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Monday, April 6, 2009

Science in Fiction: Cyborgs

What: Cyborgs

Invented by: Unknown- possibly George Lucas for the Star Wars movies, possibly someone else. Asimov introduced the idea of robots who were like humans, who integrated them is hard to guess.

In Other Fiction: Cyborgs are stock characters for many sci-fi stories. With biohacking and bioartificing on the rise there are more stories about genetically enhanced humans. Some of those aren't even listed as sci-fi anymore, they're making their way into mainstream and romance fiction.

What is a Cyborg? A cyborg is any sentient creature that has been altered or adapted with a mechanical implant. That's a broad definition though and would mean people with pace-makers count as cyborgs. I'm not sure that would be good for their blood pressure. Generally, in fiction, a cyborg is a person who has voluntarily had limbs or major organs (like eyes) replaced by a mechanical implant because the mechanical one does it better. In some cases the cyborg implant is an upgraded prosthesis (like Luke's hand in Star Wars).

Do We Have Anything Like This: Cyborgs are here to stay!
Not only have prosthesis come a long way from peg legs and fishing hooks, you can now get a replacement finger with a built-in USB port! Awesome!

How long until we have "real" cyborgs? Technology tends to develop in leaps and bounds. Twenty years ago the idea of digital cameras wasn't even on the horizon, now we wonder how we lived without them. I expect cyborg technology to follow similar leaps and bounds. We've made huge progress in medicine that allows limbs to be reattached or replaced. We have the iLimb (yeah, I'm sick of i-everything too) but don't expect to see arm-mounted cannons on the neighbor anytime soon.

What Complications Are There For Cyborg Attachments? Oh, myriad. We haven't yet achieved full integration with the human body and a mechanical attachment. To do that you might have to string a secondary vascular system so that you have blood and any liquid needed for the mechanical apparatus (this is a common theme in cyborg fiction). We need to understand the human nervous system better and be able to manipulate it. And we need to move past this pesky reluctance to do anything "unnatural" to our species. Plastic surgery isn't unheard of, but this is a step beyond.

What is the science behind this? Do you know what a myoelectric signal is? Neither did I until I looked it up. I'm pretty sure it was mentioned in biology class and went straight over my head the first time. My college professor was not into cyborgs... but I digress.

The myoelectric signal is what allows the brain to control voluntary muscle movement, like typing. Myo- comes from the Greek words Myos meaning muscle and electric is self-explanatory. The average frequency is 100Hz and there signal is less than 1 millivolt. And, yes, I'm quoting from HERE.

What happens with a myoelectric prosthesis is the mechanical piece is attached to the remaining limb, your brain produces the signal, which triggers a reaction from a battery-operated mechanism in the prosthesis. Basically, with a thought you can get the prosthetic to move. Fun!

That myoelectric signal is probably going to be the basis for moving technology into the more advanced stages. No one has a gleaming metal arm or looks like a Borg. This technology is still pretty limited to hands. It's expensive and I'm willing to bet there are a fair number of complications to sort out if you want one. And it doesn't sound like the cyborgs from fiction that we know and love. I'm looking at you Branden Kel-Paten *wink* Those cyborgs are still fiction, but coming soon to a galaxy near you!

Do I love cyborgs? Yes, yes I do. Cyborgs show up in various incarnations in a good portion of my writing, from the Commander Ajax Hajari to the chop-shops of Cincity to the mysterious V of the ViS series. Losing a limb is such a gut-wrenching and traumatic experience, even if you are just an observer to the carnage. I'm fascinated by how people cope, and how people react, to the trauma and the choice. Not all my cyborgs were volunteers. I am an Evil Author. But, volunteer or not, they have to live with those consequences, as do the people around them.

The real question- Replacement hands and legs are not uncommon now. There are so many dangerous activities out there, from riding a motorcycle to crossing the street in the wrong town. I hope by now everyone is used to the idea of meeting someone who might be less than 100% organic. But, if you woke up in the chop-shop, what kind of cyborg enhancement would you have?


  1. Scary question, Liana! This was really interesting, too. :D

    I think I'd opt for longer, thinner legs that can hike indefinitely. I always get so tired and wish I could keep going!

  2. Liana,

    What a great post. I just found your blog and think that it's beautiful... besides being intellegent. Have you checked out The Galaxy Express. You will love it. Best wishes for your writing.

    Frances Drake

    Writing Science Fiction Romance
    Real Love in a Real Future

  3. I discovered your blog recently and wanted to mention that you have many insightful posts here! Thanks for sharing!

    As for cyborgs? They have been around well before Star Wars in the 70s. I can't think of too many specific examples from books or film at the moment (and I don't have time to research) but off the top of my head I recall the cartoon series we loved in the early 60s-- "Tobor, the 8th Man." (Tobor being robot spelled backwards.) Twilight Zone had some stories with robot/human mixes as well, as I recall.

    According to this site (http://homepages.uel.ac.uk/u0219857/olakuku/docs/history.html):

    The word ‘cyborg’ is shortened for ‘cybernetic organism’. Cybernetic is the entire field of control and communications theory, whether in the machine or animal while organism is an organized body, consisting of mutually connecting and dependent parts constituted to share a common life.

    Donna Haraway suggested that "the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense" (151-52). However it can be said that the history of cyborgs orginates from two line of history. One, the character of the cyborg originated out of the emergent field of cybernetics in the 1960's where Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline helped coin the term as a concept that would "allow man to optimize his internal regulation to suit the environment he may seek" in outerspace (Clynes, 32).

    On another side of history, the cyborg takes its origin from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Frankenstein's monster is often cited as the first cyborg and was not born of woman but assembled his monster on the operating table. Thus, two dominant types of cyborgs emerge in their history: the cyborg as a reconceptualized post-human body and the cyborg as machine-controlled monster. Cyborgs may even give birth according to Heims quote ‘The psyche longs to perpetuate itself and to conceive offspring; and this it can do, in a transposed sense, by conceiving ideas and nurturing awareness in the minds of others as well as our own’ and movies like Terminator and Judgement Day (1991).

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