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Is sci-fi without Cyborgs inherently unrealistic?

History is packed with predictions of the future that proved hilariously inaccurate  but just how close are we getting to becoming a society where cosmetic and utility based implants are as common place as tattoos?

First off what is a Cyborg? Well according to the the writer Manfred Clynes and scientist Nathan S. Kline, it is a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts, the term being first coined in an issue of Astronautics Magazine about the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space. Now that’s a pretty loose definition which could lead you to calling anyone with a heart pacemaker or a cochlear ear implant a Cyborg – which we really don’t do. Instead when we use the term we’re generally referring to someone along these lines, if we we’re feeling cheerful

bionic-arm

and these lines if we’re not

cyborg1Both of which are well beyond what we can currently do. If we look at the real world I think we can divide prosthetic into two groups, those that are designed to replicate natural functions of the body and those that are not. In the first category I would include the likes of cochlear ear implants and artificial limbs. These, from what I follow, are working towards being both functional and discrete; currently however even the very best of these are inferior to their natural counter parts, as are those that are currently under development. Not only do these artificial parts have to interface with our nerve-endings  – something that even the best do imperfectly – but also need an external power source.  So thus far their use is limited to individuals who’s organic parts have failed or are failing due to illness, injury or birth defect. It’s tempting to say we’ll figure these things out sooner or later but I think you can reasonably say that there is one significant threat to this version of the future, which comes in the form of another sci-fi staple – cloning.

Again, from what I follow, the science of cloning is making steady progress. The real holy grail is how to take cells from a subject and make them turn into stem cells; if that can be done, then they can be changed into any other kind of cell. This would certainly open the door to growing replacement parts, ones that unlike current transplants would avoid the need for anti-rejection drugs or separate power supplies. This seems to be a technology that more a case of when will it be developed rather than if. So if prosthetics that replicate natural functions are a technological way-station or possibly dead-end, what about ones that are designed to do things that are not within the natural capabilities of humans?

Now I’m probably not the right person to try to answer this kind of question since a relative described me once as an inverse techno snob, that said I wear glasses, a watch and usually have a smart phone upon my person (although the Wifi and data options are switched off most of the time). There are those however who live and breath technology, for some it is a necessity of their jobs, for others it is a question of image – look at the publicity the surrounds the launch of each new I-Phone. Also the concept of body modifications in the form of tattoos, piercings etc go back to the very dawn of our species. So will there be a market for built in mobile phones, glow in the dark tattoos or whatever?

For that kind of thing on a mass market level I personally I doubt it. Now for anyone coming across this blog in ten or twenty years time who is considering laughing at my Luddite lack of imagination, then I refer you back to the very first line of this blog.

The reason I doubt it is skill level required for implantation, recovery time and infection. Odds are you’ve read about or heard of someone having difficulties caused by a piercing or tattoo. The more invasive the nature of the surgery needed the higher the skill needed to perform the surgery and greater the risk. There will be a rehab and learning period for the next implant which is hard to see as being compatible with our current product life cycle where phones and their like are expected to have a lifespan of a couple of years. Unless medical technology in terms of surgery becomes a lot easier and cheaper, cost and potential legal liability are going to make mass implant of technology difficult.

However as I wrote this blog I was reminded something in one of the Red Dwarf novels, there was a one line reference to individuals having a sort of built in encyclopedia. An interesting idea, a kind of internal data hub into which all human knowledge could be placed, ready to be accessed at any time or place. Arguably in the age of the internet it’s already an obsolete concept but the internet includes so much that is either wrong or difficult find. A sort of Encyclopedia Britannica might mean every person has reliable information on every topic reality to hand at any moment.

Where utility implants might really become common or even simply necessary is in environments that the standard human can not operate in, which going back to the first paragraph: ‘advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space’. We can definitely say that space is an environment in which humans do not operate very easily. Keeping a human alive moment to moment is tricky enough but over longer term periods we sort of degrade. If we found ourselves with permanent space societies it might be the one environment where replacement of healthy tissue with mechanical parts could be justified. Again this depends on how other technologies develop and whether utility implants can offer enough utility to offset the complications. Quite how society would view cyborgs could be another limiting factor, could it become something to aspire to, adopted by those who are seen as being at the social peak or undesirable if it becomes a mark of the lower social/economic groups.

It is worth noting among those complications is system security. In recent years it has been discovered that a number of existing medical implants (pacemakers, insulin pumps etc) are potentially vulnerable to unauthorised access. Having your bank account accessed can be a major problem but that would be nothing compared to having parts of your body turned off or a months worth of insulin dumped into your system at once. Some science fiction has brushed across this and it is reasonable to assume the more common implanted technology is, the more of a problem this is like to be.

So to conclude things, this had been fairly brief run through of the issues of Cyborgs, the original question was ‘Is sci-fi without Cyborgs inherently unrealistic?’ and my answer is a solid No. There are inherently a lot of practical problems that go with it, now the higher the technology level of society as a whole, the less those problems might matter but that same technological advancement could render it it obsolete as a concept. Basically what I’m saying is that is becomes a question of personal taste for the reader. While for the writer it becomes a question of good world building and making sure it fits logically within the setting. At this point in time a world without cyborgs is just as possible as one where we all are.

Thoughts, comments or observations?

 

 

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Working Disabled Characters Into Fiction

First off I am not disabled. The closest I get to disabled is mild short sightedness, without glasses I wouldn’t be safe behind the wheel of a car but that’s about it, so this entry comes from that stand point.
Over the weekend I was attending the Irish Science Fiction Convention – Octocon and one of the topics was ‘A Future Without The Disabled – Our panellists discuss future and fantasy worlds in which science or magic is believed by some to make the existence of disabled people “illogical”. From the eugenicists to the Star Trek movies, what does it say about us that we can’t imagine a future with disabled people? ‘

Now oddly enough I would say that SF actually has at least some track record for attempting to include disabled, for a start we have this guy:

geordi_la_forge

Now for any non-science fiction types this is the character Geordi LaForge from Star Trek, who was born blind, the gadget across  his eyes allows him to see, although not necessarily in the same way as the Mk I eyeball.

disAnother couple of examples are on the left Gary from the short lived TV series Alphas, who was autistic and Nick Fury from the Marvel cinematic universe, who is quite obviously minus an eye. However inclusion of a disabled character isn’t necessarily always successful. Of the three above Gary was arguably the most successful despite autism being one of the most difficult to do properly, while Fury is markedly the weakest because despite being down to  50% eyeballs, he doesn’t appear to suffer any problems with depth perception or peripheral vision, mostly it just makes him look cool.

Handling Disability with Fictional Characters

So broadly speaking I think we can think fictional disabled characters can be broken down into a number of categories with different treatment for each.

  1. Disablement from injury
  2. Disablement from illness
  3. Disablement from birth

With two sub categories within each for of mental disability and physical disability.

Frankly I think physical problems are generally a good deal less intimidating to approach, particularly for a main character but there are things we have to careful of. A disability that doesn’t in any way inconvenience the individual – see Nick Fury – is not really a disability. Autism is another one that is often badly handled, with it portrayed as some kind of super power*. At the same time a disabled person is still first and foremost a person. People with disabilities will attempt to live lives, they will attempt to find work rounds for their problems, they will likely aspire to things that are beyond their abilities. The novella Flowers for Algernon is a superb example of a story being told from the stand point of an intellectually disabled person.

No matter what you choose the next step is going to be research; if a character is being described as having a particular problem, you need to get the details right. Without that the writer runs the risk of coming off as condescending, pitying or just ignorant, none of which are helpful.

One other issue is cures. Out in the real world, over the last hundred years medical science has developed by leaps and bounds. Some conditions that were death sentences are now inconveniences. In science fiction, even when set in the near future, there can be a temptation to assume a easy cures, ones that don’t require rehabilitationsimply a blast of something from a syringe or something equally fast. The closer to reality the setting is, the more unrealistic this is. Illness and injury come with recovery times – I managed to get myself knocked down by a car in my twenties, even though my injuries were fairly minor I was still in plaster for three months.  Unless the work is set in some magic level technology setting, not all injuries can be entirely recovered from. Even when they can PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder – can be an issue that remain with someone for the rest of their lives. Certainly if you intend to write in my own area – military science fiction – then PTSD is a possible consequence that you should consider for your characters or someone they know. Even beyond the military SF sphere it is worth considering the mental effects of injury or birth defect, scarring or birth marks may not physically impair in the slightest but could have grave effects on the character, especially when somewhere obvious like the face.

Why Not Opt Out?

So it is complicated. If you get it wrong you may alienate readers. So easy solution don’t have disabled characters.

Okay.

Well since we’re doing that let’s skip women? Homosexuals? People of colour?

Do I stick to writing character that are what I am and only what I am?

No.

Realistically unless your setting has no conceivable disabled, then they probably have to be there in some shape or form. In my own work I’ve thus far I’ve had two characters with physical impairments and one who arguably has PTSD (this is from the outset, I’m not including the ones I maimed during the course of books) although I must admit when writing them, disabled wasn’t a label I would have attached any of them – it was simply a part of their backgrounds.

Inclusive Language

Now as I was writing this entry the thought cross my mind am I using the right terms? Terminology changes and what was acceptable yesterday isn’t necessarily today. The following I found  HERE which come from the UK.Gov advice website.

termsSo there we have it, my brief thoughts on the matter, as ever any thoughts comments or observations are welcome.

* If that was in fact the case the whole Vaxer movement would have a very different complexion.

* Batman seems to be particularly good at getting these because apparently recovering from a broken spine is no big deal.

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Older heroes, possibilities and problems

Every so often I get into the mood for a re-read of David Gemmell books and sooner or later I tend to get to his first and in my opinion finest book, Legend – A book saw the induction of what was probably Gemmell’s most iconic character – Druss the Legend. One of things that for me makes Druss interesting is that he’s an old man of sixty, marching to a battle he believes he will not survive. In so many stories revolve around the young hero, in which the older mentor plays a significant but nevertheless supporting role. Why though send the apprentice if the master is available? The older hero comes with a few complications but offers some possibilities his/her younger counter struggles to match.

Occasionally you will come across criticism of the hyper competent protagonist, who does seem old enough for the skills they possess (see the Force Awakens or heck the first Star War films for an examples of this)  It becomes a lot easier to explain how the hero has the skills they have, when with the extra years on the clock, they’ve effectively had time to go everywhere and do everything. In the case of Druss,  even though he is by the start of Legend already old and creaky, he has a lifetime of experience, mostly of not getting killed, contacts everywhere and a towering reputation. Another example of this kind of character can be found in Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, whose main character, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, is an aging demon hunter.

As well as the skills the character can be granted from the outset, there is also the opportunity for a maturity that a younger character might not be able to show. An older person comfortable with their abilities may not feel they have to prove anything. Equally however, the character could be clinging to a fading youth as well has degrading mental and physical capabilities. That latter point leads us on to the made draw back of older main characters.

Those extra years on the clock at the start, mean that less years are available in the future. Should a writer’s older character prove commercially successful, using that character might be difficult or impossible depending on what happened in their first story. In later books Gemmell spent a lot of time on Druss’s earlier years, which put you firmly into prequel territory with all of it’s attendant problems. The other main problem with an older character depends a little on the medium of the story, if it is anything visual (TV, film or even comic book) well the rather brutal fact is that young people are usually more attractive than older people. The visual medium will therefore tend to place emphasis on best looking members of the cast, which generally means at the younger end of the scale. Obviously there are exceptions but really female characters hit harder.

So there we have it, some light musing on the topic and for any writers out there perhaps look at your work and wonder whether your characters should be given a few extra birthdays.

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A Basic Introduction to Logistics

The Logistician

Logisticians are a sad and embittered race of men who are very much in demand in war, and who sink resentfully into obscurity in peace. They deal only in facts, but must work for men who merchant in theories. They emerge during war because war is very much a fact. They disappear in peace because peace is mostly theory. The people who merchant in theories, and who employ logisticians in war and ignore them in peace, are generals.

Generals are a happy blessed race who radiate confidence and power. They feed only on ambrosia and drink only nectar. In peace, they stride confidently and can invade a world simply by sweeping their hands grandly over a map, point their fingers decisively up train corridors, and blocking defiles and obstacles with the sides of their hands. In war, they must stride more slowly because each general has a logistician riding on his back and he knows that, at any moment, the logistician may lean forward and whisper: “No, you can’t do that.” Generals fear logisticians in war and, in peace, generals try to forget logisticians.

Romping along beside generals are strategists and tacticians. Logisticians despise strategists and tacticians. Strategists and tacticians do not know about logisticians until they grow up to be generals–which they usually do.

Sometimes a logistician becomes a general. If he does, he must associate with generals whom he hates; he has a retinue of strategists and tacticians whom he despises; and, on his back, is a logistician whom he fears. This is why logisticians who become generals always have ulcers and cannot eat their ambrosia.

Unknown Author

A few months ago I did couple of posts on the subject of warship types what I thought might be useful and interesting is a short and very basic primer on the subject of military logistics and how a science fiction/fantasy writer can and probably should account for it in their work. I’m going to be mentioning some good and bad examples as well as some history books which I’ve found useful.

What Is Logistics?

At a very basic level logistics is the science of getting the what a military force needs from the centers of production (farms, factories, whatever) to the military forces directly in contact with the enemy, while at the same time moving backwards casualties, prisoners etc, etc. This is often referred to as the lines of communication and exactly what is a military force needs depends on the setting. This will involve not only transportation but also stockpiling, storage and distribution.

Early Logistics

The most basic supplies any force will require are food and drink, in a pre-industrial setting like Lord of the Rings, that can to a certain extent be obtained via foraging or outright looting. It is worth noting that for most of recorded history, an army moving through your area was a disaster, regardless as to which side it or you were on. If half a dozen soldiers with swords decided they were going to take your last milk cow, polite refusal probably wasn’t going to achieve much. The advantage of this kind of system is that there really weren’t any lines of communication for an enemy to threaten, the big problem however was it placed a serious time limit on how long an army could stay concentrated in one area. After a while all of the resources would be consumed and an army would have to move on, disperse or starve. This is where we get the whole concept of Scorched Earth; if an attacking army is faced with a region where the resources have already be consumed or destroyed, then the time it can spend in that region is severely limited. This could be a major factor in siege warfare, where the attacker could be in just as much danger of starving as the defender. So while Tolkien might be one of the founding father of Fantasy, given how how it it described, Sauron would have a hard time his armies from starving in Mordor. A fiction work that at least touches on the complications of pre-industrial logistics is Juliet McKenna’s Chronicle of the Lescari Revolution. On a final note prior to the development of the railways, movement during the Winter months and armies either dispersed or retired to winter encampments. Even in more modern times there have been battles and campaigns that have petered out because weather conditions meant supplies could not be moved up to the front.

Logistics in the Industrial Age

My men can eat their belts, but my tanks have gotta have gas.

General Patton

Up to the Napoleonic Wars it was possible for an army to at least to a certain extent live off the land, gun powder from enemy sources was usable and individual soldiers could cast their own bullets provided they could obtain lead. However somethings like cannonballs, had already passed beyond what troops in the field could make or obtain for themselves.  During the close of the nineteenth century technology changed logistics became increasingly complicated. Improvements in transportation and storage, were matched by expansion in the volumes and types of supplies needed by an army in the field. As the above quote indicates by the middle of the twentieth century oil had become the one of the dominate resources, especially for an advancing army but in general terms an army needed an unbroken line of supply leading from the factory gate to the front line and here in lies both a complication and opportunity.

An army on the advance is inherently moving away from its logistical support, while the Defender is retreating a long its own lines of communication. This means the attacker needs to be careful not to advance too far in case it out runs its supplies and leaves itself vulnerable. Even if it is advancing with no meaningful opposition in its path, an army can be brought to a grinding halt by lack of supply. The term for this that I have come across and used in my work is Logistical Brake. If you are looking for a real world example, any book covering the war in the Western Desert between the German/Italian forces and those of the British Empire is ideal, since this conflict was being fought in the open desert, which mean other complicating factors weren’t present. What you will notice as you read the history of the Desert War is how often the lines of communication were the objective. Each sides commanders sought to get through or round the opposing side to cut supply lines, since no matter how strong an armies position was, it would be worthless unless supplies could be brought to it.

Logistics, Ships and Ship Design

There is a myth that in the days of sail ships were powered by the wind, the reality is that it all depended on human muscle. Raise anchor? Human muscle. Do really anything with the sails, human muscle. Like any other engine humans required the right fuel. During the age of exploration diseases like scurvy would cut a swath through crews because it wasn’t understood just how necessary fresh fruit and vegetables were, plus storage was somewhere between difficult and impossible. In theory however, if a vessel could be kept supplied with fresh food and water, it could remain at sea for extended periods. This was best demonstrated by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars where ships of the line blockaded continental ports for years at a time. With the coming of the steam engine a ship could be freed from the whims of wind and tide, but only as long as the fuel held out. Take a look at the two pictures below.

CalypsoHMS_CamperdownThey are respectively HMS Calypso and HMS Camperdown, looking at them you could be excused for thinking they belong to totally different time periods with Calypso perhaps being a part of Admiral Nelson’s fleet. In fact they were built at the same time – the early eighteen eighties. The difference was Camperdown was a battleship, designed to operate within European waters, Calypso was a corvette (later re-designated a cruiser) intended for places like the Pacific, where refueling points would be few and far between. In the modern navies, it is the proud ranks of fighting ships that get the attention but if you care to glance across this Wikipedia page, listing the current strength of the US Navy, you will notice that the list of non-combat support ships is longer than those that in time of war would do the fighting. An expensive necessity if the US Navy is to operate more than a few days out from its home ports.

Once fuel became a factor, the time a ship could spend at sea became far more limited and many’s a captain undoubtedly developed ulcers watching their ships’ fuel levels drop lower and lower. A fully armed, undamaged vessel might be required to turn away from a fight or not be present at the critical moment, all because it had to leave for re-supply. One fascinating demonstration of this is the hunt for and destruction of the German battleship Bismarck, where on either side ships were either forced out of the chase completely or unable to crack on the extra bit of speed that might have made all the difference. I won’t attempt detail the saga – I couldn’t do it justice – but I do recommend Pursuit: The Chase and Sinking of the Bismarck by Ludovic Kennedy, it is now a somewhat old book and some research has become available since its publication but is an easier read for the newcomer.

Logistics and Writing

So now that we’ve covered the very basics of Logistics there remains one big question – why the heck should a writer give a two hoots about logistics, the reader wants action! Well for a start there is realism. If the work in set in a historical period, if it is to be a living, breathing world, then it needs to follow reality of that time. Whatever it costs the writer in time a research, will rewarded with a deeper work in which the reader can more thoroughly immerse themselves.  If your characters are operating in any kind of military capacity, where the next meal for themselves or those under their command is coming from, will always be a consideration.

The other reason, and this is possibly more important, is the sheer possibilities for drama it offers the writer. The General aware that if the snows doesn’t clear soon there will be famine in the camp, The starship captain hunting the alien raiders with with only fuel to search one solar system, the trooper in the front line trying to conserve ammunition as the enemy closes, this is all the stuff of drama. It may seem like a tiresome detail in fact for anyone writing any sort of military fiction logistics will be one of your most useful plotting tools.

until next time

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