17.45: Bodies, Tech, and Character
Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, C.L. Polk, Fran Wilde, and Howard Tayler
Let’s talk about technological body-modification! It’s a common element in science fiction, but it’s also an increasingly important part of the world we’re living in right now.
Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.
Homework: In the context of your world, envision an augmentation that is both beautiful and useful.
Thing of the week: A Rover’s Story, by Jasmine Warga.
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Key points: What if an augmentation was both supportive and beautiful? If a character has a choice about their augmentation, what would they design it to be like? What are augmentations? Ugly hands in Star Wars? Often augmentations embody a lack of humanity. But augmentations can be eyeglasses, canes, Victoria Modesta’s legs. Cell phones are hand brains. Think about the pluses and the minuses of augmentations. Augmentations don’t have to be medical ugly, they can be supportive and beautiful. Why is there the theme that too many augmentations will make you inhuman? Does big mecha protect the vulnerable human both from physical and emotional damage? Augmentation can also affirm your internal sense of what you could be. Also, what happens when you can hook up and experience someone else’s experience? Allowing ourselves to be more of how we see ourselves in the world is an important shift.
[Season 17, Episode 45]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Bodies, Tech, and Character.
[Chelsea] 15 minutes long.
[Fran] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Chelsea] I’m Chelsea.
[Fran] I’m Fran.
[Howard] And I’m ready to be augmented so I can be that smart.
[Mary Robinette] All right. We’re going to be talking about a staple of science fiction and the real world, honestly, which is how bodies and tech interact and how that can be used for character development in fiction. So, Fran, can you tell us a little bit about some of the things that you see when we’re looking at bodies and tech?
[Fran] Definitely. I started thinking about this issue a long time ago, actually back when I was a very young writer and a kid in a back brace. Because a lot of the stories that I identified with as that kind of reader were spaceship stories. Specifically things like The Ship Who Sang, which has many different built-in problems including eugenics, but it was literally a body encased in a shell, which I empathized with greatly at the time. Also, a bit later in my reading and writing career, Bill Gibson’s Winter Market which is a short story in Burning Chrome that has a character who is encased in a mechanical augmentation that allows her to move in the world. She’s got a genetic disability that means that she has trouble doing so without it. It breaks down on her and she makes an artistic choice in the story. It just resonated with me so much that I ended up writing a response to that. Because I realized that in Gibson’s world, this augmentation was geared to slowly kill the character, and I wondered what would happen if there was a world where augmentation was not only supportive but also beautiful and really gave a character the ability to move freely in the world. So, in Happenstance which we’re linking to, it’s a story that appeared in Reckoning Three which was edited by Arkady Martinez. That body cage, exoskeleton, augmentation became a see-through, solar charged support system, which, actually, I would very much like to have one of. So that’s part of what I want to talk about today. The other part is that a lot of times when you see in science fiction, augmentations are either ugly or obtrusive or slowly killing the person. There’s a lot of new fiction out there, as well as reality, where augmentations are gorgeous and are beautiful in many different ways. I think that it’s useful to think about how, if a character has a choice about their augmentations, what would they designed it to be like. So that’s where I want us to start. If we can get back around to the killjoys, I definitely want to talk about the killjoys.
[Mary Robinette] Fantastic. I’m going to first kind of let’s talk about what we mean by an augmentation. Because I think a lot of times will go to the most extreme measures, which is like… Which is the ugly hand in Star Wars. But…
[Fran] You mean the ugly robotic hand that multiple characters seem to acquire over the course of time? Luke’s got one, Darth Vader’s got one, it’s the same story over and over again, that makes you less human.
[Mary Robinette] Well, and…
[Chelsea] The property master worked really hard on the thing.
[Fran] Right. Oh, I know, I know. It’s ugly in the sense of… In terms of…
[Mary Robinette] It’s well executed. As a prop.
[Howard] It was well executed, but it was a plot device in which Luke Skywalker discovers that he is becoming his nemesis, Darth Vader. In the same way that young George Lucas eventually turned into old George Lucas.
[Fran] Well, not just that, but Darth Vader’s lack of humanity is embodied in his augmentations. I feel like that’s something that we should… To go back to Mary Robinette’s focusing moment, which was very nice, we should talk about what augmentations are. They are eyeglasses. They are… I use a cane. That is an augmentation that allows me to be in the world comfortably and to move around. There are augmentations like the model Victoria Modesta, who is an amputee, has a leg augmentation that allows her to put different legs on, including one that has a goldfish in it, and one that is entirely chrome, it is a chrome prism that ends in a point. These are spectacular.
[Howard] In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkorsigan series, I think it’s A Civil Campaign, is the novel, where the guy who has the brain implant gets infected with a virus that removes his eidetic memory brain implant, and he is suddenly lost, like physically lost, can’t navigate in town, because he’s been so dependent on this, and then someone tells him, “Well, why don’t you just get a pad with a map on it? And take notes?” So he gets the same sort of little like a phone that we have today. The novel was written in 2000, so we didn’t have iPhones yet. But he gets one of those, and his awakening is, “Oh, my gosh. Everybody already has these augments.” It’s… All the information is here, and I didn’t need to see it before. The eidetic memory let him never forget things, but it didn’t let him look things up. I think of my phone, and I referred to these devices in the Schlock Mercenary universe as hand brains.
[Howard] And I did it for exactly that reason.
[Chelsea] They’re absolutely… Yeah, they’re totally.
[Howard] They’ve changed our behavior, and some of them are quite beautiful, and some of them are less. But…
[Fran] One of the things that I really wish more stories and characters would explore is sort of the pluses and the minuses of any augmentation. You see that in some stories, where the battery runs out or the thing is trying to cause difficulty, but what we’re seeing in the real world, especially with exoskeletons and also like artificial legs, there are models who have legs of different heights. There are runners who use the different spring legs to run faster. But the model one is really interesting, because there’s one model who’s like, “Yeah. If I want to be 7 feet tall, I can be. I just put on my tall legs.” She got so much pushback, of you can’t do that, because that’s not fair. What we in the disability community have experienced over time is that a lot of the augmentations that we’ve received, back braces in particular, are really ugly. They’re that… like that particular color of plastic that sort of is like white or yellow. Very uncomfortable. The fact that so many things are starting to become more beautiful, including back braces, including braces for hands and legs, they’re… They look like racecars now. I think is part and parcel of the fact that we’re starting to see augmentations in different ways as supportive rather than some sort of… Dare I say it… Medical punishment for being disabled. Like, sort of like the hands that we were talking about with Star Wars.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I want to dig into this a little bit more, but first, I’d like for us to pause for our book of the week. Fran, I think you were going to tell us a little bit about A Rover’s Story
[Fran] I am. I am so excited about this. This is tech on the move. Jasmine Warga wrote a picture book which is good for all ages called A Rover’s Story. It is about Resilience, the Mars Rover that is determined to live up to its name. Which is the discovery of ways to explore Mars, and how to be resilient without… In situations that the rover finds itself in. It’s just… It’s fantastic. It’s just come out. The reviews are over the moon. This is gotten tons of starred reviews from critics and Publishers Weekly, but it’s also just beautifully done. The illustrator… I’m trying to find the illustrator for this. Yikes. I will find the illustrator and put it in the notes. But the cover is just fantastic. If you can go see it, I just wanted to praise that as well.
[Mary Robinette] So that’s A Mars Rover… Or A Rover’s Story.
[Fran] A Rover’s Story.
[Mary Robinette] A Rover’s Story.
[Mary Robinette] So, Chelsea, you had some thoughts about cyberpunk and mecha and… I was wondering if you could like, when we’re talking about augmentation, how do you see those things meshing?
[Chelsea] Well, it’s just one of the things that I was thinking about, like with augmentation, my mind immediately leapt to science fiction, and specifically science-fiction of like the late 80s, early 90s and some of the geek stuff that I was doing around there. One of the things was the cyberpunk trope of the like the street samurai. Somebody who has gotten all of these bodily augmentations to make them faster, to make them deadlier, to make them more dangerous. You see it over and over again, like, we can go all the way back to Molly Millions in 1985 with her like nails, like the little lasers underneath her nails. I always thought that it was really interesting that what I read a lot was the idea that if you got too many of these augmentations, you kind of lost your comfortable grasp on the consciousness that makes you human. I was always like, “But why? Why does it do that?” The best answer I came up with was because it wouldn’t be a good game mechanic if it didn’t. It always felt a little bit artificial to me. The other thing too is that, like, I was watching anime and reading manga at the time. So there was the big mecha suit, the idea of this dude getting into this big armored suit and being able to run around and like blast things or like fight giant dinosaur firebreathing lizards or whatever it is that they needed to do in order to be heroes. But there was a lot of time, there’s kind of this thread going on about the person being encased in this strong, nearly invincible body that protects, like, the vulnerable human underneath. I thought it was always kind of a story going on about how being inside the mech basically protected you from, like, emotional damage. I kind of want to like… I would love to be able to sit down and kind of question that kind of thing. Like to be able to go into the literature and have a conversation with this idea that augmentation that changes your body makes you less human. Because I kind of think, like, these augmentations that changes your body can very often be like an affirmation of, like, your own internal sense of what your body could be. Like, it could be you always felt, like, “You know what, I’m going to be 7 feet tall today, because I can.” I kind of think that’s amazing. Right? Like, that’s so cool. I’m a little bit jealous, and I think that’s why people are like, “You can’t do that, because I can’t do that, and now I’m mad, because I can’t.” The third thing that I was thinking about was, like, basically, like putting your consciousness into a virtual reality where you’re getting sensory input. Like Simsense in the Shadowrun game and that sort of thing, where you can like just hook up and experience, like, somebody else’s experience. Again, it’s this whole kind of like alienation from your body theme going on. I kind of want to talk about those things. Can we talk about those things?
[Fran] I mean, Bill Gibson’s The Peripheral, which is like a modernized cyberpunk look at the future, does that exactly, using peripheral bodies to be in different versions of reality, which just is super cool. But I think I’m going to… I love your points, the sort of the… Allowing ourselves to be more of how we see ourselves in the world is a really important shift, both for fiction and for disability. Being seen as individuals with wants and needs that we… And agency, has been something of a huge push across all aspects of disability over the past 20 years, and it’s going to continue that way. I think that things… Fiction is reflecting that versus that sort of super soldier aspect of mechas that we used to get. Like, the evolution of mechas to the support structure suits that people are actually making and designing now to help people walk and exist in the world is pretty amazing.
[Howard] Look at Season 18 of Dancing with the Stars. Amie Purdy dancing the quickstep to… She’s dancing with Derek Huff. The song is You Can’t Hurry Love. Oh, by the way, she’s a double amputee and has the little silver… The curved… S-curved spring feet on. It is glorious to watch. Absolutely glorious.
[Howard] Glorious and beautiful and scored very, very highly. I bring that up because it’s a real-world thing you can watch and you can see and you can partake in. The other thing that’s a little harder to find, you might have to Google for it, is drywall stilts.
[Mary Robinette] Yep.
[Howard] Guys who wear big drywall legs and back braces in order to put drywall on ceilings. It is magnificent to watch. Does it make them less human? No, it makes them not fall off of scaffolding.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. We use drywall stilts all the time in puppetry, and a lot of the tools that… There’s a certain amount of overlap in the way these things are internalized and used. But going back to the Dancing with the Stars, it’s… Like, watching the quickstep is cool. What’s actually for me more interesting is… Because I watched that season in real time, because I have a deep weakness for it, is that for each dance, she and Derek had to experiment to find out which of her legs were going to be the correct leg for any given dance. That’s one of the pieces is that these augments are often purpose built to do one thing and to do one thing really well. It’s very cool to think about for science fiction. It’s like, “Oh, I’ve got this augment, and it can do this, and it can do that, and it can do this other thing.” I have to tell you that that is not how machines work, and augments are machines. This is, again, using the puppetry as a metaphor, puppets are always purpose built to do one thing and to do that thing very well. Anytime you try to add complexity and have it do more than one thing, that’s when you get things that break and become unreliable. Which is the exact opposite of what you want for someone who is using this to give them additional support in their life. It’s a totally different call when it is a stylistic or aesthetic choice. A lot of times, like with glasses… With canes. A sword cane sounds like a really cool idea, but it’s actually terrible as a cane cane.
[Fran] Nobody ever wants to let me have a sword cane. Why is that?
[Mary Robinette] Well, Fran, we have met you.
[Fran] I mean, but… Okay, my cane, for instance, folds up, so that if I am, say, on a plane, and they’re like, “Okay, put away all of your stuff,” I can fold it up and I’ll still have access to it. So that I can get up and get to the bathroom or do whatever, which is nice. Like, that’s an augmentation of an augmentation.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Again, it’s, like, you can have it fold up or you can have a sword. You cannot have a folding sword.
[Fran] No. That would be…
[Chelsea] I submit, you could have a cane that folds up, but the head of the cane is actually quite… Let’s say robust.
[Chelsea] You can deliver a drubbing if you need to drub.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. Well, speaking of drubbing’s, I unfortunately have to drub my lovely podcasters into moving us onto the homework.
[Mary Robinette] So, Fran, you’ve got the homework assignment.
[Fran] I do have the homework assignment. The homework assignment this week is to, in the context of the world that you’re writing right now, whatever it is, those of you listening, I would love for you to envision an augmentation for a character that is both beautiful and useful. Those are entirely your own definitions of beauty and usefulness.
[Mary Robinette] That’s great. All right, everyone, you’ve got your homework assignment. So you are out of excuses, now go write.