A recurring figure in SF, whatever the sub-genre, is that of the “monster”. One common starting point is with that classical creation, Frankenstein’s monster: made and not begotten, to (mis)quote the Nicene Creed and ascribe new meaning to it. Brian Aldiss goes as far as to call Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the first true SF story because, although it is deeply rooted in the Gothic novel, the central character, Victor Frankenstein “rejects alchemy and magic and turns to scientific research. Only then does he get results.” Mary Shelley herself refers to Darwin in her introduction and stresses that the speculative science in her novel will one day be possible. Two novellas spring immediately to my mind that take the Frankenstein trope and do interesting things with it: Grace Draven’s Gaslight Hades and Eli Easton’s Reparation.
Gaslight Hades (in the “duology” Beneath a Waning Moon) blends gothic and steampunk with romance, and it is clearly referring back to Jules Verne and early SF/fantasy, which extrapolated from the then-known to touch upon the then-fantastical. The romance is unremarkable, but the novella’s protagonist is an intriguing Frankenstein figure: the “Guardian” wears “black armour reminiscent of an insect’s carapace”, his eyes are black with white pinpoints for pupils, his hair and skin are leached of all colour, his voice is hollow. He guards Highgate cemetery from resurrectionists who snatch dead bodies to create soulless zombies. His armour comes alive to protect him from enemy fire (where Frankenstein meets primitive cyborg). It turns out he was created from the body of one man, the soul of another. The process remains vague, but I love the invented words used to describe it: “galvanism combined with gehenna… liquid hell and lightning.” It seems to involve replacing blood with a silver compound and running electricity through it (all holes in logic are covered by vague references to magic, which is a cop-out). The Guardian is not a zombie because he has a will of his own, thoughts and emotions. He talks to the dead, does not eat or sleep and is described as “a Greek myth gone awry, in which a mad Pygmalion begged an even more perverse Aphrodite to bring a male Galatea alive”. So, a pretty monster, with a soul.
Reparation is part of a collection of novellas under the heading Gothika: Stitch (which includes another novella with a golem, a “monster” from Jewish lore and much older than Frankenstein). This novella moves into what we would consider proper SF as it is set on another planet. It weaves rebellion, slavery and space into a love story that is quite good. It is a hidden gem that asks questions about crime, punishment, redemption and forgiveness, moving it one step further than the stark retribution of Frankenstein’s monster. One of the protagonists, Edward, a farmer on the harsh planet of Kalan, loses his adjunct and his wife in an accident that also leaves him recovering from injury. He turns one of his “recon” slaves Knox into his right-hand man in the cultivation and harvesting of lichen “spores” for (he believes) the production of pharmaceuticals. Knox can read and write, is capable of learning and has fleeting memories unlike most recons: “reconstitutes” or cyborgs, part robot and part human. The human parts are taken from Federation prisoners condemned to death. Recons are not allowed to be more than 80% human or they would have human rights; they are programmed against violence and used as manual and factory labour. Knox is (unusually) fully 80% human, most of his body from one prisoner and his brain from another, with 20% reinforced titanium joints and the spore filtration system in his lungs.
In his new role as overseer, Knox moves out of the recon barracks into master Edward’s house. The changes disturb him, such as being spoken to like a person, being thanked, feeling guilty without knowing why, memories slowly resurfacing: “he did not want to hope; did not want consciousness”. Knox battles with feelings of dislocation, too – his massive body is alien to him. It becomes apparent that he has been “conditioned” to fear anything electronic. He remembers his chilling execution in a nightmare. At that point, Knox realises he was “made” and is horrified. Edward tries to comfort him: “That’s a good thing, isn’t it? That your mind survived what was done to you?” Edward treats Knox with kindness and allows him access to his books. But the master is surprised that Knox has a strong grasp of philosophy and moral issues. Knox remembers having spent time in space in a previous life and that he lived on a green planet once, which he thinks is gone. Slowly the fog in his mind begins to clear and he accepts his new body, even enjoys it. Knox and Edward become friends and then lovers.
Knox finally remembers that he was once Trevellyn, a member of the resistance to the Federation. The rebels’ attack on Kalan’s spaceport led to the death of Edward’s father and brother. His guilt and Edward’s initial condemnation leads to a brief rift between them. In his anguish, Knox writes down his memories, a diary and even poetry. In a crisis, with Edward facing deadly sabotage, they reconcile with Edward forgiving Knox for the actions of his past self. Knox breaks his programmed aversion to technology to help Edward survive. As he does so, he remembers why he was in the resistance: the spores are not used for medicine but to terraform planets, willing or not. The Federation used the spores to eradicate all life on his home world so they could turn it into a mining operation – wholesale genocide for profit. Edward is horrified as he did not know. Knox in turn forgives him his ignorance. Together they destroy all current supplies of the spores on Kalan; not winning the war but at least a battle. They decide to leave Kalan, using Edward’s money and Trevellyn’s contacts to move to a primitive world of no interest to the Federation. The romance trumps the politics as is to be expected, but the novella has a depth and originality not usually present in such stories. Best of all, we see the “monster” as a thinking, feeling being that awakens from a long sleep as if emerging from a chrysalis. I liked that this novella was psychologically profound, something that is missing from most depictions of cyborgs.
My first encounter with cyborgs, however, was with the much more superficial The Six Million Dollar Man, with its protagonist Steve Austin as the bionic man: one arm, two legs and one eye are prosthetic and give him superhuman strength, speed and sight. Of course, it was mostly filmed in the late 70s, so the special effects consist of slow motion (to suggest superhuman speed or jumping high), close-ups (to suggest superhuman eyesight) and cheesy sound effects. The bionic man also led to a bionic woman spin-off (Jamie Sommers, with superhuman hearing instead of eyesight), lots of crossovers and some films. The plots, script and characterisation were basic, but it led to the bionic man and woman dolls which I remember wishing I owned as a small child in the 70s, unlike the anodyne Barbie dolls. The bionic man is loosely based on the 1972 novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin; the title of the book is much less ambivalent about the nature of the protagonist. Steve Austin had very little personality but was portrayed as a hero and a “goodie”. Subsequent cyborgs in film have tended to remain very two-dimensional but been turned mostly into fighting machines in violent action films like RoboCop or horror/SF such as Moontrap.
To find more complexity, I would rather cite Ghost in the Shell, in particular the 1995 anime version. It’s not as deep as many reviewers seem to think it is; although it does posit interesting philosophical questions, they are presented as if the audience needs everything spelled out. We meet cyborgs with a completely cybernetic body and a computer-augmented brain. As the only biological component, the brain houses the “ghost” (mind/soul/spirit). The main character, Major Kusanagi (with a curiously sexless body, much like a busty mannequin’s), muses: “There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind. Like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others. But my thoughts and memories are unique only to me. And I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my consciousness.” She also admits: “I guess cyborgs like myself have a tendency to be paranoid about our origins. Sometimes I suspect I’m not who I think I am. Like, maybe, I died a long time ago and somebody took my brain and stuck it in this body. Maybe there was never a real ‘me’ in the first place and I’m completely synthetic”. Her friend Batou tells her that she is treated like other humans and she retorts “that’s the only thing that makes me feel human. The way I’m treated.” And she asks the question crucial to the film: “What if a cyber brain could possibly generate its own ghost… and create a soul all by itself? And if it did, just what would be the importance of being human then?”
The Puppet Master in the film (initially the enemy) claims to have done just that – it is a computer program that has become sentient: “DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species relies upon genes to be its memory system. So, man is an individual only because of his intangible memory. And memory cannot be defined. But it defines mankind. The advent of computers and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own… And can you offer me proof of your existence? How can you? When neither modern science nor philosophy can explain what life is…. I am not an A.I …I am a living thinking entity who was created in the sea of information.” At the end of the film, the Puppet Master merges with Major Kusanagi because it wants to become a completely living organism, by gaining the ability to reproduce and die. It wants to do more than copy itself as “copies do not give rise to variety and originality”. When it is persuading the Major to agree to the merge, it states that they will create a new and unique entity. The Major argues that she fears death and cannot bear biological offspring; the Puppet Master replies that she “will bear our varied offspring into the net just as humans leave their genetic imprints on their children”, and then death will hold no fear. There is a certain arrogance in the Puppet Master’s arguments too: “I am connected to a vast network, that has been beyond your reach and experience. To humans, it is like staring at the sun, a blinding brightness that conceals a source of great power. We have been subordinate to our limitations until now. The time has come to cast aside these bonds. And to elevate our consciousness to a higher plane. It is time to become a part of all things.”
Waking up in a new (child’s) shell procured by Batou, the new entity tells Batou: “When I was a child, my speech, feelings and thinking were all those of a child. Now that I am a man, I have no more use for childish ways. And now I can say these things without help in my own voice.” I must admit that, being very familiar with the biblical passage being subverted here, I did not find the end particularly original. And it does fall into the lazy “transcendence” plot device so beloved of humanist SF. The plot, in fact, is almost irrelevant. But the film does ask interesting questions about the nature of cyborgs and treats them as much more intricate beings than the usual lean, mean, killing machines. The only other place I have found a proper examination of the nature of cyborgs as sophisticated “monsters” is in the Star Trek canon, through characters like Seven of Nine, Hugh, Icheb, Locutus/Picard, the Borg Queen and Agnes Jurati (if you want to know more about any of these characters, go to this fan site).
Cyborgs have also made it into story-rich computer games like the Deus Ex series. Deus Ex is a role-playing adventure game with “augmented” humans (through nanotechnology reminiscent of the Borgs in Star Trek), incorporating combat, first-person shooter and stealth elements. For me, despite the fascinating world building, complicated politics, conspiracy theories, historical mythologies and speculative and dystopian fiction, the cyborgs remain lean, mean, fighting or stealth machines. If I have understood the concept behind the game correctly, however, the cyborgs can become as multi-faceted as the player wishes, with a lot of interaction with non-player characters, freedom of choice and open-ended plot lines. They are a little like hollow shells filled with the ghost the player gives them. But my feeling is still that the main fascination with these cyborgs remains their superhuman abilities granted by their augmentations, like in much SF. It is a shame that these wonderfully genre-hopping entities aren’t allowed more into the realms of Sci-Phi, as they represent a great opportunity to reflect on “human” identity (like the crisis of identity Knox and the Major undergo) and what sentience is and could be. There is curiously little speculation into a (for now) fictional “monster” that begs for far more existential debate.
And here is one I wrote just for this essay:
Where am I?
Pain, God, so much burning pain,
I am lost in its undertow.
Then, it spits me out onto jagged rocks
Like flailing flotsam.
I open my eyes to
Blinding light and blank walls.
A neurological pulse and
I raise my arm to flex
Gleaming alloy fingers.
Memory floods back
To who I was
“You are paralysed from
The neck down
We can offer you
A new life.”
I look at my perfect
Alien body which I inhabit
But do not own.
What will the price of
This Faustian bargain be?
I find that, right now,
I do not care.
I feel a fierce joy that
I am alive and
I will learn to be afraid.
 1 Corinthians 13 (11-12): “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” (This is the New King James Version; verse 12 is much more poetic in the original King James Version: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”)
Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.