Sleep No More, The Innocent Sleep, and the Death of Personality
*This essay contains moderate spoilers for the first sixteen October Daye books, major spoilers for SLEEP NO MORE and THE INNOCENT SLEEP, and minor spoilers for Babylon 5 (S3 E4 "Passing Through Gethsemane").
When reading SLEEP NO MORE and THE INNOCENT SLEEP by Seanan McGuire (the newest October Daye books), I was struck by similarities in the ethical framework of these two books and certain aspects of the 1990's sci-fi show Babylon 5, particularly the way that changes in personality or memories are treated with relation to assumptions of personhood. I am certain* that Seanan McGuire is also very familiar with Babylon 5 because one of her telepathic characters in the Incryptid series uses specific aspects of Babylon 5 as a framework for ethical telepathy.
*Seanan has since clarified "Amusingly, I have never seen BABYLON 5. Everything I know about the show comes from filk songs."
THE DEATH OF PERSONALITY IN BABYLON 5
In Babylon 5, set in the late 2250's and early 2260's at a time when capital punishment is not in use by EarthGov, some criminals are sentenced to "the death of personality". In this punishment, a telepath takes the mind of the condemned and strips everything away, reworking and rebuilding them until a completely different person inhabits the body. They have killed the previous personality by overwriting them with a new one (hence the name). Whether this stays shy of murder is something the show grapples with on several occasions. There are two parts to this: did someone die, and was that death a murder? I tend to use the definition that murder is killing which is not sanctioned by the relevant ethical/moral framework. When the life of a body is ended, there’s often little debate over whether a death has occurred, but room for much ambiguity over whether that death was murder. In the case of the death of personality, there’s also room for debate over whether anyone died at all.
Outside of this punishment, there are several other instances where someone's personality is manipulated or rewritten against their will. It is, stripped of context, often thought to be kinder than murder of the body as well as the mind. However, by its very nature, if it's successful then the prior person is gone, utterly and completely. In at least one instance where the previous person could be partially recalled, the results were horrifying in their own way. The episode “Passing Through Gethsemane” involves a monk who begins having horrible dreams of death, and is threatened with violence in his waking hours. Towards the end of the episode, he is kidnapped and tortured. At this point it’s revealed that his previous personality was that of a serial killer, and his kidnappers are relatives of the victims. He dies (mentally and physically) as a result of his injuries, and his kidnappers/torturers are sentenced for his murder. The end of the episode shows the lead kidnapper after undergoing the death of personality himself. The new person is being sent far away, to live a life of service far from those who were harmed by the previous personality. It sets up a kind of horror in the final moments of the episode, as the circumstances which lead to the other monk’s torture seem to be now set up to potentially repeat. In the greater context of the show, it reinforces the concept that personalities can be changed or overwritten, but that each personality is treated as a new entity with their own moral history and responsibility.
The key for me is that the loss of a previous personality is recognized, specifically, as a death in terms of punishment but not necessarily in terms of the law and the conscience of the telepath/executioner. There’s some ambiguity in the way that the new personality is sentenced to a life of service for something they didn’t do, rather than a judicial model focused on punishment long after the crime. Those who want to believe the person was punished can (hopefully) rest easy that the personality who committed some terrible crime is gone forever. Those who want to say that the executioners didn't actually kill anyone can point to the body who walks away to live a new life in a new place, with (hopefully) nothing to trigger the old memories. It allows for a social and legal fiction existing in a delicate balance, a kind of Schrödinger's murder where everyone has agreed not to look too closely at the same moment.
One of the basic ideas shared by Babylon 5 and the October Daye series is that new experiences require some sort of processing and reaction, and that if the same person had different pivotal memories they would have formed differently. A person who has a traumatic experience with being submerged in water might (quite reasonably) have a fear of water which impacts their life. If that hadn't happened to them they may have turned out differently. Projective telepathy or similar mind manipulations (like a massive illusion) might not change the actual past, but they can change what someone remembers about their own history, including whether they have a phobia, or who they consider to be family. Adding or removing memories is understood to be a way to change someone's personality, reaching back through their personal timeline to see what a version of them with a different history might have become. As a sci-fi show, Babylon 5 has a mix of complete personality rewrites and precise manipulations of memories.
An unspoken assumption is that there are kinds of knowledge and experience which demand either changes in action or stagnation and cognitive dissonance to avoid these changes once they’re part of someone’s memories. Things can happen which make it impossible for someone to behave as they did before. To do otherwise is to ignore those experiences and refuse to change, but even repeated avoidance of change will eventually become its own transformation in personality, shaped by a broad arc of stubborn calcification rather than a series of pivotal moments.
The third idea which is explored in Babylon 5 and taken seriously in October Daye is that telepathically constructed or magically generated personalities are no more or less real than any other kind. I use the language of “constructed” and “default” to distinguish between the personalities resulting from Titania’s illusion, and the ones which were present before her interference.
- Toby - Nickname for Sir October Daye, titular character of the series, changeling (fae mother, human father)
- October - Toby’s current personality in SLEEP NO MORE and THE INNOCENT SLEEP, remembers a different history from Toby of the first sixteen books
- Tybalt - Cait Sidhe (cat fae), Toby’s husband (October doesn’t remember him)
- Amandine - October’s mother
- Simon Torquill - Daoine Sidhe, Amandine’s husband, October’s father (not by blood)
- Titania - One of the queens of Faerie, cast the illusion which created October from Toby and distorted many people’s memories
- Quentin - Daoine Sidhe, Toby’s squire in the previous books, currently squire to someone else
- August - October’s sister, daughter of Amandine and Simon
- Stacy - Toby’s friend from childhood, recently removed by Titania
SLEEP NO MORE follows October, daughter of Amandine, daughter (but not by blood) of Simon Torquill, and sister of August. She is a changeling daughter (of fae and human parentage), born under Titiania’s Law which demands that each household provide the realm with changelings to be servants for their whole lives, denied the protections that any full fae would enjoy. She is sent out of the Summerlands for the first time when a fae requests a visit from someone of her house, and her father and uncle determine that she would be the best candidate. Once there, she is informed by a girl in a magically-locked box that the world she knows is an illusion, and everyone she knows is under a complex spell which has transformed them from the people they were before. She’s able to confirm that the spell is real and break it on some people (with their permission), then is swept off on a quest to undo Titania’s spell on everyone. However, because of the way that her current personality is the effect of Titania meddling with her memories and inclinations, it’s likely that she will be overwritten if the previous personality, Toby, is restored when Titania’s spell is broken. The spell can be broken for everyone if the planned Ride is stopped. If Titania is allowed to proceed with her plans for the Ride, this altered version of reality will be stabilized and likely spread to affect all of Faerie, rather than currently being limited to a large portion of the West Coast of the United States.
THE INNOCENT SLEEP follows Tybalt, newly the husband of Toby, right after she told him some very important news. This was immediately followed by Titania, Queen of Faerie, arriving and casting a spell which ripped him away from Toby and placed him in a densely-packed version of the Court of Cats where most of the inhabitants couldn’t ever remember leaving. He was able to determine the general shape of what Titania had wrought, with the help of friends and allies, but is forced to wait several months before he could try and get October to break Titania's illusion through disrupting the Ride. Eventually, that process could begin, and he worked mostly behind the scenes to arrange things so October had the best chance possible of saving them all.
TOBY VS. OCTOBER
The October of SLEEP NO MORE does not remember the life lived by Toby of the first sixteen books. Toby was newly the wife of Tybalt, longtime hero of the realm, and a magnet for found family in the unlikeliest of places. October, instead, has the love of her small family and has never gone out on her own. She is sometimes bullied by Quentin, a squire in Shadowed Hills, and beloved of the Hobbs in that Knowe's kitchens. She's convinced of the glory of Titania, the rightness of her lowly station as befits a changeling, and has spent no appreciable amount of time in the mortal world. She is who Toby could have been with fewer sources of love and a very different upbringing. October is a distinct person, someone who has a lot in common with Toby without being quite the same as she was in any of the known bits of her history. Toby has a sense of family so inclusive and fervent that at times it seems like she’s bent on filling her house with every teenager in Faerie, regardless of whether they have another home to go to. October’s sense of family is no less intense, but is narrowly focused on the few people she’s been allowed to have in her life, particularly her sister, August.
WHY TITANIA DOESN'T THINK THIS IS HARM
Just as someone sentenced to the "death of personality" in Babylon 5 can be simultaneously understood to be removed from society while also not having technically died, Titania's ensorcellment of Sir Toby Daye into October (of no title and no claim to any father's name) uses this in-between nature of transformation to claim that no harm has been done. She fully intends for October to either never recover as Toby, or at the very least to only do so after someone close to her has been taken on the Ride and is gone forever. Titania operates as though even death (if it happens by indirect means and/or far away from her sight) isn't her fault. This is the fig leaf that keeps her compliant with Oberon’s Law which forbids the fae from killing each other (except during war), an injunction that those who intend harm have long tried to dodge. This isn't the first time she's tried to arrange things so that bad things happen in ways where she can deny culpability, it's not even the only example in these two books. In THE INNOCENT SLEEP, the full horror of her attempts to dodge murder via neglect unto death are manifest in the plight of the Cait Sidhe trapped in the Court of Cats. Only the Royal cats are able to access the Shadows. The rest of the Cait Sidhe and even the mostly-mortal cats with even a drop of fae blood have been locked away. They're unable to hunt, utterly dependent on those few who can still get out to bring them sustenance and deal with sanitation issues. The hard work of the Royal cats is all that keeps them from facing a slow death in the dark, while everyone outside thinks they are a century gone. To Titania, this fit the letter of the law while still inflicting maximum cruelty to those she despised.
WHY OCTOBER WANTS TO REMAIN
Throughout SLEEP NO MORE, October learns more and more of the strange life other people insist she led as Toby, a life which involves marriage to a cat man and a disturbing amount of familiarity with purebloods and Firstborn. She believes her nature as a changeling rightfully excludes her from most opportunities and from any modicum of respect from her betters, and is continually disturbed by interacting with monarchs who address her by name, or who don't see her as just another pair of hands for household chores. October doesn't want to lose the time she had with August. While others tell her she had the love of more people as Toby, she thinks they're asking her to give up her sister in any way that matters. She can't know for sure that they're not lying, and, even if they're telling the truth, she knows the shape of what she's afraid to lose far better than what she can imagine she might gain. As it is set up, one of the personalities who has been contained in the body of October Daye is going to be overwritten. Even though they strive to get October's consent, it's hard not to see it as Toby erasing October. Toby can hold as real memories the months she was ensorcelled, with the love October has for her father and sister, but the situation isn't presented as if there's an option for them to coexist. Toby gets back her friends, husband, and assortment of quasi-adopted teens, and whatever remains of October is ensured that someone in her body will still love August.
THE RIDE AND TITANIA’S ALTERATIONS
The Ride involves providing a sacrifice to the Heart of Faerie, a person who has had seven years of being pampered and given everything they desire. Titania’s altered versions of Simon and Quentin have memories of seven years of happiness, even though they only live this way for a few months between when Titiania’s grand illusion is cast and when the Ride will take place. Simon’s happiness takes the form of living with his wife and daughters in the tower, working for his lady, and generally being surrounded by family in a way that the default version of Simon was denied for a very long time. Quentin’s side of things is given much less attention, but it seems like his existence as a pampered and imperious noble who is free to be a bully must be a kind of pleasure. His prejudices haven’t been challenged in the ways that Toby challenged the default Quentin, and this version is rude, entitled, and racist against changelings and whatever other groups Titania doesn’t like. The fact that Titania’s Law demands noble houses create changelings purely to exist as servants means that rather than merely not having much exposure to changelings, this Quentin is surrounded by changelings whose reason to exist is to serve him and the rest of the Court. Previously, service was often the best position a changeling could get, depending on the mix of prejudices in the local Court (though the efforts of Toby and others were generating real changes on that front). In Titania’s world, all that progress is erased, and bullies like altered Quentin are free to torment changelings like October.
TITANIA'S TRAP ON THE RIDE
Titania did a clever thing when she selected both Simon and Quentin as sacrifices for the Ride. To October, Simon is her beloved father, and Quentin is a bully and tormenter, lashing out at her whenever he pleases for merely being a changeling. To Toby, Simon is the man who ruined her life by transforming her into a fish for fourteen years. October, with a very different perspective on Faerie history, is able to understand transformation as an attempt to be kinder than murder. She accepts her existence as an attempt to be kind to Toby, even though that kindness seems to only allow for one of the two of them to exist. Their opposite opinions on Simon and Quentin mean that if October is the one sent to try and break the Ride, she has no reason to rescue Quentin, but if Toby has been restored and tries to break the Ride, there's an implication that Titania thinks she would neglect Simon. The actual resolution is that they win through the power of friendship - aka having so many people who love both of the characters in peril that there are enough hands to hold them tight and rescue them from the Ride. Toby (with her previous memories restored) has to choose between her squire and her father, but it's a choice made easier by knowing that other people are there to take up the slack. She still has to pick, but it doesn't automatically doom whomever she doesn't choose.
ETHICAL PARADOXES - PERHAPS UNSOLVABLE
One of the hard ethical and emotional issues throughout this book is that October doesn't know whether those who say the world was different until recently are delusional, or if she's one of the ones who have been deceived. A reader who has experienced any of the first sixteen books in the series knows the answer, but October doesn't, she literally can't. There's a hard problem here of identity, of trying to take seriously whether October as the current personality has a right to stay, or whether she has to give way to Sir Toby Daye.
Because Toby, now October, is the main character, her perspective is the one in which we are most interested. This means that in terms of the narrative structure, there are hurdles to be overcome with regards to consent, whether it's possible for consent to be informed in such a strange case, and why October eventually accepts having the spell lifted. One of the things that helps her believe that breaking the illusions will restore some more desirable, or more correct state of being for those affected, is the fact that October can see the threads of magic binding herself and others, even though she cannot break it on herself. However, some comments from the Luidhaeg make it clear that the default world isn't wholly better, it's just not the pointedly racist and xenophobic vision of a Faerie Queen who has spent her whole existence bent on destroying everyone she deems inferior.
There is a very real sense in which October cannot get back her memories, but that she really would be supplanted by Toby if the spell is broken. This is where the parallels to the death of personality as a punishment in Babylon 5 struck me the most. There is an awareness and a basic ethical framework that is accepted by most of the characters that even though they want to have Toby back, they understand that October will lose. Not coincidentally, the character who is least able to be gentle towards October when she wears the face of his wife and friend is Tybalt. Tybalt and Toby have been through much together, and he loves her deeply. He's distraught when she's magically ripped from him, moments after relaying news that's as exciting as it is terrifying. Only the conviction that October would feel kidnapped instead of rescued stops him from collecting her as soon as she is located. To him, the death of personality is not some future hypothetical, it has already happened. There's a small but significant moment part way through the book where October takes a bath and fully immerses her face in water, with no fear or distress. Coming after sixteen books which all take the time to remind the reader in small or large ways that Toby has a fear of water so pervasive that she has distress when taking actions as mundane as bathing, it’s a shocking moment for the reader, driving home the fact that October is a different person than Toby. They do not have the same history and fears, or even friends and family. October carries no memory of fourteen years spent involuntarily as a fish or the existence of Tybalt. She also fully views Simon as her father, rather than a specter of terror. For Toby, he was distant, then ruined her life, and it's only recently that through much struggle they're beginning to heal and get to know each other better.
This also lends itself to a situation where October's consent to give way to Toby is treated as essential but not every character is given the same choice. There's at least one character who is tactically denied this knowledge for October's strategic gain. October is cautioned not to lift the spell from her mother, Amandine, someone who is currently dismissive of her and would become hostile if she remembered that Toby took Simon's side in the divorce, leaving Amandine alone in the tower. While at the stage where she is asking people individually whether they would like the spell lifted, October gets consent one by one, but still is trepidatious of having the same done to herself. Some of this is because she witnesses how painful the process is, but much of it is due to an understanding that if she gets back the memories that are essential to Toby she will stop being October.
In the end, October gives up her existence for the sake of all Faerie, reintegrating into Toby and merging both sets of memories. What doesn't seem to be considered as an option is any solution where both Toby and October can coexist, at least thus far. I don't know for certain whether that will hold true in the long run, but it appears to be the case that Toby is moving forward as mostly herself with bits of October left as memories. October's sacrifice places her in a long line of characters who have died in the series to save someone else. Very recently, Toby was unable to save her childhood friend, Stacy, when Titania came to the surface of Stacy's mind and tried to massacre her family. Stacy, while still lucid, was able to say that she wanted them to stop Titania even if doing so killed her. This time, however, October had to make the choice for many people who there wasn't a way to ask in time. Breaking Titania's spell as a whole left hundreds of people with memories of a different personality, sometimes even one who held views they currently find abhorrent. It's a massive trauma, one which is specifically stated to have huge negative repercussions almost immediately. Simon was made to live with his ex-wife, cut off from his current spouses, and at the very least having memories of consenting to acts which are traumatic and disturbing. This is particularly traumatic to Simon because of the way his consent and autonomy have been trampled and disregarded over and over by Firstborn and their lackeys. As for Quentin, he was transformed into someone who detested changelings and was cruel to October in particular. It's specifically stated that months after his former personality is restored, he still has nightmares. Titania put them in a position where they had to choose between destroying the personalities she imposed, or leaving the previous personalities dead.
I don't know whether future books will show that some of the constructed personalities were able to stay. Those who opposed Titania had a choice between living in a world of distress where anyone diverging from Titania's vision of an ideal Faerie is either miserable or dead, or they could restore a world which, while not perfect, has different solutions for many problems, even if that meant their deaths to make way for other personalities. It’s specifically shown that for a particular pair of characters, Titania’s world was better for them in some crucial ways, even as they recognized that it harmed many other people. Part of what I find interesting is that they found meaning in fighting against Titania’s oppression, and I hope that when they appear in later books they will weigh in on what they think of their alters’ choices. They choose to help restore that world, partly because they know the illusionary world of Titania's will is built, specifically, around maintaining inequalities and causing pain, while the previous world gives them room to try for something better.
A MASSACRE OF MINDS
A strong aspect of the characterization in SLEEP NO MORE and THE INNOCENT SLEEP is that the constructed personalities are treated as full persons - no greater or lesser than the default personalities. While they end up dying to make way for restoring a (hopefully) better world, there’s an understanding of sacrifice and loss in the ending of their existences. Just as in Babylon 5, those lives and deaths have narrative weight and real consequences. There are hints already that repercussions and trauma will linger for the restored personalities (such as Quentin's nightmares), and I'm looking forward to how these distortions and deaths are treated in the series going forward. No matter what happens, it's clear that almost no one will be who they were before the change and reversion.