Neuroscience In Science Fiction Films by Sharon Packer, M.D. (book review).

I have to confess that I wasn’t quite sure what ‘Neuroscience In Science Fiction Films’ was going to cover. I mean, is it the use of neuroscience or some aspects used within the film.


In the introduction, author Sharon Packer defines it as neuropunk, with an accent on physical aspects and playing with the brain by scientists. Hardly surprising when you consider everyone from Frankenstein to a bevy of mad experimental scientists in the films have done brain, head and body transplants to see if they could do it. I just never saw it as a sub-genre. Through the course of fourteen chapters, Packer does a whistle-stop but intense tour of SF and horror films to present her case. Along the way, she also includes a lot of historical reference to American history at the time to put things into context. If there is a flaw in all of this, then it’s the extensive film plot detail than the reasons why they are included, although I see nothing wrong with her choices. If anything, this book does illustrate just how popular playing with the brain in our genre is over the decades, although I doubt if anyone before has considered this as ‘neuropunk’. A common problem with books of this type is there are no contrary or bad examples as a contrast to show where they went wrong, even in a modern context where some things are shown not to be possible.

Interestingly, some of the experiments shown, as with implanting monkey gland hormones into humans isn’t without some foundation before it was used in films, although Packer points out it worked better with pig tissue pointing out the original source for insulin for us diabetics until replaced by the ‘human’ insulin we have today. I did wonder why Packer didn’t include bovine insulin which was also around at the time although neither actually implanted animal pancreases into humans.

Of historical note, the legendary trolls comes from a more human source. If there is a low or nonexistent iodine content in the diet, then the off-spring will end up with the troll appearance and, unfortunately, lack of intelligence, as discovered in an Alpine district. Packer’s list of hormone deficiencies and its affects truly reminds you of how much we rely on them being balanced. Saying that, the number of films where brains are kept alive sans a body shouldn’t be taken for granted that they will go mad or homicidal. I wish Packer had explored this more. After all, sensory deprivation and such must surely have had a similar effect.

Packer does touch on ‘Videodrome’ (1983) and the paranoia of the time that TV can manipulate your mind. She should have seen me in a diabetic white-out phase thinking I could do miracles with the TV remote. With televisions being a portal to elsewhere, it can hardly be surprising people used to think it was capable of all sorts of things. Oddly, our access to the Internet is capable of more and yet people don’t have a similar fear.

There is some discussion about mind manipulation in the manner of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (1962), although I wish she’s explored more about how viable such things are in real life and whether films are mirroring true reality and how accurately. Saying that, the result of ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest’ (1975), stopped certain medical practices in the USA.

The observations of immersion in computer games to films neglects the problems of adaptation as so many are based on shoot ‘em ups which tend to have superficial plots compared to that needed in a film. I do think there is a need to explore whether gamers prefer to play or watch their games, which is basically the equivalent of playing or being a spectator. I can understand how the later might be used if you want to watch a star gamer in action but I doubt if you’d want to watch them all the time rather than attempt to beat them. From my perspective, I prefer to play although I have seen a couple films that I haven’t played.

There is a brief chapter looking at SF books. Philip K. Dick is probably the only SF writer to admit to regularly taking drugs and therefore its depiction in his stories. I did have a ponder on drugs in other books and their adaptations. Although she touches on ‘Dune’s ‘spice’, she should have picked up on its proper name ‘melange’ because it was used in the film and TV series. Outside of recognised drugs from our reality, few SF writers really play with them. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Robert Sheckley with ‘Mindswap’. There’s the longevity boosterspice from Larry Niven’s ‘Known Space’ books and certainly the addictive electrical stimulation as a ‘wirehead’ Louis Wu was experiencing at the beginning of ‘The Ringworld Engineers’ which would certainly have come under her remit. There is also stroon immortality drug from Cordwainer Smith’s ‘Instrumentality Of Mankind’ reality. Both should have given Packer some thought about brain activity with prolonged life and why it is most used. For organ transplant for extended life, she should have explored Norman Spinrad’s ‘Bug Jack Barron’ and certainly Robert Heinlein’s ‘I Will Fear No Evil’, which explored both brain transplants and into different sexed bodies.

Occasionally, Packer will refer to TV shows or even comicbooks before apologising and moving on. It’s hardly like there are many shows or comics that rely on brain alternation. It’s a shame she missed out on Jimmy Olsen # 86-87 where after an accident, Superman’s pal, with the Man of Steel’s approval, is given brain surgery by Brainiac but really has a computer put in his noggin instead that masquerades as the reporter.


I would also have been interested in her thoughts as to whether high intellect really does result in levels of insanity as well, let alone the desire for world conquest as so much of our media depicts.

There is the odd mistake. Frank Miller was involved with the second and third films of ‘Robocop’ but the original film wasn’t based on any graphic novel he’d done. Certainly, the ‘tech’ looking after the sleeping crew of the Prometheus (from the film of the same name) would have upset by Packer’s description as he was the artificial person David with a higher standing than a ‘tech’. Equally, it’s a tad confusing when Packer connects films by actors, like with Louise Fletcher from ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest’ to ‘Brainstorm’ (1983) as if it was more than an accident in casting. Packer loves the ‘Iron Man’ films but doesn’t know that JARVIS is more a link to the Avengers’ butler Edwin Jarvis in the comicbooks than Robert Jarvick who invented the artificial heart,

Likewise, Packer does get wrong that we saw an edited version of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971) in the UK. We didn’t although Kubrick did remove from world-wide viewing because he didn’t want anyone to copy any of the scenes in it after one real-life incident. Some of these errors are things she could easily have picked up on with little research.

I did have a thought about any films that Packer might have considered ‘The Mind Benders’ (1963) and how manipulative the brain is after being in an isolation tank. As she concludes, there will always be SF films about the brain and how it’s affected coming out. Unlike the picture on the cover, there were no aliens in this book.

Now we come to an interesting problem: Am I convinced that neuroscience should be classed as a category in Science Fiction? I do think Packer should have explored more than films. In whatever the medium, I doubt if scriptwriter, director or fiction writer has wrote their stories with neuroscience in mind and it’s just a consequence of the plot. Think of that when you look at the likes of cyberpunk or steampunk where authors wrote with that sub-genre in mind. I do think it would make sense for Packer to follow up this book with a primer in all things needed if you really want to make a neuroscience based novel or film and point out things to use or avoid to complete her argument. Whether she can convince you, then you’ll have to read this book for yourself.

GF Willmetts

December 2015

(pub: McFarland, 2014. 287 page illustrated indexed large enlarged paperback. Price: £36.95 (UK), $39.95 (US). ISBN: 978-0-78647-234-5)

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