The problem with reincarnation in novels – a critique on the fundamentals of a plot device

While the title might be seem provocative, I’m really not out to take anyone on, or belittle the works of genres I very much enjoy myself. I do, however, a have a teeny, tiny quibble that I keep thinking on whenever I stumble upon an interesting story with a reincarnation-device employed.

So, I’ll be discussing two types of reincarnation mechanics, either as a character being reborn, or a character returning to an earlier version of themselves.

To be honest, I’m probably going to later discuss the issues between these kinds of stories as well, but for now let’s stick to reincarnation, shall we?

To begin with, allow me to define what I mean by ‘reincarnation’. It is of course the idea of being ‘reborn,’ so to speak, and is a prevailing idea in asian mysticism and buddhist religion. I’m not an expert on religion, and thus can only present the topic in layman-terms, I’m afraid.

Usually, you go through the wheel of reincarnation, where the weight of your sins and charities are weighed, and the form of your next life is decided. In this way you are just as likely to become an animal, or perhaps even more so, than you are to become a newborn human.

I’m led to believe that there are stories about the buddha going through a 100 cycles of reincarnation as an animal before being born as a human, but I haven’t read them myself. While this all may sound nice and all, the object of Buddhism is actually to escape this cycle of reincarnation and enter the realm of Nirvana, to ascend above mere mortality.

The point is that everyone goes through this process, and you are not supposed to remember your past lives.

I’ve summed it up pretty grossly, so I might have gotten some nuances wrong. This is my understanding at least, and is with this understanding I make my criticism. I repeat, I am not pointing the finger at anyone, but I am trying to dissect a fundamental problem which gives me pause whenever I read this kind of work.

Reincarnation type 1: world jumping

So let’s begin with the first form of reincarnation; that is, the reincarnation into a different world. In these kinds of stories, the protagonist is often someone from Earth who dies in some manner and is reborn in a different world — the keyword being often here. I know there many outliers of this broad definition, but I’m trying to avoid rambling here… Which I’ve probably already failed.

Now, in many cases this ‘world jumping’ is never really explained by the authors, so usually we must simply accept that a plot-wizard did it, and now there are just turtles all the way down.

I honestly don’t mind this use of such a plot device all that much. It is effective, and it allows the reader to understand where the main character is coming from, right from the start.

That being said, the problem is that it assumes the wheel of reincarnation doesn’t care whether you are from one world or the other, and just throws souls around willy-nilly. That might be the case, I mean… I haven’t taken enough metaphysics classes to refute such a claim, but it seem too messy for me, when considering such cosmic grandiosity it must require for the wheel to turn.

Adding to this, in these stories a normal plot point is that these reincarnated protagonists can remember their past lives, and thus have an advantage over the ordinary denizens of their new world, simply because they are conscious from birth.

If one decides to nitpick — and nitpick I most certainly shall — the question that arises here is this: why, then, is this main character so special that they, unlike everyone else, can remember their previous lifes and experiences?

If we accept that reincarnation as the underlying system of cycling souls in these worlds (setting aside the issue of dualism, which is a whole other discussion), through which good is rewarded and bad is punished, then everyone must be go through this system. Therefore, if everyone goes through this system, forgetting their previous lives as they go through the wheel of reincarnation, then someone who can retain their memories through this must be somehow special.

A very good example of a story that avoids this problem is that of Desolate Era, where the mechanics of reincarnation are shown, and the exact mistake that allows the main character to retain his memories are spelled out. (An excellent story, by the way, you should definitely check it out.)

However, in most cases I have read, a ‘natural’ explanation like this is seldom offered. When such an explanation is left out, it begets the question whether the retention of memory is an astronimacally unlikely event — and the MC is just supremely lucky — or if it is such a common even that one should expect retained memories left and right. In the first case, breaks with the law of avarages in return for a quick pay-off to the story, while the latter seems like a poor premise for a story… or is it a very good one?

Sidenote: I’ve recently discovered the webcomic The Descent of the Demonic Master in which the latter premise is actually employed. There are not a lot of chapters, as of yet, so I’m not sure what the author is going to make of it, but I’m interested.

And don’t even get me started on how the developmental stage of an infant cannot possibly contain the complex neurological pattern required for complex thought… Grr…!

Reincarnation type 2: Object Permanence (Yes, that is an infant joke)

Which brings us to the more common device used as an explanation: memory retained through a mystical object.

Here, the most obvious example I can think of is Tales of Demons & Gods, which highlights the general problem. In this case, the protagonist has encountered an object which, at the time of his death, sends him back to his own body when he was just a kid.

The isssue here, because there’s obviously an issue whenever one nitpicks, is that an object once made can be remade. The obvious explain-away is usually that this is a unique object which can never be remade, giving it the affinity of a divine object or the like.

This works, of course, to explain the problem away, but in doing so, you have once again put the events into an extraordinary claim about the world.

And, of course, extraordinary claims demands extraordinary evidence (This bit of wisdom is brought to you by the brilliant mind of Carl Segan). This might possibly be rectified later in these stories, when finally everything is explained, but I highly doubt that many authors feel the need to explain these choices at all.

So, in the end, the question is left open on ‘how the hell does this work?’. The answer, of course, is the magic of the afformentioned plot-wizard, remaking the world such that there are turtles all the way down. Don’t think, don’t consider it too much, just go with it.

And the even deeper question becomes: what happened to the old timeline? Time travelling is always messy, no matter how you cut it, and whatever approach to take to it, you usually end up with some very scary conclusion.

The scariest conclusion I can draw, for instance, is: what happens to the personality of the protagonists younger self? They are essentially being swallowed up by an old man without their consent, meaning the protagonist actually kills him/herself in order to get what they want.

You might say it’s fine, since they are the same person, but are you really the same person you were 7 years ago? What about 15 years ago? What about 50, or a 100 years ago? The body, they say, is renewed every 7 years, so that you never have an organ or limb that is older than this. Then what about the mind?

This is also known as the thought experiment known as ‘the ship of Theusus,’ and it goes like this: A ship leaves Athens to sail the mediterranian. As it moves from destination to destination, small parts of it is lost and replaced. Crew members are replaced as well, so that when the ship finally returns to Athens, seven years later, not a single part of the ship that left now remains.

Is it still the same ship, then?

Ask yourself, whether a protagonist, who has lived a full life, is the same as their younger self. If no, then there can be no other conclusion than the murder of the younger incarnation in preference for the old.

Cruel, huh?

In conclusion

They are convenient plot devices, of course, which there is nothing wrong with at all. Constantly thinking stuff through to its core is a boring exercise when it comes to writing. You reach at point of depth, at which there is no payoff from going any further — whether for yourself or for the reader — and you’re better off just writing about cool stuff.

And yet these issues gets me every time I stumble upon them. I know I should just engage my suspension of disbelief and enjoy the ride, but it nags at me in the back of the head, like a stone in my shoe.

In any case, these were my thoughts. Throw me a comment if you’ve thought something similar, if you disagree, or if there is something I’ve left out of my considerations.

If you’ve read all of this, you’re a very good person. Cheers!

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