Cyborgs then and Now

Feb 19, 03:58 by IROSF
Are you a cyborg or do you know one? Please post your feedback.

The article be found here.
Feb 26, 18:23 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Good overview of the motif of the cyborg. I was surprised that Masamune Shirow's The Ghost in the Shell did not make the article. The original manga, the films based on the manga and the two television series (GitS Stand Alone Complex and GitS Second Gig explore (among many other consequences of a high-tech society) the consequences of cyborg technology. It is, in my opinion, one of the best and realistic explorations of these issues in both personal life and society as a whole.

As an example, at one point in the first film the protagonist (cyborged human Motoko Kusanagi) asks a comrade "Have you ever seen your own brain?". This simple question raises a host of questions she must answer concerning her own identity. Is she really human, or is she only a machine running a simulation of a human? Can she rely on her memories as a way of proving her actual existence? Kusanagi's quandry raises these questions for us as well.

In the first of the television series, Kusanagi's watch becomes important as an anchor to a past she cannot entirely trust. The watch serves as a device to allow her to maintain her personality through her many body changes, a way of proving that she is the same person as before, a way of proving that she indeed has a past and is not simply a mechanical construct.

GitS also explores other consquences of a society where the body is transient. Everything from the military use of cyborg bodies and the new tactics that must be evolved on the battle field to the use of empty (soulless) mechanical bodies for sex is explored.

Anyone interested in cyborgs should track GitS down (easy enough to do now, and the english dub is superb, see link).

Damn fine science fiction all around, in fact. Highly recommended.

Also, while not dealing specifically with cyborgs, Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs novels deal with several similar problems inherent in a society that can quickly and easily change bodies. Morgan is a rising star in science fiction and should be read.
Feb 28, 14:26 by Bluejack
I'm just reading some of Morgan's stuff now, and although I find the relentless focus on sex-n-violence to be somewhat cliche, I'm enjoying the byzantine plots and at least some of the characters.
Feb 28, 15:28 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
The sex and violence is often one of the complaints that most critics have, and as much as I enjoy a bit o' the ol' ultraviolence, Morgan sometimes seems gratuitous in it. You are right about the byzantine plots though. I am always reminded of Chandler novels when I read Morgan (which, I think, is the effect he is aiming for).

His characters, in particular Kovacs and Chris Faulkner (from Market Forces are of course anti-heroes, but anti-heroes with a twist. They aren't anti-heroes you particularly root for. They are just less evil than the antagonists they combat. Western media has, unfortunately, 'wussified' the anti-hero motif over several decades (witness the Batman franchise). Morgan's fairly dispicable anti-heroes are refreshing. And he does violence right. It should be revulsive. It takes a lot to crack the indifference bred by scores of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Van Damme movies, and Morgan can punch right through it.

Try Market Forces. Still somewhat violent, but not Takeshi Kovacs violent. Right now I am half way through Black Man, and it is very, very good. Probably his best so far.

Now that I am done schilling for him, I should really get back to work!
Mar 4, 02:29 by Bluejack
Just read Thirteen -- his latest I believe, and the violence was particularly gratuitous in this one. He also seems to be moving away from the science fictional and into a thriller-set-in-a-sci-fi world kind of novel.
Mar 4, 15:21 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Indeed, Thirteen (published everywhere else as Black Man) is Morgan's latest novel. I am surprised you found the violence particularly gratuitous in comparison to Woken Furies or Broken Angels. I won't argue that Morgan likes his violence, but I do find that his approach to it is fresher than most of the military science fiction published recently. That violence seems depersonalized, almost academic (witness Weber's Honor Harrington novels or Bujold's Vorkosigan series). Sure, people die in their novels, but never do those deaths have any real immediacy. Morgan is visceral.

While Black Man/Thirteen is violent, what really intregued me was the philosopical discussion Morgan presents us about the nature of mankind, our inheritance as descendants of nature red in tooth and claw, and the subjective fears we suffer from when faced with atavism. Morgan also discusses the meanings and consequences of genetic engineering, the advent of nano-construction, and interplanetary travel.

You are right, Morgan is sliding more towards a thriller in this novel. The Kovacs novels were more "hard science fiction" (whatever that means) and less thriller (although they are heavy on the hardboiled detective). The hard science is still there in Black Man/Thirteen but it has been moved from non-dialogue info-dump to, admittedly, vague discription and character discussion. In many ways, it serves the novel better.

It is probably my person preference, but I think that science fiction needs the kind of cross genre writing that we find in Black Man/Thirteen (I can only assume that the American publisher changed the title in fear of the political correctness police). I am grown tired of Weber's never ending 'starship captain against the marauding fleet' sagas and or the recasting of the Veit Nam war in space that has made John Ringo's name. I am not arguing that the writing or the stories aren't any good, they are, but the genre is stagnating if that's all there is to offer (and, as much as I hate to say it, it is, with notable exceptions of course).

The most innovative S/F is coming from people like Paolo Bacigalupi or Charles Stross and these stories are not particularly science fictional. Again, the science is there, but they are by no means Heinleinian (can we use Heinlein as an adjective?).

You'd think I was getting paid by Morgan by the way I push his books!

Great to have the site back, btw. Now I can rant about S/F to people who care!
Mar 5, 19:04 by Bluejack
Well, I haven't read Woken Furies yet and am just a third of the way into Broken Angels, so I can only imagine what I'm in for there. :)

In terms of sci-fi v. thriller, it seems like the science fiction in Thirteen was mostly setting; the story was about the characters. It would take almost no important plot point changes to have the whole story set in contemporary non-science-fictional setting. I don't mind that: I still enjoy the science fiction backdrop, but in the Kovacs novels I also enjoy the engagement with far-future speculative ideas.

Broken Angels, for example, has already started exploring ideas of alien-ness. Admittedly, well-trodden ground, but seemingly endlessly fascinating, and Morgan tackles it dead on. Gives it some new spin (so far). And the killing so far has been strictly military.

Mar 6, 18:11 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Broken Angels gets bloodier, but not quite as A Clockwork Orangey as Woken Furies.

I am not convinced that Thirteen's science fiction is only in the setting, and I do not agree that it would "would take almost no important plot point changes" to make it comteporary thriller a la J. D. Robb/Nora Roberts' "In Death" series. The crux of the novel, I feel, is the tension between the genetically created atavistic variant 13s and normal humans. Without that particular science fiction premise, the story would not hold together. I suppose that you could replace the variant 13s with vampires or werewolves easy enough, but there would be no philosophical argument if you simply made them mentally warped soldiers.

In fact, I would have to argue that the ultimate twist of the novel (WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD) where Okenbend tells Marisalis that it was the baseline humans who were the genetic mutants and the variant 13 physiology is the true form of humanity could not exist in any contemporary thriller without science fiction. Again you could substitue in a forgotten enclave of Cro-magnons or something, but even then you are relying on some sort of science fiction premise.

I won't argue that Thirteen (Black Man for everyone outside of the U.S.) isn't a thriller. It is. But there is more science fiction in it that the above mentioned J.D. Robb or other "science fiction" crossovers by writers outside our genre (or, strangely, things like Bear's Quantico). I guess I just found more science fiction in it than you did. That is what is great about S/F though; the ability to stimulate discussion and difference of opinion. (What difference of opinion could people have about Harlequin Romances, I ask you?)

You are right, however, that the Takeshi Kovacs novels are more in the line of 'hard science fiction" (although that term is problematic, see the editorial essay in The Hard S/F Renaissance). And at last the thread returns to its original purpose of cyborgs!

Morgan's world is full of all kinds of cool future tech (did you catch the reference to altered carbon in Thirteen? I think all his works are set in the same world). The DHF (downloaded human freight) is one of the fascinating ideas of modern science fiction. While S/F has long had the idea that man could 'download' his mind into the machine, robot body etc, Morgan carries the idea further by making it the basis of stellar travel (he does have lighthuggers but they take time, his DHF is almost instant). Personalities are then loaded into new bodies (sleeves) either synthetic or human.

Morgan takes a very close look at the manifold consequences of this technology (effective immortality for those who can afford it [the human back up tech is a citizen right but not resleeving], supersoldier bodies for combat [and the idea that militaries can use things like tac nukes since you can resleeve the soldier when the body dies] and the possibility that your consciouness could be infected by a computer virus, these are but a few). He also makes the consequences of this technology intregal to his plots. It is these sorts of questions he raises that makes the Kovacs books superb reading for anyone interested in the cyborg motif.

As Bluejack points out, Morgan's books are explicity violent and sexual, and so not for everyone, but Morgan also takes some well trodden ground and makes it new. I would expect to see film versions in the near future (Altered Carbon has hard boiled detectives and corrupt cops and big guns and kinky sex and slick tech and dispicable bad guys, what Hollywood producer could resist that combination? Not Joel Silver!).

Anyway, thanks for the discussion Bluejack! Oh and have you been reading other British S/F authors of the New New Wave (or whatever they are calling it)? Reynolds, MacLeod et al?
Mar 6, 18:17 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Wow, am I ever verbose. Sorry for taking up so much screen realestate with my rant/ramblings!
Mar 7, 05:03 by Bluejack
So, Morgan handles the jacked-testosterone of the Variant Thirteen in good science fictional tradition, and it does spur some philosophical discussions (nature v. nurture; essence of humanity; identity; masculinity), but even within the context of the stories themselves, the author seems to be falling out on the side of nurture over nature. You could have the same philosophical discussions in a contemporary thriller, and you could have the same plot points with any of the not-so-realistic Hollywood action-hero leads pulling their implausible survival stunts. Is Morgan's Variant Thirteen really any different than a Bruce Willis character? It may have better justification, but it's not really a different *story*.

And as for the hibernating humanoid -- I *really* don't see the point.

I've been contemplating the influence of video games on Morgan's plots: an indestructible hero who can respawn at will ripping up disposable non-character entities at will, collecting quest tokens in a labyrinth of events in which every detail *can* bear significance, and most come round, either in predictable ways (Norton's brother) or surprising ones (Ortiz).

Yeah, I've read Revelation Space by Reynolds (although it was a while ago and didn't make a huge impression on me), most of MacLeod (which has made an impression), most of Stross (if he counts), all of Mieville (is New Weird part of New New Wave?), lots of MacAuley.
Mar 7, 16:28 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
I will concede the point that a Variant 13 is not much different than a Bruce Willis character with more justification for his abilities. It is, however, those justifications that are the science fiction in Thirteen. I will also admit that Thirteen may be Morgan's best written novel (in a literary, wordsmith sense) but not as science fictional as the Kovacs novels. Touché, sir.

You have to admit though, it was a pretty good thriller with some wonderful and scary ideas. I am still unconvinced that the philosphy could have been transplanted into a non-science fiction novel though. Some of the arguements (eg: nature vs. nuture) certainly, but the whole of it relies too much on the atavistic nature of the Variant 13s and is therefore speculative. I am reminded of the first run cyborgs in Kage Baker's "Company" novels and short stories; the ones that were created and used to wipe out "wild" humanity so that civilization could be developed. The descriptions Baker provides for the psychology and physiology of these early "warrior" cyborgs is markedly similair. I am not sure that Morgan could have made many of the arguments that he did without writing within science fiction.

His books do read like FPS video games don't they? Hmmm.... You know a Kovacs FPS/Puzzle game...

As for Reynolds, Revelation Space is in my opinion the weakest of his "Revelation Space" series (sounds strange doesn't it). Redemption Ark and its direct sequel Absolution Gap are better written and plotted. If you like the big concept, far future, neat-but-fictional-science, these two will not disappoint. Oh, and an alien that is alien. I get recollections of Lovecraft when I read Reynolds (not the supernatural, but the 'tiny island of ignorance admist the vast seas of infinity' and the utterly indifferent/specifically malicious nature of the universe).

Of note are also Reynolds' Pushing Ice (a stand alone novel not set in the 'Revelation Space' universe), that has some absolutely mindboggling huge things in it (which I can't describe without spoilers and really, the surprise of them is part of the awesomeness [and I mean that in the definitive sense] of them). The ending is a bit disappointing; I was left vaguely unsatisfied but I did go back and read it twice more just for fun.

And his latest The Prefect which is set in the 'Revolution Space' universe, but several centuries before Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. This one is a straight up police investigation story, but I think you will find it more satifying a cross over than Thirteen was. Lots of tech, a plot that hinges on technology and another alien that is alien. If the rest of the 'Revelation Space' novels do make an impact, be sure to get Galactic North (you should get it anyway, some very, very fine short science fiction in it).

MacLeod is probably my newest favorite science fiction writer. I read The Stone Canal on a whim and it solidified lots of vague political ideas that had been floating in my head for years. I am not certain that I can put into words how large and important an impact that MacLeod's writing has made on me. I have since read, and reread and reread and reread, everything I can get my hands on by him. I would have to say, however, Learning The World was the least impressive (but still a great novel) and I was somewhat dismayed by the ending of The Execution Channel. It was so out of right field and unexpected (yet in all ways completely Ken MacLeod in its weirdness) that I am not sure it wasn't a cop out.

Mieville I haven't read much of, though he comes highly recommended by everyone in the field (and for my money, I would count the New Weird in with the New New Wave [I am not sure where I heard that term, but I think it fits as well as any]). Stross counts, and talk about high bitrate, big concept stuff! Uploaded sentient lobsters! Self evolving artificial cats! Transdimensional Nazis! Stross is a roller coaster. A roller coaster built out of a skyhook!

MacAuley leaves me kind of cold. Competantly written, some good ideas, but not really all that engaging. Perhaps you could suggest which novels I should read?

Mar 8, 21:22 by Bluejack
Re: Thirteen: absolutely no complaints about the book as something worth reading and fun to read.

Re: McAuley: The books I *enjoyed* most were the confluence books, but I have to say they're felt somewhat derivative -- they owed a lot to Gene Wolfe's _Book of the New Sun_ series. However, there are far worse works to imitate! I've also read some space-opera stuff by McAuley that I enjoyed at the time, but looking over his bibliography I find I can't pinpoint what it is I've read! It could have been short fiction. Not the strongest recommendation, I guess. (I'm travelling and away from my bookshelves. A handicap.)

Re: Mieville: Not something you want to go into with a lot of expectations. It gets way overhyped, and if you are looking for something revelatory and transformative -- well -- you'll probably be disappointed. But fun and some very vivid writing in places.

A couple more that probably fit into that family: Iain Banks and M. John Harrison.

I have been consistently disappointed with Harrison: his Viriconium books (another with lots of Gene Wolfe driving the inspiration) begin well but, to my taste, ramble off into a more theoretical/experimental realm that's less immediately enjoyable. I also read Light, which I found quite offputting for a variety of reasons, both narrative and thematic.

Banks is someone whom everyone I know raves to me about. However, every time I go to the bookstore I read the back covers and sort of twitch off to something else.
Mar 10, 14:49 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
I did read McAuley's "Confluence" books and wasn't all that impressed. Great writing, certainly. McAuley does have a way with words, however, description at the detriment of plot has always annoyed me. That is one of the reasons most literary fiction never gets on my shelves: beautiful writing in service of itself. I too am reminded of Gene Wolfe's "New Sun" novels. I tried and tried and tried to read them and never got past about page 50. Reminded me of all those awful 18th and 19th Century novels I had to read as an undergrad(I will see you in hell Thackery!). It has been several years since I last tried McAuley and Wolfe, so maybe it is time for me to try them again.

I will definitely try some Miéville. He is one of those authors where I pick up the book in the store, but then see something by McDevitt or Reynolds and put him back down. There does seem to be a lot of hype. The editors at Locus are really pushing Un Lun Dun (they seem to be hyping a lot of YA in general lately). I am looking for some good Lovecraftian/Weird Fiction type stuff and Miéville might fit the bill.

I won't rave to you about Banks. I have enjoyed some of his "Culture" work that has made it into short fiction form, but his novels are off putting in some vague way. The Algebraist is on my to-read pile though. The plot seemed intriguing.

Thanks for the suggestions and info!

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