A tale of suspense based on the famous “brain in a vat” scenario used in thought experiments in philosophy. As formulated by American philosopher Hilary Putnam, the basic scenario is of a disembodied human brain suspended in a vat of life-sustaining fluid, with its neurons connected by wires to a supercomputer that can provide electrical impulses identical to those the brain normally receives. Philosophers use the scenario to explore the nature of human consciousness, including the possibility that reality is but a figment of such a brain’s imagination. Here the premise is that a brain removed from its body, deprived of its sensory organs but in full command of its cognitive functions, narrates the story in the first person as the protagonist.
Dr. Hideo Hongō is a neurosurgeon at a university hospital, where he leads a team conducting cutting-edge research on organ transplants. One rainy night, he and his fiancée Akiko, a gynecologist, are rushed to the hospital following a collision with a truck: the driver had been running over the speed limit when he nodded off and veered across the centerline. Hideo’s ribs are crushed, his internal organs ruptured, his right eye removed from its socket, and his heart stops beating, but fortunately his brain remains intact. Without consulting their supervising professor or seeking permission from Hideo’s family, several of his research colleagues remove his brain and place it in a special vat that Hideo has been developing. If the brain can survive, it will represent a major leap forward for brain science, but since gaining the approval of the university’s ethics committee would be no easy feat, and they can also anticipate a firestorm of controversy in the media and among the public, they choose to proceed in complete secrecy. With the funeral over, Hideo begins his lonely “second life” as Specimen 009 in Room 305 of the research building.
Relying solely on his sense of hearing (exactly how he “hears” is not spelled out), Hideo first pieces together what has happened to him since the truck plowed into his car and he lost consciousness. When the supervising professor learns of the secret experiment ten days later, he is on the verge of switching off the life-support system. Yet the signals coming from the cerebrum and cerebellum are all normal, and the alpha and beta brain wave transitions even allow him to know when Hideo has woken from sleep. The professor agrees to begin the process of gaining ethics committee approval, to enable the experiment to go public.
More than anything else, Hideo yearns to know what happened to Akiko in the accident, but information about her remains elusive. Finally, seven months after the crash, Akiko visits Room 305, and Hideo feels her presence and a reconnection of their souls. Akiko has lost her left leg below the knee, and can no longer raise her right arm above shoulder level, so her career as a doctor is over. More time goes by and the story closes as Hideo comes to suspect he has suffered a stroke. In his mind’s eye he sees an image of Akiko, who gazes back at him through his own transplanted corneas.
In spite of the premise that constrains the narrative to a rigidly fixed point of view and setting, author Tetsuo Takashima never lets readers’ interest flag—masterfully making good on his own narrative experiment.