January 31, 2012

Words of the Month - Artificial Life

        It seems that people have always desired to create artificial life, especially artificial humanoids.  Is it humans' desire to have the creative power of gods?  Males' jealousy of the power of women to give birth?  People's greed for power over offspring who, unlike biological children, can be controlled?  Whatever it is, this month's words highlight some of the different ways people have imagined creating artificial life.  I've listed them in the order the words entered the English language, which in some cases was a bit surprising to me.  It is not the order in which humans devised these creatures.

homunculus (1650-60, from Latin roots for "little man")  In its fantasy sense a homunculus is a miniature person created out of various materials such as wood, metal, and flesh, and given life through alchemy or some such magic.  Like many of the artificial life forms here, it's often a servant of its creator.  Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke features a charming homunculus.  There's an odd picture book Hannah and the Homunculus by Kurt Hassler in which a willful girl gains total control over her parents with the help of a word-collecting homunculus.  (And apparently the "Secret Series" by Pseudonymous Bosch includes a homunculus, but I haven't read those.) *

android (1720-30, from Greek roots for "man-like") An android is simply an automaton in the form of a human, placing it in science fiction rather than fantasy.  I was surprised this word predated science fiction as a genre, since nowadays everyone thinks of C3-PO from "Star Wars," Data from "Star Trek," or Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.  But apparently even back in the eighteenth century people were trying to build mechanical humans for fun and profit.  A nice example of the pre-electronic version is Tik-Tok from Ozma of Oz and subsequent books by L. Frank Baum.  (The automaton in The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick is, of course, the non-fantastical kind.  T was pretty disappointed that "all" it could do was draw, but of course these old androids are truly amazing!)

Frankenstein (1830-40, from Mary Shelley's novel published in 1818)  As any English major knows, "Frankenstein" was the name of the scientist who was trying to create artificial life out of bits and pieces of human corpses and electricity.  The creature he created was never given a name in the novel.  Colloquially, however, Frankenstein means the monster, specifically a monster that was deliberately created but then cannot be controlled and becomes dangerous and destructive.  Not only has the word Frankenstein shifted meaning from the creator to the creation, but the segment Franken-, which etymologically is meaningless, is now a productive prefix in English.  In examples including Frankenfish and Frankenfood it usually signifies something cobbled together and running amok (often specifically genetically engineered organisms).  The book in which to read about a "Frankenstein" is, of course, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, though it isn't by any means a juvenile book (even if all "classics" seem to get shelved in the children's section these days.)  I can't think of any others, though I'm sure there must be some that share the theme, if not by name.  The Franny K. Stein books by Jim Benton are, of course, a reference to the name of the mad scientist, but I don't recall that Franny K. ever tries to create artificial life in any of the volumes that P read. *

zombie (1865-75, from voodoo, from Kongo or Kimbundu for "god," which seems to me like a strange derivation)  Zombies, like Frankenstein monsters, involve artificially returning the life to dead bodies.  Like many other forms of artificial life, their creators want something without free will that will obey any command.  In the case of zombies such commands tend to be all about spite and revenge.  However, in the more modern imagining of zombies they are more self-motivated - even if their motivation is purely to eat brains.  I can't list any good books including zombies, because I don't read books about zombies!  (Except for Reg the zombie in various books by Terry Pratchett.)  But I am mildly amused by the game "Plants vs. Zombies" - does that count? *

golem (1895-1900, from Yiddish from Hebrew for "shapeless thing")  The golem comes from Jewish folklore and is a creature molded from clay and brought to life through knowledge of the Cabalah.  Though not the original golem, the most famous is the Golem of Prague.  There are many retellings of the story.  A rather dark version
that pulls no punches but has dramatic Caldecott-winning illustrations done with cut paper is Golem by David Wisniewski.  Chapter books featuring golems include The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud, and Fablehaven by Brandon Mull (I did not like this book, mostly because I felt that the plot was driven purely by the unbelievable selfishness and stupidity of [at least] one of the protagonists.  But both P and T absolutely love the series, so obviously what bothered me didn't bother them.  And as a bonus the series also includes a limberjack with artificial life, so it's got that going for it.)  For the younger reader or listener may I suggest Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster?  For older readers I also suggest Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett (not juvenile, but a story that really explores questions of free will, personhood, and what it means to be alive).

robot (1920, coined by Karel Capek from Czech for "compulsory labor owed by peasants")  A robot, like an android, has a scientific rather than magical explanation for its ability to mimic life.  Robots range from rough chunks of metal that speak in a monotone to beings that can pass for fully human.  There are far too many books featuring robots to try for a big list, but I'll mention three series that P enjoyed when he was probably around second grade:  Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot by Janet and Isaac Asimov, the "Andrew Lost" series by J.C. Greenburg, and the "Akiko" series by Mark Crilley.

* For reviews of several books featuring "Frankenstein monsters," plus a zombie book and a homunculus book, see my Oct. 5 post Frank'n'Stan 'n' More.

[Pictures: Making a homunculus, 19th century engraving from Faust Part II by Goethe (image from Wikimedia Commons);
The cheese golem, drawing by AEGN from Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster, 2012.]


  1. Ah yes, robots. My senior class play, many years ago, was Capek's "R.U.R." about Rossum's Universal Robots. Something about it appealed to my romantic adolescent mind. I played a secretary with all of one line, to be delivered in a monotone.

  2. Excellent! Robots never go out of style.