorphising animals – you’re going a step further in your book, but why do you think humans are constantly casting animals in our stories, and allowing them the ability to talk and think like us?
I’m sure that there’s lots of reasons for this. I suspect part of it comes down to a failure of imagination and inability to shift perspective out of our own. Another aspect likely comes down to the nature of stories, which normally have to be about the human condition, to a certain extent, for readers (who are strangely enough always human!) to engage with them. In some ways, The Many Selves of Katherine North is taking the easy way out by writing about a human consciousness that is inhabiting non-human bodies, and how that consciousness is consequentially shaped.
Do you think that this history of anthropomorphising leads us to believe that animals experience the world and communicate in the same ways as humans? Is this a problematic assumption?
I suspect that, if there’s a connection between the two incidences, that it actually works the other way round – that is, that our history of anthropomorphism arose from the fact that people tend to believe that others experience and communicate in the same way that they do; this is a cognitive bias that people naturally have about other people, before even moving onto other species. It takes active and in-depth imagination to step out of that kind of thinking. To see oneself in another, as happens in anthropomorphism, can sometimes be a healthy process that breeds a sense of kinship (and is better than believing that other animals have no lived experience!) but if it’s carried out without any awareness of difference the result can be very harmful.
Why did you choose the fox as the most prominent animal in your story?
The fox obsession of the novel, and my own personal one, arose through the writing process. They initially started out as one of the many animal chapters but I quickly developed a deep love for them for the way they nonchalantly challenge our anthropomorphism. Firstly, they’re one of the few animals capable of what could be called the Sartrean ‘Look’, in which you’re de-centred and brought into new self-awareness through collusion with another living being (though traditionally normally thought of as human) looking at you. With this comes the realisation that you’re just an object, or other, in a world view that centres on their experience. I’m reminded of this strongly whenever I meet a fox, for I always get the overbearing feeling of meeting an intelligence that’s not just looking at me as an object of fear but as another mind that’s trying to puzzle me out in the same way that I am it. Secondly, they’re a wild creature that lives very happily and successful in spaces we tend to think of as human and can therefore bring us into fresh awareness of ourselves in our own ‘territory’. Not to mention that they’re beautiful creatures with a playful, almost trickster, temperament.
Which parts of human nature are you trying to uncover or explore by blurring the lines between human and animal in your book?
I’m pulled towards two answers with this question. Firstly, my inner pedant wants to point out that humans are animals, the lines are already blurred and this is very much a view I carried into the writing of the novel. Yet, from another perspective, I appreciate why people talk in such a fashion, because the novel also believes that the notion of ‘human’ is created through being able to point ‘what-is-not-human’, aka, other animals. When that boundary is broken down, human identity begins to become very fuzzy indeed. Humans are defined and created by others, whether this is other species or other humans. This idea is tied with a number of other perspectives I tried to explore through the novel, including the idea that humans are fundamentally embodied and that mind, and identity, are fractured, ephemeral and fluid.
Could you share a favourite teaser sentence or paragraph from The Many Selves of Katherine North?
“Please look. I’d mutter beneath my breath. Please look. Please look.
And, sometimes, it would. Those eyes like molten silver, nailing me back inside my tingling skin; suddenly conscious of a full bladder and the itch of every muscle to move. A few scant seconds unfolding into infinity . . . over too quickly as the fox would turn and run.”
The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen is published by Bloomsbury, rrp. $27.99.