Internal Phrenology

Kage Baker got a lot of questions about her immortal, time-travelling cyborg Operatives. And thinly disguised in every question – except when it was asked outright – was the plaintive question, “Could I be an Operative?”

To which, Kage immediately replied, “No. The process won’t work on adults. Anyway, most people’s heads are the wrong shape.”

This was a lie.

Mind you, it was initially a lie for the most practical of reasons – Kage began writing about the cyborg process long before anyone asked her about it; in fact, before she had worked out all the physical details in her own head. As she refined her visualization of the process, she decided that among the things recruiting Facilitators looked for was someone with new, fresh DNA, whose telomere caps had not been eroded: those are people under age five. And for convenience’s sake, they should have a round skull.

Human beings’ skulls tend to fall somewhere along the spectrum from brachycephalic (short, broad and round) to dolichocephalic (long and relatively narrow). Most people tend to be somewhere in the middle ( mesaticephalic), just statistically. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with intelligence, although it does tend to indicate whether your ancestors were from Northern Europe or the Mediterranean; from Asia or England or Tasmania. Or included Neanderthals …

Kage decided that, Dr. Zeus being the bureaucratic monster that it is, the rules for acceptable children would be written to make the process easy to automate. She envisioned a Rube Goldberg assembly line of surgeries and installations to baby Operatives’ brains, and that would all work better if their heads were as similar as possible. So a standard was established, and before long – ordinary non-Operatives’ heads looked funny to the Operatives. Who, by the way, did not know that the only real reason for the head shape was so the kiddies would fit the surgical procedures. Dastardly Dr. Zeus strikes again!

In the course of the books, it is revealed that neither spanking new telomeres or a brachycephalic skull is absolutely necessary for the cyborg conversion. It works on animals; it works on non-human primates. The Enforcers have seriously dolichocephalic skulls – so does Nicholas/Edward/Alec. The process works just fine when performed in an artisanal manner. All that really matters is that the DNA be as fresh as possible, and there are ways round even that.

But all Kage usually told people was, “Sorry, your head is the wrong shape.” It saved her explaining and it preserved some mystery (which amused her). In case anyone is wondering, Dear Readers, you may have been imagining Nicholas et al with a round head – nope, he’s a long=headed type. And the Enforcers, with their “helmet-shaped” skulls, look rather like Shan Yu from Mulan – she was the only person in the theatre who giggled when those guys showed up on screen, which got us some funny looks. She used to keep a figure of Shan Yu with the other juju on her desk, because he reminded her of Budu.

Kage herself was notably brachycephalic. She was kind of horrified when she first saw her own skull x-ray, because she looked so incredibly Cro-magnon. But, there you go – as she used to say later on, “My skull is the one I know best.”

As I said, none of this has anything to do with intellect, or racial fitness or any damn thing that might appeal to a racist stamp: the whole thing was based on Henry Ford-level engineering. Kage had a deeply-ingrained loathing for racial stereotypes – she grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, in liberal Los Angeles – and she tried to make her Operatives diverse. Which they are; not only in “race”, meaning a pointless measurement of melanin, but in actual species.

Phrenology, however – the second most famous skull-based pseudo-science – amused Kage no end. It’s such a long-standing and basically goofy “science”, with a rational that sounds so weirdly common-sense … on the surface. But the bumps on your skull do not effect your personality, for all that several generations of European researchers wrote reams of crap on the topic. Sir Terry Pratchett makes good fun of this in several of his novels set in Ankh-Morpork, where a troll practices “retro-phrenology”: he hits his patients over the  head to raise lumps, which then alter their personalities to desired specs …

Kage always wanted to write a story that included phrenology, because it would have worked so hilariously with her skull-shape-intent Operatives. Also, because she thought “phrenologist” would be a great cover profession for a Company recruiter. I have some notes. Today, I may have found some additional information that could be worked up with the idea, too.

A recent study indicates that an individual’s degree of neuroticism or mental health is demonstrated by the shape of their brain: at least, the shape, thickness and wrinkly-ness of their grey matter, the layer that covers the brain. The cortex is part of the most recent part of the brain, and it does indeed play a part in intelligence, to some extent – and apparently, also in how dour, cheerful, mean, generous or downright neurotic you turn out to be. Check this out:

It’s a sort of inside-out phrenology. The architecture of the skull does effect how the layers of the brain lie, squished up under it – there have been some astounding oddities found in folks who develop hydrocephaly, or get a tamping rod blown through their eye socket. The brain still works, in these circumstances, but the trauma to the skull and brain can alter the personality. (Or, even more weirdly, sometimes it doesn’t. Brains are peculiar.) Anyway, whatever effects the way your cortex folds, wrinkles and corrugates seem to play a part in whether you are Donald Trump or Will Rogers; Bob Cratchit or Ebenezer Scrooge.

This is fascinating. and would have absolutely captivated Kage. And it would have sent her searching through the boxes and cartons and files and re-purposed Easter baskets that held all her paperwork, searching for that old x-ray of hers. (Because of course, she still had it.)

She’d have been poring over it with a magnifying glass, charting it out in coloured inks … Just to see, you know, what stalagmites and stalactites she might have had, shaping that bowl of pearls and cogs and fire she called a brain.


About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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