Placeholder, SPQS Universe

Psychoanalysis of Konrad Schreiber

Konrad Schreiber is an incredibly complex character, hence why it took me so long to create him. That being said, certain aspects of him were obvious to me from the very beginning: I knew he would have to be a quantum programmer, I knew he would have to become a killer, and I knew he would have to be a schizophrenic. Everything else evolved over time.

Somewhere along the way, I decided it would be better if he didn’t simply snap out of nowhere from a single trauma and become a schizophrenic overnight—sure, there are a few legitimate cases of paranoid schizophrenia which were trauma-induced, but normally trauma-spectrum disorders are separate from schizophrenia-spectrum disorders—so I thought, what if he developed it along the way, and it was simply exacerbated by a traumatic event?

I started doing some digging on schizophrenia-spectrum disorders, and made some interesting discoveries. If you have an appreciation for psychology, I think you’ll enjoy what I found and how I implemented it into his character.


(Spoiler Alert! The rest of this post discusses technical details of Placeholder’s plot and primary characters.)

Konrad Schreiber’s psychological state before Operation Storm Cloud:

These days, if you have an indicator of poor health or mental illness, you don’t stand a chance of getting into the military or a space agency. In the SPQS Universe, it’s the same, only much stricter—if you have even the slightest whiff of abnormality about you, your gene pool will be carefully bred out. And even though the SPQS is a social climate of total observation, everyone who’s taken first year psychology knows that most mental illnesses (the way we currently classify them) don’t show up until late adolescence and early adulthood. Now, the SPQS starts the recruitment process for the Armed Forces as early as they can, at twelve years of age—as far as IQs and aptitudes and personalities are concerned, everything you need to know about an individual has already developed by that age. Whatever they may experience later in life, whatever they may turn into as adults, it will most likely be an extension of the person they decided they wanted to become then (the funny thing is that most people don’t realize that their so-called talents and natural abilities are usually a product of conscious choice; they decided that something interested them, and applied themselves to it enough to find some pride or personal satisfaction from doing it—alternatively, some people are fine with and gain enough personal satisfaction from applied disciplines that their parents forced them into as children, but that’s rarer… most people, even as children, are determined to find their own way through life).

So that’s fine—the SPQS organizes society into a rigid class system based on individual potential, insofar as that individual potential is useful to them: there are civilians and the armed forces. Basically, anybody of real use is automatically recruited for training in the SFAF, but there’s a class-system within the SFAF too—it pretends to be a meritocracy, and on very rare occasion a big spectacle is made out of ‘exceptional individuals’ from ‘humble backgrounds’ for the purpose of propaganda, but normally, you’re stuck in the rank class you’re first assigned to. This is especially true for the civilian class.

Civilians are basically treated as peasants. Right from the outset, they are denied an education beyond elementary school—they are sent to a trade-school instead of high-school, but their courses are short and entirely applied. They are allowed to engage in small business ventures when it doesn’t interfere with their state-appointed job after trade-school, but the economy of the SPQS is ultimately transnationalist; private business ventures are kept small and uncompetitive, corporations don’t exist, and no individual civilian actually owns their own property. The civilian governments are limited to the production and distribution of goods under the auspices of some figurehead that represents the national identity—but they have no real control, no real political value. But they do feed the people, so obviously they have a valid economic value.

The military seems more fair at the outset. Most recruits will enlist as Privates and have the potential to work up to Chief Petty Officers if they have the ability and skill to handle such a task. Some recruits may qualify for an instant promotion if they do well enough in Basic, and show a finesse for military protocol and leadership (inasmuch as leadership means obeying orders without question and convincing a group of people who have a lot more to lose than you do that the orders are worth following, even when obviously dangerous). Those who qualify for Officer candidacy have other perks. They get to go to university, but get a much better education at the military Academies (the SPQS’ equivalent of high-school) to begin with, better than the Enlisted ranks, anyway. So that means the entire intelligentsia of the human population is entirely contained within the SFAF, and all knowledge taught by the universities is classified material—in other words, even as an Officer, you only have the right to know what you need to know for your assigned role in the Armed Forces.

The Officer class is further divided into Junior and Senior (or Commanding) Officers. Being promoted from Junior to Senior Officer is much more common than other promotions within the SFAF. Basically, nobody is initially assigned to be a Senior Officer; if the SFAF thinks you have the potential, they will make you a Lieutenant first and see how you fare with a bit of power. If you abuse it or let it get to your head, well then that’s as far as you can go. You’ll never get any real power because you can’t handle it (according to their standards).

There are then the Fleet Officers, the Admiralty. The Officers are led to believe that you have to prove yourself as a Senior Officer to be promoted to the Admiralty (as it is now), but in actuality the Admiralty is chosen on political grounds and usually are directly recruited from the universities. They may be given a few initial assignments, to infiltrate the Junior Officer ranks to get field-ready, but they are already far higher up the social ladder than Officers. They are also the real politicians. Most of the Admiralty operates out of SOLCOM HQ, which is located in Antarctica.

And then there’s Ordo A.R.S. To be initiated into the Ordo, you have to become a General. They do recruit from amongst the Senior Officers, but they usually have their candidates in mind from a very early age. The only reason they wait in the shadows, watching, is to test their candidates to see if they live up to their exceptional potential. For example, it’s suggested in Placeholder that Konrad Schreiber may have been a candidate for Ordo A.R.S., but he did something in grad school that made the Ordo change their minds and put him on Operation Storm Cloud instead. He doesn’t know this—he thinks that it was his little stunt, aka ‘the Alpha Centauri’ incident, that cost him his promotion and his future, but in actuality it was something much earlier, a trivial little thing that he just glossed over in his autobiography. But to the Ordo it wasn’t trivial. It was enough for them to write him off completely and stick him on a suicide mission. Go ahead and try to find it. 😉

So then, Konrad Schreiber was obviously sane and healthy enough to pass all the way to Officer Cadet without raising any flags; as with all Officer Cadets, he was trained as an astronaut too, which means he also passed the psychological assessments that approved him for duty in confined spaces and extreme environments for extended periods of time. He was, so far as SOLCOM was able to determine, completely fit for duty as an Officer, posing no risk to the command structure or to the success of the mission. His personality was also compatible with the rest of the crew of the SFS Fulgora, so there was no reason to assume that he, or any of the other crew, would endanger the mission. And yet, he wound up killing them all and hijacking the ship, so obviously SOLCOM missed something.


Konrad Schreiber’s first diagnosis:

After the so-called Alpha Centauri incident, where Konrad got a little too excited by the power of the MRD and programmed a REZSEQ that he thought would bring the ship into a distant orbit around the Andromeda Galaxy, SOLCOM had him carefully reassessed by the onboard physician and psychologist, his friend Dr Hannah Kaplan.

You might want to stop me here and say, “What the hell? Hannah and Konrad weren’t friends, he hated her.” Sure, you may be right when you’re talking about the time-frame of the narrative. He’s writing his journal entries retrospectively, since he felt unable to write down his true thoughts and feelings about the early years of the mission when the SFS Fulgora still had its crew (even when his thoughts and feelings were innocent enough to be ignored). But you’ll notice that he often depicts Hannah in a variety of ways. Sometimes he talks about her quite fondly, sometimes objectively as if she’s just an object and not a person, and sometimes he presents her as the bane of his life. The fact is, from an objective third person perspective presented simultaneously with the events being depicted and not as retrospect, Konrad was quite fond of Hannah in the beginning, slowly began to dislike her, and then was hit by a sudden and unforgivable betrayal—and I shouldn’t have to point this out, but I will anyway for the sake of completeness, you can’t be betrayed by someone you don’t trust, don’t like, don’t care about and consider a close friend. You can really only be betrayed to the degree that Konrad felt betrayed by your closest friends and confidants.

Now, as the ship’s medical officer, Hannah was in a unique position of trust. But it wasn’t always that way. Hannah and Konrad came through the selection process for Operation Storm Cloud together (unlike the Captain, his wife, and Major Jeanville, who were pre-selected specifically for the mission and also an integral part of the mission planning and selection process), so initially they were on equal footing. He even mentions in his journal how much she stood out to him right from the get-go, and they clicked instantly. He even quotes some of their conversations from memory, and by his voice you can tell he got on really well with her in the beginning—they even had their own little inside jokes and ongoing private discussion topics. Had he not specifically contradicted that line of reasoning, you would normally assume that they were also close enough and friendly enough to be sleeping together. You might even say it was suspicious that they weren’t. And the really interesting thing, even once she did get chosen as Chief Medical Officer, and thus became senior in rank to Konrad, she still treated him as an equal and not a subordinate. She showed him favouritism—maybe not overt favouritism, but in the military treating a subordinate as an equal is odd enough.

She was also strangely patient with him, which suggests that she also thought of him as more than just an acquaintance. But in the end, he was unnecessarily cruel to her, which was completely and totally out of place. For what he pulled the last time they took a walk together in the North Gardens, she had every right to be mad at him, spiteful even, but you may be surprised to find that she wasn’t. She was just hurt, but not hurt enough to be cruel.

This is an important point, because it brings us back to her initial diagnosis of him immediately after the Alpha Centauri incident. Now, Konrad pulled a pretty big stunt, hijacking the ship the way he did, convincing a subordinate to obey unauthorized orders, dismissing protocol, etc., etc. SOLCOM was already convinced that he had suffered a major mental breakdown, simply from the way he had behaved towards Hannah in response to a sexual advance; so this further instance of instability merited a full investigation. As far as Konrad was concerned, he was being analyzed by Hannah; but the medical staff at SOLCOM HQ was observing the entire process, giving her suggestions and such, with the intention of coming back together at the end with their final diagnosis. She had to diagnose him with something that explained his sudden change in behaviour and disregard for rules, and couldn’t get away with a simple “it’s just mission stress” or “overexcitement.” Normal emotionally and mentally balanced individuals don’t get panic attacks, major mood swings, or sudden unstoppable compulsions to misbehave. And furthermore, it takes so much effort to fake a mental illness, most people just can’t commit to the task unless they’re desperate.

Now, a really good psychiatrist would pick up on a few of the subtler points of Konrad’s condition. The problem is that a tyrannical society actually encourages behavioural patterns eerily similar to certain symptoms of a few interesting mental illnesses (although theocracies and fundamentalist religions are the worst for that). But even though Hannah was supposed to be a pretty good doctor and psychologist, and had the benefit of working with SOLCOM’s top medical experts, she misdiagnosed him. So you’re forced to assume that she misdiagnosed him on purpose. She was hurt by him, but not spiteful, because she had accurately identified his mental illness—but if she put down his real condition in a report, that would be the end of him. So she came up with an alternate diagnosis, something that wouldn’t guarantee the end of the mission and the end of his life; and she even convinced the Medical Experts at SOLCOM HQ that their assessments were skewed because they were too far removed to see how well he functioned on a day-to-day basis. She convinced them that all he had was a minor case of borderline personality disorder, that was triggered by an unexpected separation anxiety from leaving the Solar system behind.

Now, if you’re reading Konrad’s descriptions of his own experiences, you’ll have a really hard time believing that diagnosis. But without that perspective, you could readily believe it if you ignored the subtle hints floating behind his actions as subtext. But of course, psychology depends on subtleties and nuance of behaviour. So again, a really good psychiatrist would see past what’s presented on the surface, and focus on the subtext, the context of the episodes. They would need to get to the heart of the matter before they came to any conclusion. But an academically strong psychiatrist does not mean a good one—to be good at psychology or psychiatry, you have to have insight; you have to be able to see into people no matter what mask they wear, and really understand why they are acting out or unable to control their behaviour.


Konrad Schreiber’s real diagnosis:

Initially this was discussed within the narrative, but it was in one of the sections that didn’t make it through the final edits. In a way, it worked out better as an implication within the narrative, instead of explicitly being said. It adds more satisfaction for the reader, who gets to try and figure out Konrad for themselves as his mind spirals into madness and oblivion. So if you do want to figure it out for yourself, you should probably stop reading here.

Let me start by pointing out certain key symptoms that Konrad had before the Alpha Centauri incident.

  • total aloofness, inability to display genuine emotion, thus forcing him to fake them to blend in
  • having to fake behaviour he sees as normal by copying others
  • overelaborate and stereotyped thinking, bizarre speech patterns, consistently tangential thought-processes and speech
  • ‘magical thinking’ (despite being a scientist)
  • tendency for social withdrawal and solo-activities
  • minor auditory hallucinations, depersonalization, derealization
  • pathological fear of sexual intimacy

These are most of the symptoms of Schizotypal Personality Disorder (although to be diagnosed Schizotypal, one must not meet the additional and/or differing criteria of Schizophrenia). Interestingly enough, Schizotypal disorder is highly co-morbid with Borderline personality disorder, so you can see how it would not have been so difficult for Hannah to prove it in her report to SOLCOM.

Some other symptoms of Schizotypal disorder, which are not specifically addressed for Konrad before the Alpha Centauri incident, but come up as a part of it and become much worse after, are:

  • Obsessive ruminations without inner resistance
  • Poor rapport with others (in particular, Konrad finds it extremely difficult to behave in accordance with Kiko’s and Maj Jeanville’s expectations)
  • Odd and eccentric behaviour or appearance (appearance is less of a concern for Konrad since the SFAF has strict guidelines about uniforms to follow)
  • Occasional transient quasi-psychotic episodes occurring without external provocation
  • Suspiciousness and paranoid ideas

There are other symptoms to Schizotypal disorder which can manifest, but don’t in Konrad.

So Konrad starts out with Schizotypal Personality Disorder, but the initial symptoms don’t stop him from being highly functional and actually add to his apparent strength as an officer, until he feels cornered by a sexual advance from Hannah and panics. He brushes it off as a panic attack, but strictly speaking it was a triggered schizotypal depersonalization episode. When Hannah doesn’t give up on him, but tries to make him more comfortable, he instead feels more threatened. This starts his paranoia about Hannah, making him believe the delusion that she is being malevolent to him when in fact she is simply attempting to express her affection, and going about it in the best way she knows—slowly and carefully. After her last attempt, Konrad is triggered into a pretty wild demonization of Hannah, and accuses her of all sorts of negative properties and intent. And despite this, she still tries to do him a favour by limiting his diagnosis to the absolute minimum believable condition—one that doesn’t require medication, and won’t necessarily interfere with the mission.

But his paranoid delusions take over, and he gets inquisitive. His minor episode of impulsive nonconformity turns into a habit, and he starts using the skills he already knows well to break through various security measures in place on the SFS Fulgora. Naturally, because of his paranoia, anything he found would confirm his delusions, even if it specifically denied them—but Hannah’s report was middle-ground. It did state that he had been diagnosed with a mental illness, and was therefore unsuitable for promotion; but even though Hannah should have either had the mission cancelled or Konrad euthanized (according to mission regulations enforced by SOLCOM), she actually managed to convince them that what he had was no big deal.

Now this is really funny, because if she had given him a diagnosis, she would have told him about it to his face. But when he found the report, he acted as if it was some big surprise. So what did Hannah tell him? She would have had to have told him something, because SOLCOM was watching—but she may very well have been extra careful in her wording, because she herself didn’t want Konrad to think that she herself believed in the report she was forced to submit; she couldn’t say what she actually knew either, because then SOLCOM would know she filed a false report. What was she to do?


The Evolution of Konrad Schreiber’s Mental Illness:

By the time Konrad gets back to the SFS Fulgora, you really have to ask yourself if he’s really just Schizotypal. The fact is, by that point in the story he isn’t. He’s already transitioned entirely to Paranoid Schizophrenia. Now, the transition to Schizophrenia is a feature of Schizotypal disorder, but it can’t be said to happen all at once. Certain factors can contribute to the transition process speeding up, but it still happens over time, a bit here, a bit there, until the transition can be said to be complete.

I leave little nuggets throughout the narrative, showing the process of transition. One of the most obvious things is when he becomes sexually attracted to Nadya, a feeling he is very much not used to. He also has no trouble becoming intimate with her, even though otherwise you can tell he is still emotionless. Then of course there are his actual killings. At first they are carefully plotted and methodical, as if he couldn’t stop obsessing over the plots until they measured up to his unreasonable standard of perfection. But after the first two killings, he allows his plans to be interrupted, sidetracked, derailed, and even starts to improvise. By the time he gets to the Sergeant, you have to wonder where his obsessions went. And after that, it’s total mayhem. He was obviously having psychotic fits for the rest of them, because he can’t even (or maybe chooses not to) remember how they actually happened.

There are actually many instances of him rewriting his own memory. But you have to wonder if he did it intentionally or if it’s a symptom of his illness. That’s a funny feature of schizophrenia; you can’t really call it memory loss, because there are memories, but they aren’t memories of what actually happened. They are modified, purged of the distasteful psychotic behaviour, and ultimately made to conform with the schizophrenic’s limited sense of rational, appropriate behaviour.

And then of course there’s his number of growing hallucinations, delusions, and delirium. He has several complete breakdowns and goes on an adventure to a non-existent and fairly childish planet; not only does that all-encompassing hallucination represent delusional thinking, but it also contains a reversion to his childhood personality, spattered with random fluff mixed in his unconscious mind.

Finally, you can no longer doubt the transition is complete when after completing his retconned autobiography, he starts interacting with a particularly malevolent demonic alter-ego that takes the form of the Norse god Loki. Loki first appears to him as a hallucination of Hannah, just to spite himself. But there are a few other forms that his alter-ego takes before coalescing into a singular Alter.

His state of mind is ultimately captured by the Placeholder Theory. As I said at length in my post yesterday, The Science of Placeholder Pt.9, the whole pseudo-theory is a (purposeful) mess, something that you would expect from a Schizophrenic, yet nevertheless strangely seductive in its presentation. And he caps it all off with the ultimate delusion, thinking that he can find eternal life through suicide (schizophrenics don’t usually kill themselves unless it will feed into their delusions).


That about covers the most important points of Konrad Schreiber’s mental condition. If you want to learn more about the Schizophrenia-spectrum disorders I was working with for this story, the Wikipedia articles have some interesting info and list all the main psychologists and researchers to read up on.


Schizotypal personality disorder


And of course,

Borderline personality disorder (so that you can compare it for yourself against Schizotypal personality disorder to see how Hannah could have gotten away with her purposeful misdiagnosis)

— the Phoeron