From evil twins to deepfake videos: the best books about doppelgangers

The rise of deepfakes has stoked the old fear that our lives can be hijacked by demonic doubles. Laurence Scott shares his favourite books on convincing imposters

The rise of deepfake technology provokes a modern version of a deep-seated fear that our lives can be hijacked by doppelgangers and doubles. While this concern may seem particularly acute today with videos purporting to show Donald Trump phoning Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg coldly laying out the extent of his power the idea of the malign twin dates back to ancient times.

During the 19th century the growth of crowded cities stoked anxieties about ones individuality. In these new urban masses, the thinking went, surely there must reside another face just like our own. Fyodor Dostoevsky captured this fear in his novel The Double, about a St Petersburg bureaucrat whose life is gravely unsettled when his doppelganger comes to work in the same office. In Richard Ayoades 2013 film adaptation, Jesse Eisenberg (who, fittingly, played Zuckerberg in the Facebook biopic The Social Network) cries that his demonic double stole my face.

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Jesse Eisenberg in The Double. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

There are many ways to steal a face, and not all of them rely on the supernatural. The string of murderous misadventures in Patricia Highsmiths 1950s novel The Talented Mr Ripley depend on Ripleys ability to impersonate the privileged Dickie Greenleaf. Here, a lack of technology perpetuates the hoax. In a world before it was possible to verify someones identity online, a passing resemblance to Greenleafs passport photo and a knack with signatures allow Ripley to draw money from his account and take over the dead mans life.

Literary doppelgangers have a polarising impact on a storys mood. Their appearance either fuels the high farce of mistaken identity as in Shakespeares The Comedy of Errors or signals something deeply sinister. The crime genre loves a wicked double. In Agatha Christies Evil Under the Sun, the killing depends on an unsuspected kind of doubling, so the victim becomes an alibi for her own murderer.

Doubles often destabilise fictional worlds, their uncanny presence weakening our sense of the real and the fantastic. Philip Roth plays with this weird effect in Operation Shylock, which hovers between fact and fiction in its story of a novelised Roth and his encounter in Israel with a lookalike pretending to be the author.

As deepfakes now illustrate, digital technologies can help us make fictions live in the real world. Andrew OHagans long essay The Invention of Ronald Pinn, from his collection The Secret Life, describes his experiment in creating a person complete with a computer-generated face, a bot-driven Facebook account and forged passport. His Pinn is an unreal entity with real presence in the world, named after a real young man who died years before.

The real world isnt just real Its virtual too. So claims a character in Joanna Kavennas new tech-dystopian novel Zed, which explores how digital life is making doubles of all of us. With our real selves now living alongside our lookalike online avatars, we have domesticated the spooky figure of the doppelganger.

Yet unsettling moral and political questions about the uniqueness of identity will inevitably proliferate in our doubled world of the physical and virtual. Deepfakes threaten to make audiovisual evidence inadmissible in court. Indeed, why should we be held accountable for the slanders, confessions, or virtually violent actions of our rebooted evil twins?

Laurence Scotts Picnic Comma Lightning is published by Windmill.

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