Thick on plot, but a little thin on theory

March 26, 2004

Multiple-choice question. Is this book: (a) "witty and ingenious"; (b) "ecstatically playful"; (c) too clever by half? Going for the third option puts me firmly into the philistine camp, opposed to the views, quoted above, of David Lodge and Rebecca Goldstein on the dust-jacket of Dan Lloyd's Radiant Cool . So be warned. If your taste in stories is more John Buchan than Jorge Luis Borges, and if you like your science and your fiction on separate plates, this is probably not the book for you.

Lloyd's basic conceit is simple. If consciousness is elusive and allusive, consisting in a complex dynamic of loops and superpositions, then a book exploring consciousness should be the same.

Take authorship, for instance. Philosophers and neuroscientists cannot decide whether a consciously experienced firefly exists in my brain or out there in the night sky. That is to say, I may be the passive recipient of my experience,or I may be its author. As Lloyd's phenomenologist Maxwell Grue tells his surprised graduate student Miranda Sharpe: "I created you, right down to your toes." This ambiguity is expressed in the book by a deliberate confusion of authors and characters.

In the first two-thirds of the work, Miranda relates an extraordinary 24-hour saga on the campus of Whaleard University. It is 6am on a freezing April morning when she lets herself out of Professor Grue's office, clutching her unfinished dissertation, "The Thrill of Phenomenology", and leaving her supervisor for dead, slumped over his computer keyboard. She takes us through her day, creating the successive scenes of a whodunnit thriller: deputising for Grue in his class on Husserl; finding that his body has disappeared; consulting his mysterious shrink, Dr Lucid; and learning that the previous evening Max claimed to have seen "the alephI" - quick genuflection to Borges - "Iof consciousness"; and meeting with Professor Porfiry Petrovich Marlov, formerly a detective in the Moscow Militia.

She then brings into her account a professor of philosophy from nearby Trinity College, one Dan Lloyd, who thus becomes a character of one of his own characters in his novel theory of consciousness.

By this time the plot has thickened to include an international scheme to subvert the internet and a secretly developed machine for inducing temporary lesions in the brain.

It is getting more like a Buchan yarn after all, but in among the narrative is a lot of quite detailed neuroscience that holds up the plot and will irritate and bemuse the outsider, though it might amuse the cognoscenti.

The book, as it is, falls between two stools. If the purpose of the fictional (novel) part was to sugar the pill for newcomers to the philosophical and scientific issues around consciousness research, then this reader at least felt Lloyd's convoluted and self-conscious writing was less effective than Lodge's more transparent attempt at the same project in Thinks... If, on the other hand, Lloyd really is concerned to present a new (novel) theory of consciousness, then he needs to do more research and develop the argument of the last third of the book, where he breaks free and speaks directly to his readers, offering his Reflections on a Science of Consciousness .

Lloyd claims that results from publicly available brain scans are evidence for his own view of the role of time in conscious experience, but to date this has not greatly impressed the neuroscience community.

Anthony Freeman is managing editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies .

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