In Nathanial White’s debut sci-fi novella, “Conscious Designs”, the local creative writing and advanced placement literature teacher explores some of the big questions currently facing society: What does it mean to be human? Can we be human without suffering? How does technology change us?
“Conscious Designs” is the story of Eugene Wallace, a wealthy paraplegic grappling with the tragedy and exasperation of his disability. Eugene considers the option of having his mind copied and a version of himself created in a digital utopia called Arcada. There, he could live in a virtual body, escape pain and change his self image. The following excerpt is a conversation between Eugene and Ashcroft, a sales rep for the corporation that replicates its clients’ conscious minds to live virtually in Arcada:
“It seems to me that consciousness relies on an experience of the physical world,” Eugene said. “We must see what a sunset looks like in order to feel it.”
“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 White’s opinion, fiction can tell the truth in a more authentic way than nonfiction. “Initially, I tried to write this as a memoir,” he said. “However, I found myself trying to curate my life to make myself likable and understandable. I ended up betraying the truth of my experience. When reporting on my story, news outlets only looked for inspirational and reductive aspects to tell. When we write fiction, on the other hand, we can create a distance and not just write about ourselves. Seeing through the eyes of a fictitious character, we can create a bit of critical distance between ourselves and the world.”
In 2016, White suffered a spinal cord injury while kayaking on Crested Butte’s Daisy Creek. “I fractured my second lumbar vertebrae and was instantly paralyzed.” Within the first weeks post-accident, White underwent two spinal reconstruction surgeries. He lived for the next two and a half months at Craig Hospital.
“Rehabbing from a spinal cord injury is sort of like learning the first 16 years of your life again,” he said. “Learning how to go to the bathroom, learning how to crawl, getting dressed by yourself, culminating in learning how to drive a car again, with hand controls.”
White was discharged from Craig in a wheelchair. It wasn’t until his path crossed with Amanda Boxtel and Bridging Bionics, a local nonprofit that provides access to bionic rehabilitation technology, that he believed he would walk unassisted again. “Through Amanda’s program, I was able to have access to a robotic exoskeleton and some other really cool technology,” he shared.
Much of White’s lived experience with rehabilitation, technology and the love it takes to come through a devastating accident inform the backbone of this book.
“Conscious Designs” is intentionally thought-provoking, asking more questions than it provides answers. “There is a romantic undercurrent to this book, a troubled and tragic love story,” said White. “The main characters are trying to find meaning or explanation for what it means to be alive that goes beyond a hard rationalist, empirical, scientific view of the world. I think that really good science fiction can ask those epistemological questions and also create these spaces to critique our current moment.”
“Conscious Designs” is available at White River Books, Bookbinders and the Book Grove or at most online retailers.