Friday, December 18, 2009

Cyborgs and Steampunk

Cyborg /siborg/ noun -- a fictional or hypothetical person whose physical abilities are extended beyond human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body.

— ORIGIN blend of CYBER- and ORGANISM.

Cyborgs are one of the more common variations on the human condition that you see in science fiction. They are typically found in situations where the integration of man and machine has been taken to what some see as a logical "next step" along the technological advancement timeline. This can mean a robotic hand (Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi) or any other sort of technological integration up to, and including, an almost wholesale replacement of organic pieces with mechanical pieces (the Borg of Star Trek fame).

If you read any significant amount of science fiction, you've seen cyborgs at least once. Whether they're good, bad, or indifferent, there are enough stories that you're bound to run into them.

Steampunk has its own version of cyborgs. Any search for steampunk artwork will in fact bring up this picture:

This picture of Lincoln is the kind of thing you can expect to see with steampunk cyborgs. Gun arms with multi-barreled machine guns, a few metal plates here and there, and maybe some steam-powered accouterments such as mechanical legs or even mechanical innards. One of the best examples I can think of is Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters. It's more clockpunk than steampunk, but the theories Peters presents in creating the gold cloaks and black cloaks are sound examples of cyborgs in steampunk.

Now, the science-knowledgeable among us might dispute the possibility of people integrating so fully with machines. And they're right to do so. The current level of technology we're at doesn't allow for the wholesale integration that the creation of a cyborg would require. Look at the movie Robocop. There's no way the technology of the 1980s could've possibly created someone like the titular character. Robotics at that time could, and still can, barely manage to make robots do what is required of them without constant commands. That said, recent news reports and advancements in the science of cybernetics are bringing cyborgs closer and closer to reality.

But what, you may ask, does this mean for the writer of steampunk?

Well the burden of proof is both higher and lower for a steampunk writer. Higher because you're potentially working with less-advanced science (although the Ancient Greeks had robots), but lower because people accept that certain advances need to be made before cyborgs (bionics in CALLARION AT NIGHT) could be created. You need merely say that person X made these discoveries in order to ensure that the reader isn't drawn from the story.

This is, of course, the opinion of only one humble writer. But I am curious about one thing. With the ubiquitous nature of cyborgs in science fiction, is there anything you can think of that would make you not believe in the possibility?

P.S. Don't forget about the Ten-Word Novel Contest! The deadline is December 31, and the winner gets the lovely New Year's gift of a book of their choice. Ten people have already entered, so the competition is growing.


Joshua McCune said...

You had me at cyborg :)

Wow, when I first read the origin blend, I left out the 'NI' and I was thinking -- 'Matt doesn't normally try and pull a fast one on us.' Well, at least it's Friday.

Matthew Delman said...

Bane --

Congratulations for filling my daily spit-take quota, sir. It took half a second to realize what the heck you were talking about, and then the spit take occurred. Accompanied by braying laughter that made my coworkers look at me funny (which they tend to do anyway, but that's beside the point).

Susan R. Mills said...

The picture isn't showing up for me. I'll have to come back by later and see if it will. By the way, I have no clue what the two of you are talking about.

Joshua McCune said...

Susan, that's because you're a girl (i.e., sophisticated :).

The pic didn't show the first time for me, but when I switched to the laptop it does (one word: badass)... If only such things were reality.

Matthew Delman said...

Bane --

No, it's because she's Susan and she's pure of mind.

Susan --

There was a gaffe with the photo not showing up and a Forbidden 404 error (how I hate those). I reposted the image so it's now an embedded file uploaded via my computer instead of the web address. In other words, it's all good now.

L.T. Host said...

I got it. But then I'm kinda a tomboy anyway.

Moving on, the pic also isn't working for me-- but I'll try it at home tonight or later this weekend and see what occurs. :)

Very cool post! And now I'm excited that there are "bionics" in CaN!

L.T. Host said...

Well-- refreshing shows that your trick worked. And WHOA. Badass, yeah, definitely.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I'm not sure which I enjoyed more - the post or this comment thread! ;-)

Valerie Geary said...

Um... hi. :) I have a question sort of unrelated to this post... but Bane said you were the resident steampunk expert and we were wondering if #1 you have read Artemis Fowl and #2 would you consider it steampunk? Also... I keep hearing about steampunk but I don't think I've actually read anything steampunkish... any recommendations for a first timer? Because it sounds interesting. Okay.. that's all. :) Happy friday!

Matthew Delman said...

Valerie --

I haven't read any of the Artemis Fowl books all the way through, but from what little I can gather it doesn't qualify as Steampunk. I'll have to read the first book so I can be certain though.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfield is a good entry point if you're coming from the YA angle. The seminal book is The Difference Engine by William Gibson, but if you've read The Golden Compass then you've already read steampunk.

It's a wide and varied subgenre with a whole mess of directions you can go with a story. Hence why I love it.

Oh yeah, and welcome to the insanity! I always like it when new people decided to comment.

Valerie Geary said...

Thanks! I didn't think it was, but you never know... I have Leviathan on my to-be-read list... and I have read (and enjoyed) The Golden Compass. So maybe I'm more steampunk than I thought...muahahahaha!

Deb said...

This post and the comments helped me understand steampunk a little better. I think we have The Golden Compass floating around here somewhere. It's a series isn't it?

LOL on the NI!

Joshua McCune said...

I enjoyed The Golden Compass, too, but wasn't a big fan of the two sequels. Pullman kind of headed into crazy land, IMO, in his attempt to assail religion.

Pullman did do an effective job of seamless, unobtrusive world(s) building.

Adam Heine said...

That man has my vote!

I like this post. The more so because I threw a character with a mechanical arm in Air Pirates (was this post inspired by him?). I have an explanation, but only for a sequel. Instead, I just used a lot of hand waving and surprised characters.

What interests me so much is, based on typical steampunk-level technology, bionics should not be possible at all. Should they? Yet they're all over the place (and with good reason, see aforementioned recipient of my vote).

Matthew Delman said...

Adam --

No, this post wasn't inspired by the Air Pirates character with a mechanical arm. It's something I'd been toying with talking about for awhile now.

And you're right, by the way. If you put all the considerations on the table, and are looking to be as true to the science as possible, then bionics are not feasible with a steampunk level of technology.