10 Books That Will Change the Way You Understand the Mind

A new wave of science fiction, from the show Person of Interest to the movie Her, features artificial intelligences whose minds are truly alien. These AIs have plural selves, or many identities running in parallel; they are basically hive minds within one consciousness. But this idea of a hive mind has a long history in scifi literature. Here are ten tales to explode your brain with minds made up of selves, rather than a single self.

Illustration from the cover of Mind of My Mind, by John Jude Palencar

1. "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," by H.P. Lovecraft

This is Lovecraft's classic story, written in 1931, about a man who discovers that his ancestors include "fish frog things," intelligent alien creatures who live in the deep ocean. These Deep Ones are connected to the chaos monster god Cthulhu, and any human descended from them always yearns — sometimes with great self-disgust — to join them. By the end of the story, however, our protagonist has accepted his fishy fate, and begins to feel the minds of his submerged brethren, chanting the words to their prayers to Cthulhu. This is is an early, fantasy-oriented version of the hive mind, where many creatures' minds merge in a kind of mystical bond, sharing feelings and ideas.

10 Books That Will Change the Way You Understand the Mind

2. More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon

By 1953, when Sturgeon published this influential novel, the hive mind had become the purview of science fiction. In this tale of five "gifted" humans with X-Men-like powers, Sturgeon established the idea of a gestalt consciousness formed when people blend (or "blesh" in the slang of the novel) their minds together to form a supermind. We see this theme recurring in science fiction up to this day, including in the "drift" of Pacific Rim, where two people merge their minds in order to control a giant robot. Even the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers have a kind of gestalt mind. It's a very popular way to represent hive minds.

10 Books That Will Change the Way You Understand the Mind

3. Mind of My Mind, by Octavia Butler

Like the gestalt humans in More Than Human, the people in Butler's incredible Patternmaster series have psychic powers — but unless they are linked together by a guiding "patternmaster," they basically go insane. In Mind of My Mind, a patternmaster is born in the ghettos of Los Angeles during the 1970s (when the book was written), and discovers her power by linking her mind to others like herself. Eventually, she amasses a small army of formerly homeless and schizophrenic mind-controllers, healers, and other psychics. Once connected to each other, they are able to secretly take control of the city, and challenge another patternmaster who has been working in secret for centuries. Butler's vision of the hive mind is more like a network. Each person in it retains a separate identity, but can't function without remaining connected to the whole.

4. Blood Music, by Greg Bear

Often hailed as the first great nanotech novel, Bear's 1985 work is about what happens when sentient nanotech escapes the lab and decides to remake the world in its own image. Every piece of matter is broken down and rebuilt, including humans themselves. Humans who undergo nano-transformation aren't simply mulched, however — their minds enter what Bear calls the noosphere, a kind of dreamy cloud consciousness where individuality is lost. The noosphere and similar concepts have come to permeate science fiction, both as a threat and a promise. The loss of individuality in the group mind, ala the Borg, can be terrifying. But as Rudy Rucker suggests in novels like Postsingular, it can be like heaven too.

5. Queen City Jazz, Kathleen Ann Goonan

Goonan's 1990s Nanotech Quartet series begins with Queen City Jazz, which imagines a very different nanotech apocalypse from Bear's Blood Music. In Goonan's future, the city of Cincinnati has become what today we'd call a "smart city," with every building and piece of infrastructure wired together using a nano/biological system of heavily-modified "flowers" and "bees." But when the city malfunctions, it consumes every life form and piece of architecture, remolding them into Jazz Age Cincinnati. Every human in the city becomes an aspect of the city's broken, crashing mind, forced to act out historical fantasies and searching desperately for a way to escape.

10 Books That Will Change the Way You Understand the Mind

6. A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge

Vinge's brilliant 1992 novel is a space opera spanning most of the galaxy, but a good portion of the action is set on a pre-industrial world dominated by a dog-like species called the Tines. The Tines form hive minds out of small packs — singleton Tines are essentially disabled, while massive packs of hundreds become dim-witted and chaotic. Each pack functions as a single mind, but its members have their own personalities and can influence the pack personality and memories. Vinge does an incredible job imagining how these hive minds would create political empires, as well as what kinds of technology they'd want to invent.

7. The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

In this 1995 cyberpunk tale of a near-future world where people live in "phyles," or cultural/economic enclaves, Stephenson imagines that AI will turn out to be dumber than we thought. Instead, the greatest feats of computation are still done using biological minds. In one bizarre scene, our protagonist John Hackworth gets sucked into a phyle of "Drummers," who basically live in a perpetual Burning Man orgy, their identities completely erased by sex and music rituals. Hackworth's self is so unglued by the experience that he spends ten years among the Drummers without even realizing it. Later, we find out that the Drummers are actually a massive computer, their hive consciousness being exploited for computational labor while their bodies spurt flaming jizz in their weird dreamspace.

10 Books That Will Change the Way You Understand the Mind

8. Sly Mongoose, by Tobias Buckell

With one character in this 2008 novel, Buckell shows us a social media hive mind that humans might actually embrace one day. Katerina is from a civilization where every decision is made by citizens voting over a sophisticated computer network that's wired into everybody's brains. No policy or political decision is ever made without consulting the hive mind of the whole democracy. In this vision of the hive mind, individuality isn't lost — but the brain networks allow people to make more democratic group decisions in the blink of an eye. Interestingly, Buckell contrasts Katerina's world with the menace caused by a zombie plague that turns its victims into a monstrous hive mind where selfhood is subsumed into a mass urge to kill and consume.

9. Nexus, by Ramez Naam

Naam, writing in 2012, also imagines a kind of technology that can link people's minds, and possibly lead to more democratic (or at least empathetic) societies. Nexus is a nanotech drug that rewires people's brains, allowing them to run software and network with each other. People on Nexus begin sharing memories, and achieving more meaningful forms of consensus. It also allows people to have more incredible dance parties — and to control each other's minds in a deeply sinister way. Naam tries to imagine how hive minds would work in a world that's just a few years into our future. He's one of the few authors to look at both the recreational and deeply political aspects of mind networking.

10 Books That Will Change the Way You Understand the Mind

10. Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Published in 2013, Leckie's novel is about an artificially intelligent ship that is also a hive mind. Her idea is very close to Her and Person of Interest, in that does a terrific job imagining what it would mean to have many identities within a single entity — especially when those identities are in disagreement. Making things even more complicated in Ancillary Justice is the fact that the ship Justice of Toren isn't just a machine — it is also a vast network of human avatars, their minds colonized by the ship, and their bodies taken as the spoils of war in various colonial conflicts. There are hints that these humans retain some of their previous personalities, and they can act as individuals if their mind link to the ship is severed. But they are truly hive organisms, their collective minds and bodies operating as a whole — though not a unified one. Fascinating and thoughtful, Leckie's novel is on the cutting edge when it comes to imagining how AIs would really think.