Thursday, March 17, 2016

Thursentary: Is Linh Cinder a Person? (YAPhilosophy)

This post though. Suffice it to say that research (thanks, Alexa and Elizabeth), philosophy, and the results of poor work conditions went into this post. Let’s hop to it.

via Goodreads
I’ve enjoyed The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer these past years. If you aren’t familiar with it, this sentence will catch you up for today’s proceedings: Cinder, a cyborg mechanic, attempts to save the emperor’s life from the Lunar Queen Levana, and everything goes downhill from there.

Pretty much.

I like the story. Like the characters. Really like Carswell Thorne. Most of all, I like the questions I ask in response—one of which relates to Cinder’s character as a cyborg. Though it contributes to who she is, her cyborg identity’s greater relevance is in defining who Cinder is to others. People hold lots of prejudice against cyborgs in her world. Many people believe that cyborgs are less than, and perhaps not even, human. They don’t get the same rights or securities as “normal people.”

Cinder doesn’t like it, but that’s a protagonist’s bias. I’m curious. The way that cyborgs are built, combining humans and computers… in the context of TLC, can we call cyborgs people? Is Cinder a person? What makes her that way?

That is what I will ask. But first, a few points worth making:


People with prosthetics are, of course, people.  

Were Cinder just a girl with prosthetics, this post would not even exist. Prosthetics do not bear on one’s existence as a person. As current technology allows, most prosthetics exist either for an aesthetic or functional purpose. The aesthetic ones mimic the appearance of able limbs/organs, like fake hands or glass eyes; functional ones help people do things their old limbs/organs used to, like how a prosthetic leg might help an amputee walk.

Though some prosthetics (like for hands) have a mobility to them, it’s because their mechanism is triggered through movement or electrodes. So far, prosthetic technology works without us bonding a computer to someone’s brain and operating them that way.

But that is how cyborgs work.


Computers are not people. 

As science people explore the wonders of Artificial Intelligence, maybe someday this will change. I don’t think computers have yet gained any sentient consciousnesses yet. Sure, we have Siri and Galaxy, robots and androids that respond to and impersonate people, but they are not people.

And before you say so, the human brain isn’t really a computer:

  • you can’t distinguish the hardware and software in your brain
  • computers turn off; human’s don’t
  • the ways our memory work are so different (short-term, long-term, storage, all the things)
  • computers are not electrochemical; we are
  • computers are digital; we are analog, like clocks
  • computers don’t have bodies; we do, and we use them, and it’s weird

(And if you’d like to know more, I got all that information from right here.)

While a character like Iko, an android, might bring the personhood of computers into question, let’s leave it at this for now: Iko has a subjective experience (there is something that it is like to be Iko) but that doesn’t negate the fact that she’s a computer. She has no illusions about this. She might not be a person. But again, later.


Why is Cinder’s Personhood in Question? 

We’ve established that humans are people and computers are not. Cinder’s personhood is in question, though, because she is both. 

Yes, her body’s mostly intact. Yes, she has a human personality. And from what I can tell, yeah, her consciousness is housed in the organic part of her brain.

But some of Cinder’s brain isn’t organic. To operate her prostheses, Cinder’s brain connects to and functions alongside a computer—a computer she can’t function without. Cinder has a digital brain. Cinder has software in her head, her memory is stored by both parts. Cinder can be turned off. 

In other words, yeah, Cinder acts like a human… but she also acts with traits unique to computers. What does that mean? Are cyborgs people turned into computers? Are cyborgs just people with computer access in their bodies? Are they something else?

I don’t know what Marissa Meyer had in mind when she thought of Cinder, and I’m not convinced it applies to all cyborgs… but I think Cinder is a person who can equally identify as human and computer.

Cinder has a digital mind, she can turn off. You can’t ignore her computer self. She couldn’t survive without it. Forget her leg and arm—that computer operates the cybernetic fibers in her heart (which is a pretty important organ, btw). These pieces are parts of Cinder, who she really is, body and mind.

But she’s still human, too. She has emotions. She has an ingenuity and talent that computers haven’t attained, and maybe can’t. She has a consciousness, a perspective we can witness in her narrative—she can share her experience. On top of that, without the body to give them meaning, the computer parts of Cinder would just be machinery. Cinder’s human-ness gives her a real significance we all identify with.

We can’t separate Cinder the computer and Cinder the human, but together, they make one whole person. She’s a character I myself know and love. One side of her can’t be and isn’t more important, nor can we consider her half a person.

Maybe it’s a stupid ending, but I’m gonna say it anyway: Cinder is a person because she is more than the sum of her parts. And there you go.

Did you think about Cinder's personhood when you read The Lunar Chronicles? What did you conclude?


  1. This is so interesting!! the ending was slightly cheesy, but that's true. I have to say that Iko as a character is very confusing because she wants to be human, and knows she is not. And Cinder hates that she can be turned off and can run programs and such, but it also makes her who- and what- she is. Her exclusion from society because of what she is is, ironically, a very human character that makes you root for her more. Her cyborg traits are part of what makes her such a useful protagonist who can do all these awesome things like escape from prison cells. Interesting discussion, Heather!

    1. I knowwwww. I was so tired and I've been messing around with this idea for so long that I just decided to go for it and be done, lol.

      Iko indeed is very curious... I'm going to have to think about her more in the future.

      That's true! We tend to sympathize with Cinder because even if we don't have those experiences she does, they're somehow quite relatable. It's chill. Thanks for reading, Shar!

  2. oh yes, of COURSE Cinder is a person! I wouldn't have considered otherwise, because I don't think you can un-be-a-person. Like, I mean, cyborgs are sci-fi and I don't even know if that could really happen in this world anyway?! Like maybe few hundred years in the future, heh. BUT! Either way, I don't think you can lose (or gain) humanity. You have it or you don't. XD

    1. Mm, yeah... Removing humanity can be difficult—although the idea recently came to light in Neal Shusterman's Unbound, where a story revolves around dealing with a character who doesn't have a soul. Which again, might not be a real life thing, but... all the same.

      At least right now we can't lose or gain humanity. Whether that changes... I think that remains to be seen.

  3. Yay, you did a post on this!! After reading Cinder, I thought about this a lot, but didn't reach a conclusion. I still haven't :) I guess it's something that's going to start coming up more and more in the future?? I don't know.

    1. Yes! It took a long time to be willing to do all of this, lol. I don't think it's a question we'll have to answer in our own future, but perhaps for the next generations...

  4. This is a really, really cool idea for a post. Loved reading it!

    When reading TLC, I never thought of Cinder as not-human, although it is a pretty big question in the society in which she lives. I guess I just thought of her more as a really cool and relatable person, who just had computer parts. :)

    1. Yay! I'm glad you liked it.

      Yeah. In some ways, I think that is how Meyer designed us to see Cinder, because we aren't supposed to dehumanize our protagonist... and yet here I am. Still quite certain that it's a question needing to be answered. *nods*

  5. Alright, I wasn't going to comment on this but then I couldn't stop thinking about this post so I think I should probably be commenting.

    So here we go.

    In Study of Religion we talked about ethics (and seriously, that's the longest unit in the entire world) and what makes a person a person. You have the "I think therefore I am" way or the secular definition, which says that a person is a person because a) they have the capacity to love and b) they have the ability to make decisions for themselves. (But then you run into all kinds of issues like whether or not an unborn child or a person in a coma or someone with a mental illness is a person.) Catholics say that a person is a person if they are loved and redeemed by God and have an eternal destiny, which of course is everyone.

    By any of these standards, Cinder is a person. She can love, she can make her own decisions (and often difficult decisions at that), she thinks and therefore she is, she is loved by God, she is redeemed by His sacrifice and she is bound for eternal destiny.

    This is a super interesting topic because she CAN be shut off, she can't function without the computer in her brain. But the computer wouldn't mean anything without her biological body? So both sides are co-dependant on each other. But I don't think the fact that she can be shut off or that she can't live without the computer in her head stops her from being a person because of the points above.

    This was super interesting, I'd love to see more of these types of posts in the future. (Plus it's one of the only times I can actually use the stuff I learned in Religion...)

    1. Oh, and I almost forgot.

      Carswell Thorne.

      I kinda feel like you and I need to just get together and talk about him over a cup of coffee or something.


      That is interesting; I've only gotten studies in ethics in my philosophy classes (although I haven't had as many religion classes... and by that I mean just one). Those are all interesting definitions of people, and I hadn't heard them... Hmm...

      Well, I don't know about how all the religion plays in the series—also! If in the series someone like the Pope had condemned the existence of cyborgs because they dehumanized souls and made them nothing more than shells, there would be even greater prejudice against them...

      Yeah, it isn't what I believe, but I do think that it can be a pretty valid argument just considering what computer technology looks like right now and so forth. I mean, it would not surprise me if someday we could implant computers in empty human bodies.

      I am planning on doing more philosophical-ish posts in the future, so we'll see how that goes! I'm glad you liked it, though. :)

      Oh yeah. I feel like Australia is too far to drive for me for coffee but feel free to hit up my email or something sometime for that goodness. XD


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