Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Scam That Looks Like A Contest/A Contest That Tastes Like A Scam


I've got a contest!  No, actually, I've got a scam.  But as far as you are concerned, it's every bit as good as  a contest.  It costs you no money whatsoever to enter, and if you win you get a prize.

Let me explain:

It's not exactly a secret that I'm in the final throes of writing a novel about the adventures of Postutopian con-men extraordinaire Darger and Surplus.  The world I created for them (highly advanced in the biosciences, sensibly terrified of anything electronic) is entertaining but cruel.  In their first adventure, "The Dog Said Bow-Wow," I established that the rich have servants called autistics, who are obedient and completely without affect and whose cheap virtue is that you can do anything you want in front of them and they don't care and won't react.  Essentially, they have neither personality nor sense of self.

Nobody's ever complained about these characters being called "autistics."  But that's largely because the readership for short fiction is small, sophisticated, and surprisingly tolerant.  If I use the term in a novel, I'm sure to get letters from people who are, for good and possibly even heartbreaking reasons, genuinely offended and/or hurt by the usage.

And, to tell you the truth, I'm not exactly crazy about it myself.

Nevertheless, I want to keep the servants -- they have a small but significant role to play in the novel.  So they need a new name.

Here's my challenge:  Come up with a new name for my novel's "autistics."  Something that suggests their inverted and impersonal nature.  

And here's the prize:  If I use your suggestion, I'll give you an autographed copy of the Darger and Surplus novel when it comes out.  Even better, I'll make it the second copy of it I receive.  (The first copy is for waving around at conventions.)  I'll even guarantee to make it the first autographed copy ever.  Plus I'll put your name in the acknowledgments.  Unless you'd rather remain anonymous, of course.

What makes this a particularly good deal is that you're writing for publication.  The winner can look at the book's price and claim that's how much she or he routinely gets paid per word.

You can post your suggestion(s) here or after any subsequent blog entry.  I'll read 'em all.  As soon as somebody comes up with le neologism juste, I'll proclaim the fact in the next day's blog.

Above:  Today's mail.  An old pal sent me cigars.



Matthew Adams said...


Tibs said...

I think a traditional term would be something like "null" - I'm fairly sure there's precedent elsewhere.

Weaver said...

My first thought is you could call them "the remote".

Oh, oh! - and then you could have a scene where someone gets incredibly frustrated because they can't find the remote.

... I'll keep thinking.

Unknown said...

I was thinking something Latin might be good. I haven't read The Dog Said Bow-Wow yet, so I'm not really familiar with the prejudices and social conventions of the upper class in this universe, but it seems like Latin might give it a ring of prestige, or at least the avoidance of sounding crass that would appeal to someone who can afford such things. Lacunas might be a good name for them. If I'm recalling correctly it means an empty space, a hole, and I think it can also mean deficiency. Some derivation of inanis (empty, inane), or vacuus (empty, devoid of, free from) also seems like it might a good substitute as well.

Theophylact said...

How about "empties"?

John Winkelman said...

Hmmm... "Auts" might work, for both "autistic and "automaton", without explicitly being either. "aut" can also be a contraction of "naught", or imply "ought". All seem appropriate for the empty shells of humans who are used as servants.

Richard Mason said...

dispassionati (singular dispassionato, dispassionata)

Joshua Bales said...

Perhaps something like "voids"?

Or the Latin form, "vacuus." Could even be abbreviated to "vacs" or "vacks" or some such similar derivation.

genovefa said...

why not use Latin roots indeed? For example sibei which means self or suimet: oneself corresponding to the Greek "auto". Another suggestions is "the secreti(sts) meaning "the loners" or "solitaries
Being the mother of two autistic sons, I am grateful for your consideration and your wish not to hurt people.
Finally,French being my mother tongue the French you speak in your posts is excellent even if you have never learnt it and it makes me happy!

Richard Mason said...


I don't know if it helps to "make a case" for a word--maybe it should stand on its own--but for me this has interesting echoes of "castrati."

Other ideas:

Benjamin said...

Maybe some variation on solipsist? Solipsi, or some such.

Unknown said...

May be:


Keep on thinking.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...
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bruce said...


gabriel said...

What about "numb" and "numbs"?

zamzummim said...


Or your can steal my username and call them Zamzummim (the whisperers/mumblers), but if you do that can you please make Surplus an English Setter? They're tricky enough, and they are charmers =)

zamzummim said...

Oh, and Savants.

Catherine said...


Alison said...

The Zaru (after the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkeys).

I loved the Darger and Surplus stories in the Dog Said Bow-Wow, and I'm very much looking forward to the novel!

Joe Stillman said...

Well, Nisi infractus, noli reficere, as I always say. But this needs some fixing, so how about egelidus (tepid, lukewarm) or inauct (the opposite of auctor)

Notre Dame offers a good resource on Latin grammar at They might give you insight into the connotations of some euphonious Latin word.

Neal Stephenson used "Aut" in a very different sense in Anathem; you may want to avoid that one.

guntharr said...

How about "blanks" or "blasé" (not sure how to pluralize the second.

guntharr said...

also "empties" or "vacants"

guntharr said...

and lastly:
stiff (stiffs)

minus (not sure of plural)

Matthew Adams said...

idiot servant or idioservant

HANNAH'S DAD said...

"empty" (I like the association with empty cans)

"cipher" (or "shifra" in russian, "sifar" in arabic)

"goose egg"

It's not that I don't want a signed copy of the new book, but how's anyone going to beat the previously suggested "the remote"? That's brilliant.

Michael Swanwick said...

What a creative and verbal group this is!

I'm mulling over (and over and over)all the suggestions so far. And the contest is still open. Though I may yet end up using something already suggested. (That's why I'm still mulling.)

What makes it difficult is that the term has to fit in with the esthetic of all the other terms and names in the novel. "Savant," for instance, is already taken, for a type of servant whose function is information storage and retrieval. So it's not usable, but it WAS a shrewd guess.

Keep your ideas coming. I'm genuinely grateful for them.

Ken Houghton said...

kea-nus. (I would say Boreanazes, but that would give away seeing Angel in the morning and Bones at night.)

bruce said...




Unknown said...

"empture(s)" - empty + creature(s)

Keep on thinking...

David Stone said...

how about...

dissociate (kind of like the opposite of an associate. OK, this makes no sense)

Looks like Richard got the good ones... I'd say "phlegmat" is my favorite.

Luke said...

I like to think that Darger is named after Henry Darger - many layered, endlessly complex, still kind of childish, though. I think Rothko paintings, on the other hand, are much more abstract, and the only emotions involved in them are the ones that you bring to them, though I also get the Rothko would smack me upside the head for thinking that. Still, I think one could call the characters "rothkos" or "rothkovians" or something similar, communicating the idea of abstraction without connoting simplicity. maybe monkey with the spelling and make them rothcoes or something.

bruce said...


...gotta admit, I liked 'rothkoes'!

Great contest/scam, Michael.

Librarian said...


Michele Bannister said...

Butlers, who traditionally saw nothing they were not supposed to and were perfectly obedient.
or butler rasa: emphasise both their obedience and emptiness.

bruce said...


Joe Stillman said...

vasis - utensil
Gerät - utensil
posuda, posyushka - latinized from the cyrillic посуда, посйусхка, utensil, little utensil

vasculum - a small vessel
sosud, sosudka - latinized from сосуд, сосудка, vessel, little vessel

Unknown said...



affectless (the plural the same as the singular I guess)

PNGs (short for 'persona non grata')


Theophylact said...

How about "notheres" (as in Gertrude Stein's crack about Oakland)?

(You actually seem to be describing golems but without the sense of menace.)

genovefa said...

What about The aloof or the impervious?
The portmanteau word which has been suggested "emptures" is a good idea.

bruce said...

Dauersch;af: "a rarely-used form of therapy which employs medication to induce a coma-like state."

The stuff you learn! I just gleaned this from the sixth volume of Roger Zelazny's Collected Stories: 'The Road to Amber' [pg. 361] Sure miss that gentleman.

bruce said...

I meant: Dauerschlaf. One of our maniacal cats is helping me type.

Lars said...

May I suggest "autants"?

Made-up word but it combines suggestions of autonomic and servant.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

Bruce - thanks for expanding my world with "Dauerschlaf". It made me think of one of my favourite scandals - the indiscriminate use of induced comas in Australia in the 60s and 70s:

Benjamin said...


David Stone said...


It has always seemed to me like Victorians liked to use adjectives as nouns, though this impression might be retroactive.

Nathan said...

Thank you, Mr. Swanwick, for this contest/scam. I've already gained from it because it led me to seek out "The Dog Said Bow-Wow" which I enjoyed thoroughly.

I'll have to sleep on a word to replace autistics. Several good suggestions have been made, perhaps I can add mine to the hat in the morning.

Thanks again.

Joe Stillman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe Stillman said...


Chad Hull said...


bruce said...

Hannah's Dad: You're welcome!


Pat J said...

Nat Whilk sent you cigars from la République des Rêves? And they made it across international lines without being examined? Perhaps the dogs can't sniff the mind-altering substances from la République.

As to terminology: What about something like serf, peasant, or (my personal choice) thrall?

Joe Stillman said...

That is quite an upscale return address.

308 Blvd of the Naked Angels
Dreamer(f) Town
Republic of Dreams

Quite the philatelic specimen too.

Pat J said...

Actually, the stamp collection is rather light, if the package did indeed come from NGC 151.

Hey-nonny Bosh said...

It has to be something someone would actually say.

I vote: dimmi, a play on "dummy," "dimwit," and "dhimmi," or Muslim-subjugated non-Muslims, more formally: "a non-Muslim subject of a state governed in accordance with sharia law. The term connotes an obligation of the state to protect the individual, including the individual's life, property, and freedom of religion and worship, and required loyalty to the empire, and a poll tax known as the jizya."

Plays a nice command: "Gimme, dimmi!" as in "give me that you dimwit."

I don't know what future dystopia YOUR book contemplates, but one of at least SOME sort of Muslim subjugation (or influence therefrom) is certainly a potential outcome (and, indeed, simply a rehash of what has come before; cf. Hungary and the Ottoman Empire...) or is happening now (cf., e.g., the cartoon killings in Denmark).

As for the person who noted "numb," I would offer a term from my youth -- nummie (as in "numbskull").

Real words (most of them) are not consciously derived from Latin or Greek, they just... arrive.

rahkan said...

"rich have servants called autistics, who are obedient and completely without affect and whose cheap virtue is that you can do anything you want in front of them and they don't care and won't react. Essentially, they have neither personality nor sense of self."

I'm going to go with "congressmen"

Hey-nonny Bosh said...

If you are using "savant," real usage would quickly shorten that to "savvy" or "savvies," which works pretty well, too. (Hence, dimmies and savvies would be complementary).

Interestingly, I actually use the term "prole" as intended by Orwell (and wish I were one, NASCAR and all...). (And the enormity of Big Brother goes w/o saying...).

You will note that not too many terms from Clockwork Orange every really caught on. Overly self-conscious constructions just get in the way.

I did, by the way, agree with the commenter who suggested "congressman." Ha!

Nathan said...

I keep circling the idea of them being empty emotionally. Perhaps VESSEL? Which also leads me to think of the medieval term VASSAL. Would a combination of the terms express the idea, VESSAL or VASSEL?

Also -
and I loved the idea of thrall- Good one Pat J.

Luke said...

I like wallflowers as well

genovefa said...

Why not the voidservants or the hollowhusks? Something like the French neologism" creuxvides"

Matthew Adams said...

Archibalds (they all have the same name which is nice and dehumanizing)

Anonymous said...


"They also serve who only stand and wait"
On His Blindness (1655)

Nathan said...

What about nimrod?

Weaver said...


Not sure why the neologism should end up French, but this was the best of the Babelfished translations of "three monkeys" that came up, though the Italian is OK - "trescimmie".

Weaver said...

Oh, and it appears Alison beat me to the concept anyway.

gg said...

You could call them "empties."
or "Voids."

or "Devoids."

gg said...

Has anyone suggested "puppets."

bruce said...

"There are many advantages in puppets. They never argue. They have no crude views about art. They have no private lives". Oscar Wilde

In that spirit, here are two specialized puppets for your consideration:


Joe Stillman said...


Joe Stillman said...

Are we barking up the right tree yet?

Michael Swanwick said...

God knows, I appreciate every drop of blood you guys have put into this. Some of the suggestions are brilliant, some are not, and a number would be great in another context. (I'm thinking of the Italianate terms here, which would be quite useful if Darger and Surplus had an adventure in Venice -- as, of course, someday they must.)

The bad news is that I haven't decided on a winner yet. The good news is that I will soon.

That's a serious promise.

Joe Stillman said...

It seems to me that Autistic is such a pithy word that any substitution is going to require some sort of exposition. Autistic implies that the person is that way involuntarily (possibly just another product of the Winooski gene mills, but there's no need to point that out.) The reference to the "Indentures of 100 Autistics" might imply otherwise, but I can't shake the feeling that the person is not that way by choice.

The substitute neologism is elusive because you can't pack all the same connotations into another word.

This is a tough one.

Michael Swanwick said...

You're absolutely right, Joe. I had this same conversation with my son Sean just last night. And after he'd spelled out all the ways that "autistic " worked -- most specifically, the implied cruelty of what had been done to them -- he ended by saying, "But of course you can't use it."

All this trouble over a single word! It really brings out what a mysterious art fiction is.

genovefa said...

I could not agree more: an autistic
person's brain is not" wired" to decipher the outside world and relate to others. I always say in French:" ce n'est pas qu'ils ne veulent pas mais ne peuvent pas" to stress their inability.
Besides when the psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler first coined the word in 1910, he described schizophrenia...
Sometimes I dream that someone would write a story about how autistic people are the only ones who can understand and interact with aliens landing on earth thus contributing to save human kind from a lot of serious troubles...after all their way of perceiving things and thinking is so different thatextraterrestrials could bond with them.
I suppose it is the positive thinking of a mother!
They are more or less trapped in their own minds. So finding a word is very tricky indeed but challenging.

Anonymous Bosh said...

Call 'em "arties" then.

Accented (boston?) version of "autistic" then shortened

Joe Stillman said...

amygdalic one who has a diminished or modified amygdala.


"amygdala (uh mig' dull uh)

It is a set of subcortical nuclei that is important for perceiving in others and having in oneself emotional or affective behaviors and feelings (e.g. fear, anger). It is, therefore, a component of the limbic system.

The amygdala is both large and just beneath the surface of the front, medial part of the temporal lobe where it causes the bulge on the surface called the uncus.

It got its name from its shape - like an 'almond'."

Anonymous Bosh said...

Again, I think that "normal" folks would shorten/slangify such a word. Dolly or dollies (or even, Dalis, bringing in a ref to the melty type world...).

Matthew Adams said...

Nonnies (anonymous, no-ones, no-bodies)
Automen (sounds too Dr Who...)
Onoffs (on-offs)

This is fun. Do writers spend most of their days sitting around trying to come up with names and telling themselves it is actual work?

Michael Swanwick said...

Yes, honestly, we do. The sad thing is that we have to come up with those words (or titles) in order for the story or novel to work, and the better they are, the better the particular work will do. So it's actually real and necessary work.

And just to prove my point: My first novel was titled In the Drift. Bill Gibson's was titled Neuromancer. Guess which one is considered a classic today?

[Okay, okay, I hastily admit, there were other reasons as well. But that ultra-cool title didn't hurt.]

Matthew Adams said...

Sounds a little bit like gambling...

guntharr said...

What about:

HANNAH'S DAD said...

> And just to prove my point: My first
> novel was titled In the Drift.
> Bill Gibson's was titled Neuromancer.
> Guess which one is considered a classic today?

Well yes - but Neuromancer, while considered a 'classic', only sold a few hundred copies. Gibson didn't break out of the literary-sf ghetto until he wrote 'The Log of the Mustang Sally'.

Or so I am told.