Wednesday’s Word: Somatic
This word is somewhat uncommon. You’ll most likely come across it only if you’re a doctor, a biologist, or talking to one. It comes from the Greek word, ‘soma’ which refers to the body. In English, something somatic is something having to do with the body as well. A few synonyms are bodily, corporal, and physical.
To be honest, I don’t use this word all that much. I was drawn to it, however, out of the need to create a name for the mindless automatons employed by the scientists in my novel Into the Vast. I knew that these creatures would look human and yet lack a will or a soul, essentially like robots encased in human flesh. So I came up with the term somatarch (pronounced SOH-muh-tark). The ‘arch’ part refers to ‘chief’ or ‘principal’, as in, archbishop or archenemy. So, the name emphasizes the fact that they are chiefly bodies and nothing else.
Here is an excerpt from Into the Vast in which Adan gets his first real look at these soulless creatures:
When at last he could see clearly enough so that the eyes of the figure across from him became visible, he lost all hope that they might be human. For it was as if the eyes he was looking at were still caught in the nighttime light. Anatomically, they looked just like any other human eyes, but they lacked that spark of life which all other eyes possess. Adan imagined this must be what it was like to look into the face of a dead man, and what he saw sent a shudder through his body causing him to tear his gaze away. After he first locked eyes with the somatarch, he never looked directly at any of them again.
These creatures exemplify the pragmatic efficiency of the scientific world of the novel. They’re not androids or cyborgs, but anatomically and organically human. And when people can create expendable beings like this, which obey them perfectly, why bother with something primitive like robots or human-machine hybrids?
In certain science fiction stories, the theme of artificial intelligence is prominent and the idea seems to be that the creations of men will eventually ‘wake up’ and realize that they have a will of their own and stop serving their creators. But I’m skeptical of such story-lines. The will and the soul are not tangible things which can be manufactured in a lab. And while clever programming can certainly approximate intelligent behavior and mimc certain aspects of personality, there is nothing to indicate that our methods would ever result in anything like free will.
But it is the nature of the artist to want to bring to life his characters and project his own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions onto the printed page and as this is analogous to the creation of androids and sentient robots, I suppose such stories will always have a certain appeal. And they do speak to one idea which is certainly true: that men have the potential to destroy themselves through what they create. The only difference is, that if we do make weapons too powerful or chemicals too deadly, it will be we ourselves using them against us. For, barring some freak accident, the act of pushing the button which sets off the chain reaction and the end of the world can only be performed by a free, moral agent, acting out of his own autonomous will. And that thought is more frightening than any army of robots ever could be.