Sunday, January 8, 2017

Call Me Joe

"Call Me Joe" by Poul Anderson
First published in Astounding Science Fiction, April 1957
Read the story here - SPOILERS BELOW

One of the inevitable things that happens as we get older is our bodies change.  Think about what you physically looked like when you first came into this world: a tiny, wrinkly creature covered in goo!  Then we grow and we change and we grow and we change, getting stronger and stronger...sometime around the age of 18-25, we probably physically feel and look the best we ever will, and we feel like ourselves, like who we are.  And then, we change again.

We get older.  Our bodies don't quite respond the way they used to.  We aren't as fast, as flexible, as physically resilient.  Wrinkles and gray hairs begin to appear.  And yet, we still feel like ourselves.  We are still who we are.

Eventually, our bodies become exceedingly frail, sometimes preventing everyday movement that we would have considered normal before, maybe even a critical part of who we are.  But, excepting mental health complications, we are still who we are.  Death will come, leading to a great unknown that countless religions and philosophers have wrestled with: what happens to the "you," to the "me," when the physical body dies?

How much of your "you-ness" is dependent upon your physicality?  When you lose your ability to sprint a race, are you no longer you?  If you lose a leg, or both legs, are you different from the "you" you were before?  What if your gender changes?  Is who you are completely dependent on the biology you were born with?

The Story
These ideas are at the heart of "Call Me Joe" by Poul Anderson.  In the story, or novella, if you prefer (it is a fairly long story), humans are exploring Jupiter.  To contend with Jupiter's harsh environment, scientists have biologically engineered a "pseudojovian," a creature that can physically survive on the surface of the large planet.  The Jovian is described as a "feline centaur with a thick prehensile tail - the torso was squat, long-armed, immensely muscular; the hairless head was round, wide-nosed, with big, deep-set eyes and heavy jaws...the overall color was bluish gray."

Named Joe, this pseudojovian is controlled remotely by Edward Anglesey, referred to as an esman.  The esman connects himself to a piece of technology called a esprojector, which amplifies a person's natural psionic pulses, or brainwaves/thoughts.  The esprojector focuses Edward's amplified psionic pulses into Joe's brain...which only works because when Joe was "born" into consciousness, Edward's mind was there.  Joe never had an opportunity to develop his own mind.  In the story, Edward points out that it has proved quite dangerous, and likely impossible, to seize control of another brain, a brain with its own background.  This comes up as the conflict in the story is revealed...

Anglesey's esprojector is malfunctioning, burning out.  An expert in psionics, Jan Cornelius, is summoned to try to figure out why it's happening.  He posits several theories.  The main one designed to set up the twist of the story is that Anglesey's subconscious doesn't want to be on Jupiter - for a human, Jupiter is a pretty unpleasant place.  This causes a reaction with a key component of the esprojector, causing it to burn out.  Anglesey himself tries to refute this theory, painting a beautiful picture of how wonderful Jupiter is for a creature who is meant to live there:
Imagine walking under a glowing violet sky, where great flashing clouds sweep the earth with shadow and rain strides beneath them.  Imagine walking on the slopes of a mountain like polished metal, with a clean red flame exploding above you and thunder laughing in the ground.  Imagine a cool wild stream, and low trees with dark coppery flowers, and a waterfall, methane-fall...whatever you like, leaping off a cliff, and the strong live wind shakes its mane full of rainbows!  Imagine a whole forest, dark and breathing, and here and there you glimpse a pale-red wavering will-o'-the-wisp, which is the life radiation of some fleet shy animal, and...and - imagine being strong!
It's worth mentioning here that Edward Anglesey is in a wheelchair, and this is his way of explaining to Cornelius that when his mind is in Joe's biological brain, he enjoys being on Jupiter.  He is not afraid and desperate to come back to his own body.

But Cornelius doesn't listen.  As the story goes on, he becomes more convinced that Joe is "taking over" Anglesey's mind, and Anglesey's thoughts about being on Jupiter are actually coming from Joe, who is coming into his own.  Anglesey's resistance to Joe taking over is becoming more and more futile.

As a final way of determining what is really going on, Cornelius decides to tap in and listen to what is going on in Anglesey's mind.  Normally, according to the science in the story, a psionist could listen in to a subject's thoughts without the subject being aware of it.  However, Anglesey does become aware of Cornelius's presence, and roars, "Get out of my mind!"  He tells Cornelius that Cornelius's theory was wrong, as Anglesey said before, that he is not afraid to go to the surface of Jupiter.  Then Cornelius realizes that he is listening to Anglesey's mind in Joe's body, and that Joe isn't taking over at all.  Anglesey realizes this too, and kicks Cornelius out of his mind.

The Conclusion
Back in the research lab, Cornelius discusses what happened.  Edward Anglesey's body is in the sick bay dying, and the scientists are worried that this spells the end of their research project.  How can they continue asking esmen to explore planets using esprojectors if it kills them?  Cornelius reassures them that this is just the beginning.  Edward Anglesey will have died in only one facet - his body.  His mind continues to live in a new body, Joe.  He points out that they now will have an unlimited amount of esmen - hopeless cripples and the elderly will jump at the chance to have another lifetime in a new, strong body.

This explains what was happening with the malfunctioning esprojector.  It wasn't burning out due to the conflict of Anglesey not wanting to enter Joe's body to go to Jupiter.  It was burning out due to Anglesey not wanting to leave Jupiter and leave Joe's body.

The doctor attending to Edward Anglesey emphasizes this at the end of the story by saying, "Odd.  I've seen these cases before.  People who simply resign from life.  This is the first one I ever saw that went out smiling - smiling all the time."

What it all means
I don't want to tell you what you should think of a story or its definitive meaning.  But here are some of the deeper thoughts I think Poul Anderson is getting at with this story:

  1.  We are naturally afraid of things that are different, and often think those things are dangerous.  The scientists in the story thought that Joe was trying to "take over" Edward, so Joe was the "enemy" in the story, to an extent.  Joe's body looked extremely different from a human body.  Those who look different from us must be bad.  But Joe wasn't the enemy at all, just a different looking body.
  2.  Our essence is our mind/soul, not our body.  Joe didn't exist as an mind/entity, just as a body.  Edward was still Edward, both in the Anglesey body and the Joe body.  I can't help but connect this to the hot topic of gender transitioning.  Is not the person's mind/essence the same whether the body they are in is male, female, or no clear gender at all?
  3. The afterlife, life after these bodies we call human bodies die, is wherever our mind goes next.  Every religion has its own idea - a heaven with bodies, a heaven without bodies, or entering a new body on Earth.  Who knows?  But one thing is certain - you're not taking the current body you're in with you.
The Avatar note
You can't hardly talk about "Call Me Joe" without mentioning the obvious connection to the movie Avatar.  Clearly, there is a conceptual similarity: a crippled man's mind controls a new, alien body via technology.  The alien bodies in both stories are even blue!  After that, the stories are very different.  Completely different, really.  Did James Cameron get the alien body control idea from "Call Me Joe?"  It seems unlikely that it's a coincidence since "Call Me Joe" is a fairly well known and often anthologized science fiction story.  Is credit owed to Poul Anderson?  Legally?  Ethically?  Morally?  I don't know.

Fun bonus!
If you're really into classic science fiction, here's a radio play version of "Call Me Joe."  


  1. I read this story back in the 1970s. I like Anderson's idea that the pseudojovian brain must be a human brain, built up using Jovian biochemistry. I find it intriguing that science fiction writers such as Anderson with backgrounds in physical science found it so easy to imagine futuristic methods for artificial accelerated evolution. In "Call Me Joe", future scientists are able to start with Jovian spores floating in the clouds and quickly evolve an adanced pseudojovian with a human brain. I've never seen the movie Avatar. For that film, did they offer any explanation for how it was possible for one person to control another body remotely? Anderson just pulled out a magical "psibeam" and got on with his story.

    1. I'd have to watch Avatar again to give an accurate answer, and I didn't bother to see what the Interent could tell me, but as I recall, the movie used an almost identical plot device for control another body remotely. A human climbed into a machine, and their "mind" was sent on some kind of beam into the biological brain of the creature they were controlling. I don't believe the movie used the term "psibeam," but the movie matched up almost identically with how I read it in the story.