My Dad’s a Cyborg

When I was a kid, cyborg fiction was all the rage. With advancements in technology, someday soon people would be a blend of human and mechanical parts! Think of the potential! Imagine the consequences! 

Even today, “cyborg” seems to be shorthand for “human of the future.” But you know what? My dad has a pacemaker. He’s a cyborg. And he’s far from unusual in that. Pacemakers, artificial hips, cochlear implants and the likes have been around for quite a while now. Cyborgs are, in fact, commonplace.

So what does this have to do with writing? 

Well, all the while “cyborg” fiction was becoming part of the standard discourse for science fiction, real world advances were moving along, creating the reality. In fact, the artificial pacemaker pre-dates the term “cyborg” by a couple of years, assuming Wikipedia has its facts straight. The cyborg future is here, and we’re living in it. So why do we still use “cyborg” as shorthand for a transhuman future?

Because we’re lazy.

We’re all guilty, from time to time, of falling back on the “typical” way of telling a story, the tried-and-true concepts and tropes, instead of rethinking it based on how reality has changed since the convention first emerged.

Think about it. How many classic stories rely on the main character having insufficient information? Just now, as I was writing the above paragraphs, I opened a new window and looked up the history of the artificial pacemaker and the origin of the word “cyborg.” Try it. It’s easy.

So today, a story in which the main character doesn’t have enough information is really a story about someone who doesn’t know how to use Google. Not the most compelling portrait for your protagonist. And yet I see stories using the convention all the time. When I was a kid, getting a piece of obscure and arcane knowledge meant a time-consuming trip to the library. Everyone forgave a main character for not simply looking it up. Me? I can get just about any basic fact on my phone with only a few curse words directed at the too-small screen and the lack of 4G coverage in Fresno.

Or take, for example, the old trope of the couple whose car breaks down on the lonely stretch of highway. When I was a kid, that was a very real fear. It happened.

Last time I broke down? I didn’t even get out of the car. The cell phone rendered a whole genre obsolete. Want to have some fun? Try explaining to a teenager today why Brad and Janet knock on the door of that strange mansion. These days, if a stranger knocks on my door asking to use the phone I’m going to assume they’re scoping out the place with the intent of robbing it, not someone who actually needs assistance.

So as you imagine your stories, it’s important to challenge them. Ask yourself if the plots and the premises make sense given the world as it is today — or will be based on extrapolating today’s technology rather than yesterday’s vision of the future. It’s amazing how many of our ideas about story actually come from the stories we’re absorbing all around us, and it’s therefore very easy to fall into the trap of forgetting cyborgs are real.

After all, I forget about cyborgs all the time. Speaking of which, I need to call my parents…

#SFWAPro

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