In the story, a scientist invented a machine that detected "internal consciousness" in people. He tested it with a drug that left someone apparently awake but who would have no memory of anything that happened while the drug was active (I know, this isn't a particularly good way to decide that the machine detects consciousness!). A large fraction of people are not conscious according to this device (even when not having taken the drug), leading to abuse, isolation and killings of the "unconscious" (thus soulless, empty) people.

The scientist rescues a young redheaded boy from a mob, and sometime later announces that his device is wrong. He is widely hated, and retreats from society (but somehow avoids being killed or imprisoned). He adopts the boy, and either gets married, or returns to his wife.

At the end of the story, we learn that he faked the proof that his machine was wrong - he still believes his son and his wife are not real, conscious people, but he plans to go to his death with that secret.

  • Were there 3 states? Not conscious, conscious but no empathy (sociopaths), and conscious and empathetic? Did it frame consciousness in terms of one's internal monologue? It seems to me that story was by Robert J. Sawyer, but I can't remember which.
    – DavidW
    Apr 1 at 23:50
  • Oh, I was thinking of Quantum Night (2016), which is both too late for your timeframe and not serialized in Analog.
    – DavidW
    Apr 1 at 23:56
  • 1
    I understand why you'd think so, but definitely a short story. Internal monologue sounds right, though - that might be a term used in the story. I'd remember if it was Sawyer, anyway. Zahn had a story with some similarity to the one I'm looking for - back in the 1980s - so not my story either
    – Andrew
    Apr 2 at 0:01
  • 2
    There's always Ginger hate in stories nowadays - the final ism
    – Danny Mc G
    Apr 2 at 4:45
  • 1
    @Andrew - It's not an especially original idea. Plato already had this one
    – Valorum
    Apr 2 at 22:00

1 Answer 1


This is "Descartes's Stepchildren" by Robert Scherrer which appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, January-February 2013.

Here is a story summary from Variety SF:

A neurologist has discovered experimentally that neurons in a specific region of the human brain are active whenever person's own identity is involved in a thought (e.g., when you're looking at a mirror). Then he discovers that there are some people, about 20% of population, for which it doesn't happen.

And then there is a drug that can make the region not light up even in people in which it normally lights up. And when the region doesn't light up, the same person has a very different personality - cold, calculating, unconscious.

So he generalizes that some people are conscious, while others lack the biological infrastructure to be conscious. And a simple test can be devised that can be administered by any trained doctor to determine if an individual has this facility.

Story explores the social implications of this knowledge.

There is also a footnote referencing "Divining Light" by Ted Kosmatka as a story that explores a similar theme. This story was mentioned in the comments above.

  • 1
    So, it's not detecting consciousness but conscientiousness. An interesting twist.
    – Valorum
    Apr 9 at 7:33
  • A misspelling by the story summary writer I overlooked. I have corrected it. Apr 9 at 8:17
  • Thank you! That's it
    – Andrew
    Apr 9 at 10:58

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