Tag Archives: writing science fiction

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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