Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Cyborg

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Cyborgs.

One of the most prevalent tropes in science fiction, the word cyborg is short for "cybernetic organism." It refers to a person or machine made from a combination of biological and artificial material. The trope's most common form sees humans receiving mechanical upgrades.

I'm thankful that my parents allowed me to watch movies with adult content as a child, otherwise I might never have seen the 1987 action film Robocop, directed by Paul Verhoeven, which served as my bullet-riddled introduction to the cyborg concept. Robocop was part man, part machine, all cop--or so the movie's tagline read.

The term itself was originally coined by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline is a 1960 article proposing self-regulating human-machine interfaces and enhancements to overcome the difficulties of deep space exploration. They argued that it would be more practical to alter an astronaut's bodily functions and life requirements than to attempt to provide him with an earth-like environment in space.

Since then, science fiction has taken the concept and run with it. From bionic men to sith lords, cyborgs are everywhere. From a writer's perspective, the trope can serve all kinds of purposes. It can be used as a scientifically plausible excuse for characters with fantastic powers and abilities, perhaps utilizing Clarke's third law. It can add a level of alien menace to a good villain. It can also be used to explore philosophical territory via the ethical gray area that comes along with the idea of experimenting with our "God given" shells. One of my own recent stories that I'm shopping around explores the concept from a cultural standpoint, portraying a world where cybernetic implants are not only accepted, but largely mandatory.

Another popular action film from the 80's, James Cameron's The Terminator, turned the trope inside-out. Instead of human beings with artificial upgrades, his horrific vision of the future showed us a robotic killing machine sporting "living tissue" over its metal endoskeleton. With organic flesh that could sweat and bleed, its AI designer had created the perfect infiltrator to wage a war against its human creators.

Though its latest sequel, Terminator Salvation, introduced a model closer to traditional depictions of the concept, the terminators are cyborgs of a different color.

If we take the definition literally, cyborgs are already a reality. If you have a pacemaker or an artificial hip, congratulations: you're a cyborg. As we've seen here, the word usually calls to mind more fantastic applications, but we're getting there. Human enhancement research is farther along than one might think, blurring the line between fiction and reality a little more every day. 

Today there even exists an international cultural movement called Transhumanism. One of the goals of the movement is the elevation of the human condition by enhancing our physical, psychological and intellectual capabilities with the help of current and future technologies.

So the next time you read a book with a cyborg in it, don't roll your eyes too hard. It might not be long before you see one strolling down your block. 

Recommended Reading:
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith
Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

Recommended Viewing:
The Terminator 
Star Trek: First Contact

Recommended Gaming:
Deus Ex: Human Revolution 
Metal Gear Solid series
Halo series 


  1. Cyborgs as reality - best sentence of the day!

  2. Awesome post, J.W.! I'm a great fan of robotics, especially those integrated into the human body (got a couple of implants in my WIP as well). Loved the "congratulations, you're a cyborg" part---reminded me of this hilarious bit: 5 Disturbing Ways the Human Body Will Evolve in the Future!

    1. That article is hilarious! Unfortunately, I've vowed to abstain from Cracked.com as it's one of those internet black holes that makes all of my free time disappear.

  3. Cyborgs are the future or so many claim. Will wait and watch, interesting post.

    I am at http://sulekharawat.com/2012/04/03/creative-people/

    1. They just might be! Thanks for stopping by, sulekkha.

    2. I can't begin to tell you how much I loved robocop as a kid-! No lie, one of my nicknames growing up was "randicop." And as far as Terminator is concerned... with all of these smart phones and smart this and smart that, I'm convinced Skynet is real- they might've been off by a few years but it's coming!!

      Great post!

    3. Thanks so much, Randi! I'm absolutely calling you Randicop from now on.

  4. really enjoyed this post, I was always facinated by the collective idea in star trek, specially when they removed seven of nine so she was more human than cyborg.

    oh and hello from a fellow a2z'er

    1. I grew up on Star Trek and loved the Borg. Some people hate on Voyager, but I liked it (for the most part). Seven of Nine had a great story arc.

      Thanks for stopping by!


Thanks for reading!