Plastiskin: a new entry in the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction

There are many terms from classic and modern SF that remain unresearched, and the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction will be continually updated, especially as additional resources are put online. Boing Boing is syndicating new entries from the HDSF on a regular basis. (Read the series introduction.)


Perhaps the most famous scene in the 1967 movie The Graduate sees the newly graduated, and aimless, Benjamin Braddock buttonholed by a guest at a party, who urges him to listen carefully to the one word he should know about the future: "plastics." The joke works on multiple levels: plastics were indeed the future, but by that time this was hardly a secret, so the revelation is a let-down; either way, it is a dull future, one which will not provide a real solution to Benjamin's lack of direction.

But in the 1940s and '50s, plastics really were exciting, and science-fiction writers were on it. The comics superhero Plastic Man, who could bend his body into all kinds of shapes, debuted in 1941; in 1942, we find the first example of plasteel, an imaginary substance that combines some of the qualities of plastic (such as lightness or transparency) with some of the qualities of steel (such as hardness or strength).

By the end of that decade, a new imaginary artificial material was named: plastiskin, which can be defined succinctly as 'synthetic skin'. This tended to manifest in two forms: as the exterior covering for an android, or as a material used for first-aid or other medical purposes. In both cases, real-world scientists are currently working to create such substances, although the word plastiskin is still restricted to fictional contexts. Nowadays, science fiction can look at plastics in less-positive ways; recent cli-fi is concerned about the amount of plastic waste in our world. Perhaps we should not expect many new plastics terms in the SF vocabulary.