Terminology: why cyborgs suck

Ghost in the Shell

Five years ago, after years of toil, I finally got my first novel published in paperback. Half Discovered Wings is not easy to define in terms of genre: it is ostensibly fantasy, in the broadest sense – it features monsters and supernatural/spiritual elements – but it is also science fiction, in that the post-apocalyptic world in which it is set has a history of high technology (sci-fi is a sub-category of fantasy in any case).

Prior to finally being accepted by a publisher, Libros International in 2009, the novel underwent six drafts and a title change. Characters were cut, scenes were removed or changed, even the dialogue was completely re-written for some characters. There are still many characters (possibly too many) and a good 142,000 words remaining, but since all of these characters are integral to each other’s stories, and since all those words are necessary to describe those characters and the world they inhabit, I realised that I could cut no longer. It then became merely a proofreading exercise.

Since I wrote the first draft in 2003, my literary ideology had changed, and each successive draft was what I hoped to be a significant improvement. I was developing as a writer and I wanted my novel to reflect my best efforts.

For the past few months I have been working to create another version of Half Discovered Wings, what I will optimistically call the definitive version, for ebook release. Revisiting this nostalgic reality has reminded me of another difficulty: that of terminology.

Science fiction runs the knife’s edge of being scientific enough to interest a certain kind of reader, using big ideas to either speculate or explain, whilst still being readable and enjoyable enough to sell copies. Fantasy does the same – take a look at the difference between The Hobbit (fun and readable) and The Silmarillion (Biblical syrup), for example. Many people have told me that they never got into The Lord of the Rings because there were too many unfamiliar names and words. Some readers shy away from sci-fi for the same reason – they would rather have a story instead of half a chapter describing how a faster-than-light drive works, or precisely how time travel is possible. Forget that: just get on with the story. And I sympathise.

There are several original terms of Half Discovered Wings, so many that my editor suggested I insert a glossary at the back of the book. I reluctantly agreed. What does it matter what the term ‘sanguilac’ means when the reader is being shown what these blood-sucking creatures are (a basic knowledge of Latin would help also)? Still, if even one reader finds it useful, why not? For the rest of you, please don’t feel patronised.

In Half Discovered Wings I also wrote a character nicknamed Caeles, which is Latin for ‘dwells in Heaven’. The irony is that he is far from angelic, embittered by over a century of grief and warfare. Caeles is a cybernetic organism, a cyborg, created to fight in the radioactively- and biologically-hazardous battlefields of a distant war. He is a relic from this world’s sci-fi past, and understandably he is treated with suspicion and fear by the relatively ignorant inhabitants of its present.

One piece of terminology I struggled with was ‘cyborg’. Talk about cheesy. The term is now 55 years old, coined in 1960 by some theoretically-minded scientists (aren’t all scientists theoretically-minded?). The earliest example in fiction that I could find was in the 1972 novel Cyborg by Martin Caiden, which was the inspiration for TV’s The Six Million Dollar Man and spin-off Bionic Woman. I’m sure that many writers are used to turning away from terms such as ‘cyborg’ and ‘android’, precisely because they’re retro, slightly naff terms.

But what are the modern alternatives? I recall reading a few books that created unique terms to describe their particular type of cyborg – I’m sure I’ve seen ‘Tek’, ‘Tech’ and ‘mechanoid’, for example, even though the latter is incorrect to describe anything with electronic components. I recall, years ago, wracking my brains for something like this to use. For a time I settled on the term ‘cybernetic’, utilising the term as a noun. This was vaguely original at least, but unwieldy. Having someone refer to a character as “a cybernetic” rings false, assuming the reader has a feel for the difference between a noun and an adjective. It doesn’t sound right.

I don’t know how long I spent trying to wrap my head around the difference between cybernetics and bionics, and the mess of similar terms, to make sure I was using the correct one. The individual definitions are clear, but how they might apply to, say, Luke Skywalker’s electro-mechanical hand in The Empire Strikes Back is not. Is the hand bionic? Cybernetic? Is Luke now technically a cyborg?

Let’s not go there.

I was surprised, and secretly pleased, to see the resurgence of ‘cyborg’ as a term in comics. This is a fine example of what all writers should be doing: using the simplest, clearest language to describe what you need to describe. There is no need to be fancy, there is no need to over-explain. If a character is half machine, just call him ‘a cyborg’. The reader knows exactly what you mean just by using that one word. Its simplicity is beautiful.

The image at the top of this page relates to the anime franchise Ghost in the Shell, a mind-blowing collection of manga, films and several TV series. The character in the picture, Motoko, is almost 100% machine, and usually referred to simply as a “cyborg” or “cybernetic human”. The Japanese have long been obsessed with the concept of melding man and machine. Having explored almost every avenue, in their wisdom they retain the simplest of descriptions.

I may change my mind during the course of this re-write of Half Discovered Wings. It’s been known to happen during my edits. But for now I’ll stick to my own rules: simplicity is best, conciseness is best.

Cyborg it is.

—db

[Half Discovered Wings is still available as paperback from Amazon here. Look out for Half Discovered Wings in ebook format soon!]

[P.S., artist of the picture above please step forward for credit!]

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