Entry updated 13 September 2021. Tagged: Theme.
The term "cyborg" is a contraction of "cybernetic organism" and refers to the product of human/machine hybridization. David Rorvik popularized the idea in his nonfiction As Man Becomes Machine (1971), writing of the "melding" of human and machine and of a "new era of participant evolution". Elementary medical cyborgs – people with prosthetic limbs or pacemakers – are already familiar, early works ringing the changes on this theme include Edgar Allan Poe's Satire "The Man that was Used Up" (August 1839, Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine), in which an outwardly striking soldier proves to consist almost entirely of prosthetics, and Perley Poore Sheehan's and Robert H Davis's "Blood and Iron" (October 1917 Strand), with mutilated soldiers rebuilt from mechanical parts. Medical cyborgs have been extrapolated in fiction in such works as Bernard Wolfe's Limbo (1952; vt Limbo '90 1953) and Martin Caidin's Cyborg (1972); the television series The Six Million Dollar Man – which popularized the term Bionic Man – was based on the latter. A more recent example of the cyborg Superman can be found in Richard Lupoff's Sun's End (1984) and Galaxy's End (1988).
There are two other common classes of cyborg in sf: functional cyborgs are people modified mechanically to perform specific tasks, usually a job of work; adaptive cyborgs are people redesigned to operate in an alien environment, sometimes so completely that their humanity becomes problematic. The subject of the earliest major cyborg novel, The Clockwork Man (1923) by E V Odle, belongs to the latter category, featuring a man of the future who has a clockwork mechanism built into his head which is supposed to regulate his whole being, and which gives him access to a multidimensional world (see Dimensions). The most common form of cyborg portrayed in the early sf Pulp magazines was an extreme version of the medical cyborg (see Medicine), consisting of a human brain in a mechanical envelope. These are featured in Edmond Hamilton's "The Comet Doom" (January 1928 Amazing) and Captain Future series, in Neil R Jones's Professor Jameson series beginning with "The Jameson Satellite" (July 1931 Amazing), and in Raymond F Jones's The Cybernetic Brains (September 1950 Startling; 1962). Brains immortalized by mechanical preservation (see Brain in a Box) often became monstrous, like the ones in Lloyd Arthur Eshbach's "The Time Conqueror" (July 1932 Wonder Stories; vt "The Tyrant of Time" as title story of coll 1955) and Curt Siodmak's much-filmed Donovan's Brain (1943). Some later writers approached the existential situation of humans in mechanized bodies in a much more careful and sophisticated manner; outstanding examples include C L Moore's "No Woman Born" (December 1944 Astounding) and Algis Budrys's Who? (April 1955 Fantastic Universe; exp 1958), both of which focus on the problems of re-establishing identity once the familiar emblems are gone. Existential problems are also to the fore in The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974; rev vt The Unsleeping Eye 1974; vt Death Watch 1981) by D G Compton, which features a man with television cameras implanted in his eyes.
An early example of the functional cyborg is strikingly displayed in "Scanners Live in Vain" (January 1950 Fantasy Book #6) by Cordwainer Smith, which features cyborgs designed for Space Flight; this particular theme dominates stories of both functional and adaptive cyborgs. Earlier, a Brain in a Box functions as a directly connected Spaceship pilot in "Camouflage" (September 1945 Astounding) by Henry Kuttner and C L Moore writing together as Lewis Padgett. Cyborg spaceships are central to Thomas N Scortia's "Sea Change" (June 1956 Astounding), Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang (coll of linked stories 1969), Kevin O'Donnell Jr's Mayflies (1979) and Gordon R Dickson's The Forever Man (1986). The title character of William C Anderson's Adam M-1 (1964) is a cyborg astronaut comprising a human brain installed in a Robot body, while Vonda McIntyre's Superluminal (1983) features space pilots who require mechanical replacement hearts. Stories dealing with the use of adaptive cyborgs to explore other worlds include Arthur C Clarke's "A Meeting with Medusa" (December 1971 Playboy), Frederik Pohl's Man Plus (1976) – describing a sometimes harrowing human adaptation to Mars – and Paul J McAuley's "Transcendence" (November 1988 Amazing). Barrington J Bayley's The Garments of Caean (1976) has two races of cyborgs adapted to the environment of outer space.
Another major theme in stories dealing with functional cyborgs concerns their adaptation to the needs of espionage, War and general mayhem; examples include "I-C-a-BeM" (October 1961 Amazing; vt "The Augmented Agent" in The Best from Amazing, anth 1973, edit Ted White) by Jack Vance, "Kings who Die" (March 1962 If) by Poul Anderson, A Plague of Demons (1965) by Keith Laumer, The Eyes of Heisenberg (1966) by Frank Herbert – where one augmented human deploys an impressive range of energy Weapons in a last stand against pursuit – and "Gottlos" (November 1969 Analog) by Colin Kapp. Relatively few stories treat more mundane manipulative functions, although Samuel R Delany's Nova (1968) makes significant observations en passant, and the theme also features in Kenneth Bulmer's On the Symb-Socket Circuit (1972). Many more recent stories feature humans modified in such a way as to be able to plug in directly to Computers, sometimes working in harness with them to do many kinds of work. Particularly graphic images of this kind can be found in ORA:CLE (1984) by Kevin O'Donnell Jr, Schismatrix (1985) by Bruce Sterling, Hardwired (1986) by Walter Jon Williams and Escape Plans (1986) by Gwyneth Jones; the notion is a staple background element of Cyberpunk. Not all functional cyborgs involve human flesh: the eponym of The Godwhale (1974) by T J Bass is a massive food-collecting cetacean cyborg.
Sf in the Cinema and on Television has often used the cyborg as a convenient figure of menace; examples include the Daleks and Cybermen of Doctor Who. Images of cyborg evil in written sf include the Cyclan in E C Tubb's Dumarest novels and Palmer Eldritch in Philip K Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964). A more sympathetic cyborg is featured in Dick's Dr Bloodmoney (1965), and television presented at least one memorable sympathetic image in Harlan Ellison's The Outer Limits script "Demon with a Glass Hand" (1964). Later came such gung-ho cyborg agents as The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978) and The Bionic Woman (1976-1978).
One work which transcends categorization to deal in semi-allegorical fashion with the relationship between human and machine via the symbol of the cyborg is David R Bunch's Moderan (1959-1970 var mags; fixup 1971), an assemblage of vignettes about a world where machine-men gradually forsake their "fleshstrips" and retire into mechanized "strongholds" to plot the destruction of their fellows.
Mention should also made of what might be termed the inverted cyborg theme, where machines are augmented with human flesh rather than vice-versa. A human-seeming character in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) proves to be a robot who for lack of the correct spare parts has had missing parts restored with flesh and blood; the narrator and title character of Martha Wells's Murderbot Diaries series beginning with All Systems Red (2017) is an artificial AI "construct" whose human-based exterior and organs are built on a machine framework with inbuilt Weapons.
- David Rorvik. As Man Becomes Machine. The Evolution of the Cyborg (London: Souvenir Press, 1973) [nonfiction: hb/]
- Chris Hables Gray, editor. The Cyborg Handbook (New York: Routledge, 1995) [nonfiction: anth: pb/]
- Janice Hocker Rushing and Thomas S Frentz. Projecting the Shadow: The Cyborg Hero in American Film (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1995) [nonfiction: hb/]
- Jenny Wolmark, editor. Cybersexualities: A Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs and Cyberspace (Edinburgh, Scotland: University of Edinburgh Press, 1999) [nonfiction: anth: hb/]
- Chris Hables Gray. Cyborg Citizen: Politics in a Posthuman Age (New York: Routledge, 2001) [nonfiction: hb/]
- Kevin Warwick. I, Cyborg (London: Century, 2002) [nonfiction: hb/uncredited]
- William S Haney II. Cyberculture, Cyborgs and Science Fiction: Consciousness and the Posthuman (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Editions Rodopi, 2006) [nonfiction: pb/]
previous versions of this entry