one has lived many lies,
twisted the lows and highs,
mistaken what’s a prize,
or, maybe, died too wise.
just let my bones bleach white.
Throw me in a hole in the jungle —
food for wild dogs, worms, and germs.
Nature’s truth —
a truth painful only to humans —
is that in life we are all consumers,
and in death we are all food.
In nature’s view,
big brains put us no closer to the feet of gods
than does the ancient memory of trees,
the octa-ambidexterity of an octopus,
or the network optimization of fungal mycelia.
We are all both consumer & food.
The title of this book might lead you to believe that it’s either frivolous or that it’s an examination of a successful sci-fi subgenre. In fact, the book presents some serious (if disturbing, and often unsuccessful) science on two concepts that are disparate except by way of analogy of the Zombie – the brain-obsessed walking undead popularized in film and fiction. Those two ideas are: 1.) how definitive of a state is death, can people be brought back from it, and – if so – under what conditions and at what costs? 2.) is it possible to completely usurp an individual’s will, and – if so – by what means?
The book consists of seven chapters that are topically organized. The first chapter introduces the idea of Zombies, discussing early reporting on them from interested parties visiting the cane fields of the Caribbean. But it also delves into the idea of how drugs and freezing might create temporary death (or the appearance of death) from which individuals can be [partially or fully] successfully roused.
Chapter two explores the history of research about how to bring a deceased person back from the dead. Squeamish readers should be forewarned there is discussion of such things as partial dogs (i.e. the head end) being temporarily revived. The book touches on various ideas related to resuscitation. There is a discussion of one researcher’s study of katsu, techniques used in judo and jujutsu to revive an individual who has lost consciousness [or worse.] Near Death Experiences [NDE] and Out-of-Body [OoB] are also covered. These strange phenomena reported by revived individuals are too common to ignore, but — while they are often presented as evidence of an afterlife and /or the divine, there’s little reason to believe that they aren’t perfectly natural phenomena. [e.g. Neuroscientists are able to induce an OoB with a carefully placed electrode.]
Chapter three shifts gears from the question of death and resuscitation to the one of mind control. While the bulk of the chapter is devoted to pharmaceutical approaches to mind control, it also examines mind control by other means – e.g. authority as an agent of mind control as seen in the famous Milgram experiments, as well as hypnosis. Most of the drug related sections deal with psychedelics (and their naturally occurring precursors.) Swain describes the CIA’s varied shenanigans with LSD in MK-Ultra, Operation Midnight Climax, and the Frank Olsen death. [Long story short, you can’t control someone’s mind with psychedelics, but you can still achieve some despicable ends.]
Chapter four continues the exploration of mind control, but focuses on more invasive approaches — from lobotomies to electro-stimulation. Of course, even as these procedures got more sophisticated, they could still only reliably make vegetables.
If you think the history of lobotomies from chapter four was as scary as it can get, I’ve got news for you. Chapters five and [particularly] six are the ones that I found both the most fascinating and by far the most terrifying. These chapters, together, uncover how mind control is achieved in the natural world by parasitic creatures. Clearly, if there is any risk of successfully taking over a human will, it will not be with doses of Acid or icepicks stuck in the brain, it will be from figuring out how some of nature’s parasitic masters of mind control do it and copying from their playbooks.
Chapter five discusses wasps and fungi that successful take over their [fortunately non-human] hosts. I wasn’t familiar with how many mind-controlling wasps there are, but I had heard of the fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. Said fungus infects an ant, steers it up into a tree, forces it to secure itself by locking in its mandibles onto a branch, and then the fruiting body blooms out of the ant’s frickin’ scull. It’s chapter six, however, where things really get creepy. There’s an extended discussion of rabies, but the wildest part was a discussion of Toxoplasma gondi. T. gondi likes to infect cats, but if it can’t find a cat, it’ll infect a rodent and selectively (not only turn off the rat’s fear of cats but also) make the rat attracted to cats. What’s fascinating is that all of the rat’s other usual fears remain intact (bright lights, sharp noises, etc.)
The last chapter is on the various intriguing things that happen after a person dies — from cannibalism to organ harvesting. I think the most interesting discussion to me, however, was one about keeping a brain-dead accident victim alive long enough that her baby could live to term within her. (There was also an intriguing – if unnerving – case of a mother who wanted her deceased son’s sperm harvested.)
The book’s only graphics are black and white photos at the head of each chapter, but it is footnoted and has a chapter-by-chapter bibliography.
I found this book riveting. I learned a lot from it. The cases are presented in amusing and enthralling ways. If you are interested in the questions of what it means to be dead and how safe your free will is, this is an engrossing look at those subjects. I highly recommend it.
What’d you suppose he’d been thinking,
as breath clouds shrank to naught?
Did he wonder if death was better
when it was a fight you fought?
Maybe he was past such concerns,
and in his final hours,
he conjured into his mind a
field of spring wildflowers.
Maybe he’d moved beyond caring,
and just lie, feeling cold,
tuning into the clouds above
watching their shapes unfold.
No one could ever know such things,
so why did she so care?
That someone should, occurred to her,
was only right and fair.
If you made the journey,
wonder outshone fear.
Death is a journey.
I can’t tell you whether it’s
-a journey to oblivion
-a journey to spread one across a web of consciousness
-a journey to be uploaded into another body
-a journey to Heaven or the Elysian Fields
I don’t know,
but I don’t have to know.
All I have to do is be ready for the journey, and
Let my wonder burn brighter than my fear.
Radnóti wrote, “Walk On, Ye Doomed”
[Járkálj Csak, Halálraítélt!]
in 1936 —
Eight years before he was force marched to death by Nazis.
And I am left to wonder whether he was a prophet,
or whether the Poet’s obsession with death makes him seem prophetic.
Whether he was a prophet or not, he was true to his poem.
There’s at least 750 kilometers between the copper mines of Bor and the tiny northern Hungarian town where he was killed — a place closer to both Bratislava and Vienna than to Budapest.
Call it 500 miles on foot,
emaciated from cracking rock for copper to build the war-machinery of those trying to erase a people — his people.
They found a pocketful of poems on his person when he was exhumed.
If you can’t think of anything else to do in the act of slogging at gunpoint across two countries than to craft poems, you are not a poet, you are THE Poet.
What’s the age at which dancing on a grave switches from an adorable bubbling over of life
deplorable act of petty vindictiveness?
I saw a boy — clearly in the former category — pull it off,
but I knew that if I joined in the best I could hope for was an evil eye. And the worst would be to be slapped, kicked, or spat upon.
For I long ago crossed the river of innocence beyond which lie presumptions of foul intent.
An ever-watchful Orphean world keeps me from crossing back over that Stygian river.
Oh, to live life on the other bank.
5.) Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl: Deep life lessons learned inside a Nazi death camp.
4.) Being Mortal by Atul Gawande: A medical doctor discusses how living longer doesn’t necessarily mean living better, and what that can mean for one’s final years.
3.) When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: Contemplations on the meaning of life from a doctor who was dying from a terminal illness, and who succumbed before completion of the book.
2.) The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby: The story of a man who developed Locked-In Syndrome in the wake of a severe stroke and couldn’t move a muscle, save one eyelid.
1.) First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung: The title captures the family level tragedy of Pol Pot’s rule, but the book conveys something of the national tragedy as well.
where the sky can call to me.
Set me under the falling rains.
Let me flow down to the sea.
I will float up toward the heavens,
and I’ll glide across the sky.
I will tour the Wonders seven
as a tear drop, sans an eye.
Rain down, run down, rise and repeat,
cycling to the end of days,
feeding plants and beating the heat,
heeding the summons of sun rays.
Long vacation in a glacier.
This is just my human nature.