About Electroencephalography by Darby Larson
Electroencephalography started out as a very small unfinished thing I had written about a man who decides to build a robot, and what is now the first three paragraphs of the published draft. That was all it was for a while. I didn't know where to take it, so it just sat on my hard drive. It seemed like the kind of thing people write all the time. What ended up moving this story in the direction it eventually went is something that is not obvious in the story itself because the narrator never really comes out and explains anything, and because it's conceptually complex. Around the time I had written those three paragraphs, I must have been reading something about using the seven deadly sins in stories or attaching those sins to your characters, and I challenged myself to write a story where I infuse each of the deadly sins into separate characters. I had these three paragraphs on my hard drive and Dean suddenly struck me as an ideal sloth character. From there, I began adding more characters, infusing each with one of the deadly sins, still not sure where it was going. In the published version, all the sins are represented by separate characters.
One thing I thought I would get criticized for is that I am not using 'electroencephalography' correctly, or atleast not consistently. The word entered my vocabulary when I read one of those politically correct jokes: he's not dead, he's 'electroencephalographically challenged.' My giant mistake is that when I wrote the story, I thought electroencephalography had to do with the small amount of electricity created by the human heart. This is why I have so many things going on with people's hearts, why the device is attached to people's chests (although in one case it is attached to someone's head.), etc. But heart electricity is actually electrocardiography. Electroencephalography has to do with electricity created by the brain. I didn't realize this until long after the story was published. But this whole distinction is debatedly rendered moot anyway, or ambiguous, because in either case, I'm adding a supernatural element, suggesting that this electricity is not just electricity, but is some kind of life-sustaining energy, as well as something that can affect one's psyche.
For me, the story attempts to expose a way of thinking about the distinction between a person and a robot by blurring that distinction, sort of the way a cyborg does, only more primitively. When a converter is attached to each character, the deadly sin that character was embodying suddenly consumes them. The rationale here is that every human is a complex being, full of different character traits depending on their environment, etc. For a person to become slightly more robot-like, in the world of this story, that person's psyche becomes absolute and unflinching. They become programmed to ONLY experience what their most prevalent trait was (in this case, their particular sin) and nothing else. It's like their personality, which previously was analog and variable and dependent on their environment, has now become digital and cold and dependent on an internal program. Or, a human trait existing in a nonhuman construct. Or, psyche being dealt with in software. They become only that sin in as absolute a sense as possible. I'm not entirely sure if this concept holds water, but intuitively, it feels like there could be some truth in there somewhere.
Part of what drove the concept behind this story is my engineering background. I've worked with software, writing and debugging it, for about nine years now, so I have spent a lot of time considering the way software thinks, which happens to also be the way robots think. It's been interesting to read this story again, to think about it again after having had so much distance from it. I write very differently these days, I've moved more into language-driven fiction and poetry and not so plot heavy. This story is by far the heaviest and most conceptual plot I've ever attempted to write. I still can't get my head completely around it.