Among the common tropes of science fiction, cyborgs have long been recognized as possessing unique potential as a metaphor for transitional identity, for the spaces between natural and constructed, human and machine. In a famous essay from 1985, A Manifesto for Cyborgs, Donna Haraway promoted the cyborg to a symbol of liberation from received ideas of identity as tied to biology. The so-called "cyberfeminism" that arose in the wake of Haraway's influential article sees the cyborg as a challenge to old dualisms:
...my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work. One of my premises is that most American socialists and feminists see deepened dualisms of mind and body, animal and machine, idealism and materialism in the social practices, symbolic formulations, and physical artifacts associated with 'high technology' and scientific culture. (Haraway 1991, 154)
She goes on to claim that, "Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves" (Haraway 1991, 181).
What has become of this politicized science-fictional trope over twenty years after Haraway's manifesto? Does it still hold any radical potential for redefinition of identity, feminist or not? How do cyborgs now compare to cyborgs as they were first envisioned? In order to examine these questions, we will first take a look at the origin of the cyborg in science fiction.
A Brief History of Cyborgs
Before cyborgs became a symbol for embracing radical uncertainty, they were a theoretical solution for solving some of the problems posed by travel in outer space. Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline published a paper in 1960 in which they propose the term "cyborg" for humans augmented to make them more suited to space flight (available online.) As Ashley Dunn points out, "Ever since the publication of 'Cyborgs and Space' in 1960, the concept of the human-machine being has entranced scientists and laymen alike" (n.p.).
But the idea of the cyborg has been around for much longer than the name. According to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the first major cyborg novel was The Clockwork Man by E.V. Odle, which appeared in 1923 (Clute and Nicholls, 290). From this clockwork mechanism in the brain of a man; to the cyborg spaceship of Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang; to the pilot with the mechanical heart of Vonda McIntyre's Superluminal; to the cyborg time travelers of Kage Baker's Company stories, human/machine interfaces have been with us in science fiction for over eighty years now.
The extent to which a human protagonist has been augmented to make him or her a "cyborg" varies widely. On one end of the spectrum there are such figures as the superman/bionic man of the TV series Six Million Dollar Man; on the other end, humans modified minimally for a specific job or environment, such as the neural implants of the Netwalkers in Melissa Scott's novel, Trouble and her Friends, and similar bio-mechanical enhancement in other works generally lumped together as cyberpunk.
The cyborg sometimes gets confused with androids, which are humanoid machines rather than mechanized humans. The confusion is understandable, being largely a matter of the direction from which the concept of the man-machine hybrid is approached. Among the stranger variants of this kind of machine/human interface is the example of Jonas in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun cycle, who began his existence as a mechanical man, and becomes human through replacement of his worn parts with biological limbs and organs. A reverse cyborg, in effect, machine becoming man.
Cyborgs and Cyberpunk
The extent to which the human-machine interface is thematized in science fiction varies widely as well. In fact, the whole identity/body issue comes up in fiction much less often than all the theoretical excitement surrounding the topic would seem to imply. Where it seems to be addressed most often, however, is in the genre of cyberpunk.
Cyborgs and cyberpunk have often been conflated, with a certain amount of justification. Many of the protagonists of cyberpunk are augmented, a synthesis of human and machine, most frequently to enable them to upload their minds to the individual author's version of cyberspace. While the extent of mechanical manipulation of the physical body here is less than in many works containing cyborgs, given the fact that manipulation often has to do with the mind, it is perhaps not surprising that theoretical and/or philosophical implications of the cyborg come up more often in these works. Where does identity begin and end when Case's augmentation allows him to jack into Molly's mind in William Gibson's Neuromancer? He is still Case, but his feelings and sensations are Molly's:
The abrupt jolt into other flesh. Matrix gone, a wave of sound and color....
"How you doing, Case?" He heard the words and felt her form them. She slid a hand into her jacket, a fingertip circling a nipple under warm silk. The sensation made him catch his breath. She laughed. But the link was one-way. He had no way to reply. (56)
In Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, the Metaverse messes up reality and identity in similar ways, but this cyberpunk novel also has non-human cyborgs, the rat things: former dogs programmed as security devices to protect territory. Quite the opposite of Haraway's liberating Cyborg Manifesto, rat things are slaves to their machine selves. On the other hand, they retain strong memories of being real dogs, which allows them to develop the kind of protective attachment that Fido has for Y.T.
The theme of identity and humanity in cyberpunk is more famously explored using the trope of androids rather than cyborg. The Nexus 6 replicants in the film Blade Runner (1982) are perhaps the most iconic human hybrids in the minds of millions of film viewers, who also see that movie as the defining aesthetic of cyberpunk. The replicants, however, are androids, machines made in the human image, using human materials, rather than cyborgs. The theme explored in the case of androids tends to be to what extent a machine can develop individual indentity and humanity and is thus on a thematic level a very different animal than the human augemented in such a way to transcend physical limitations, despite the superficial similarities in the tropes.
While cyborgs were fairly common in cyberpunk and before, their use appears to have let up a bit in more recent science fiction. Or has it? It could be argued that our idea of human has expanded to the extent that many of the highly augmented characters of only a few decades ago would be more likely now to be referred to as human than as cyborg. On the one hand, there are characters such as Catherine Asaro's bio-mechanically enhanced Sauscony Valdoria, an elite space fighter pilot approaching superwoman status. But even as modified as she is, this character is not ostensibly a cyborg—as she probably would have been if she had been written twenty years earlier.
Then there are the types of cyborgs to be found in contemporary science fiction—which ramp up the unusual aspect of the modification. In Kage Baker's Company stories, the effect of augmentation is nothing less than immortality. William Barton's Gods of a Lesser Creation takes a different tack on the unusual; here the semi-human cyborgs include animal characteristics—not only are they modified, they are human/machine/animal interfaces.
While Barton's story explores themes of humanity and identity and the complications of being an amalgam of flesh and metal, it is far-removed from Haraway's liberating cyborg myth—much like the "rat thing" cyborgs of Stephenson's Snow Crash. In Barton's tale, cyborgs, androids and gyndroids (being, after all, products) are slaves, property, rented out to high-paying customers for sex or companionship or whatever the case may be. The narrator, Lassie, is a cyborg consisting of human, machine, and dog. Nominally a female, s/he has male pheromones, and is "more meat than metal" (16). The story is about the friendship that develops between Lassie and "She," a gyndroid primarily used for sex, and their relationship with the family that rents them for a vacation. Lassie has no real memories of either human or dog life and envies the humans for possessing complete lives, but by the end of the story it is clear that there is very little reason to envy the humans. As She tells Lassie, "You know, of course you do, how much more of a man, how much more of a human being you are than they, poor old Lassie." (28) Thus the theme in this story is closer to the traditional android tale, the development of identity and humanity in a being that is essentially a product.
The Thing About Identity
The central question posed by the machine-human interface of the cyborg can be asked in two different ways:
- How much does changing the physical body change identity?
- To what extent is the mind independent of the body?
Alison Muri for one believes that this leads to a basic contradiction in cyborg theory:
A central paradox in cyborg theory is that consciousness or soul is understood to be indelibly altered by technological changes to the body but is also contradictorily seen as distinct—even detachable—from the body. (80)
We do not think, however, that this is necessarily a contradiction. Instead, it can be seen as two sides of the same coin, two different ways of examining the same topic. Even though Lassie is a "dog" whose memories are erased with each new client, s/he retains something of personality and humanity. At the same time, Lassie's identity is circumscribed by the physical/machine body s/he inhabits. And while Case remains Case even when he uploads his mind into the matrix and from there into Molly's mind (and body and sensations), these scenes nonetheless contain an element of basic identity insecurity.
The very act of involvement in a story, of associating one's self with the other of the narrator or protagonist, is a kind of poor man's consciousness transfer. From our very roots in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, we as a field have been focused on the idea of creating new and better men—every fan is a modern Prometheus. Is it any wonder that the concept of cyborgs holds such fascination for readers of our genre?