A Brief History of Fictional Cyborgs

Today, we have a sensational guest blogger, Marissa Meyer, author of the forthcoming CINDER. She's here to talk about Fictional Cyborgs, and man, I can't wait!

My debut novel, Cinder, is a take on the classic Cinderella fairy tale . . . except it’s set in the future, and my Cinderella is a cyborg. When I tell people this, I usually get one of two reactions.

Either: “What’s a cyborg?”

Or: “That’s awesome! I love cyborgs!”

Because who doesn’t love cyborgs? Although modern science has made the potential for cybernetic organisms very real through the use of prosthetic limbs and advances in neural engineering, we still tend to imagine cyborgs as being superhuman. Once-normal people who’ve been retrofitted with super strength, super intelligence, high-tech weapons and gadgets concealed beneath titanium plating . . . and with each new scientific advance, our cyborg expectations only go higher.

Here are seven fictional cyborgs, going as far back as the 12th century, that demonstrate our very human fascination with people who aren’t entirely human.

Nuada of the Silver Arm
From: Irish Mythology
Timeline: Written records pre-date the 12th century, actual story is much older
The story: After losing an arm in battle, a king is forced to abdicate his throne due to a law that states only whole men can rule. He later has his missing limb replaced with a working silver one and reclaims his throne from an oppressive enemy.
How cyborg?: Though mythology is rife with limbs and even whole people made out of precious metals, the idea that the silver arm was functional (rather than just a placeholder) makes Nuada the earliest cyborg I’ve come across. (Thanks to LiveJournal commenter Roseaponi for introducing me to this tale!)

Frankenstein’s Creature
From: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Timeline: 1818
The story: A doctor pieces together human remains fresh from the grave, along with materials found in “the dissecting-room and the slaughter-house,” to create his own horrific creature.
How cyborg?: The doctor uses galvanism, a method of applied electricity, to animate the creature. Though Shelley doesn’t go into detail, I suspect some Energizer batteries were at play.

John A.B.C. Smith
From: “The Man that Was Used Up” by Edgar Allen Poe
Timeline: 1839
The story: A narrator goes to speak to a much-admired Brigadier General, only to find his many parts scattered across the floor. Turns out he was mutilated by Native American warriors and now his servants have to piece him back together every day before he’s fit to be seen in public.
How cyborg?: False teeth, a glass eye, and any number of other prostheses needed to complete him. Supposedly the prostheses are quite life-like, though probably not when they’re strewn across the living room.

Nick Chopper (a.k.a. The Tin Man)
From: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum, and other Oz books
Timeline: First appeared in 1900
The story: Once an ordinary man, poor Nick’s downfall came when the Wicked Witch of the East enchanted his axe and it started to chop off his limbs, one by one. Nick continued to replace each limb with a tin prosthetic until there was no organic tissue left.
How Cyborg?: He gradually goes from all organic to all synthetic. After Dorothy comes along, he at least gets his heart back.

Steve Austin:
From: “The Six Million Dollar Man” TV series, based on the book Cyborg by Martin Caidin
Timeline: 1974 to 1978
The story: After nearly dying in a plane crash, former astronaut Steve Austin is rebuilt using bionics. He spends the next four seasons defeating bad guys and kicking ass.
How cyborg?: An eye that includes an infrared filter and a zoom lens, legs that make him crazy fast, and an arm with super strength and the ability to detect nuclear radiation. Pretty much, he was the first cyborg to take advantage of how awesome cyborgs are!

Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a. Darth Vader):
From: Star Wars
Timeline: 1977 (Episode IV) to 2008 (Episode III)
The story: After a slow descent into the dark side, Anakin Skywalker is left for dead on the volcanic planet Mustafar, but rescued by Darth Sidious and given a life-sustaining suit and his own cape.
How cyborg?: “He is more machine now than man.”

The Borg:
From: Star Trek
Timeline: First appeared in 1989
The story: A humanoid alien race assimilates other species and cybernetic technologies in search for physical and mental perfection.
How cyborg?: Not only one, but an entire species of interconnected, assimilated beings? It’s about as cyborg as it gets. Resistance is futile.

This is only a small sampling of hundreds of cyborgs that have entered our culture, particularly in the last thirty years or so, with everything from “The Terminator” to “Cowboy Bebop” employing the potential of man-machine superstars.

Do you have a favorite fictional cyborg that I’ve left out?

Marissa Meyer is not a cyborg, unless you count a newfound dependency on her iPhone. Her debut novel, CINDER, is the first in a four-book series and will be released on January 3, 2012. Follow her escapades at http://marissameyer.livejournal.com or on Twitter: @marissa_meyer.


Leigh Ann said...

Thanks for the history! Your novel sounds incredible and so, so smart. *Runs to Amazon to pre-order.*

My husband has been begging me to write a book about robots, and I have been at a loss. Now I can just point him to this one. :)

Tez Miller said...

Thank you so, so much for this, Marissa! Perhaps you can also make a pot about bionic people and how they differ from cyborg people, that would be much appreciated, because I still don't know which is which, and if I want to write about one or the other... ;-)

Thanks to Elana and the other League members for hosting this fantastic post :-)

Laura S. said...

This reminds me of the "Friends" episode when Phoebe and Rachel are taking a literature class together. Rachel isn't taking it seriously, so Phoebe tricks her into thinking the novel "Jane Eyre" is about cyborgs and Rachel announces that to the entire class. Haha!

Gotta love the Borg. They were creepy, but I always thought they the coolest aliens!

Kate Avery Ellison said...

This book looks REALLY cool. Can't wait to read it!

Tere Kirkland said...

I can't believe there are people who've never heard of cyborgs! I think I might have seen Terminator about fifty times. (What? I'm research time travel paradoxes for my own work. I swear!)

Can't wait to read Cinders, Marissa!

L.A Speedwing said...

My first reaction was :"excellent" and not because I love cyborgs, because I don't! And not because I do Not know what a cyborg is because I do! I just read your concept story and thought it is a very very very original idea and I must say the cover page is awesome! Very catchy! I hope you're successful in your book.

Unknown said...

Such a cool post! I love tracing the history of science fiction and elements that are considered sci-fi.

I was actually surprised by the cyborg elements when I read "The Man That Was Used Up." Other than Frankenstein, it's hard to find sci-fi that dates back that far (even though, excluding folklore and mythology, it goes back to ancient Greece and took off more in the 1500s).

JennaQuentin said...

Great history!! Some of my favorite cyborgs organic/machine entities are the Daleks from the British series, Doctor Who. EXTERMINATE!!! Some say they're mutants, but they are just a brain running a machine? Cyborg, no? There's also the Cybermen, who are human nervous systems inside robots. I'll be adding your book to my amazon wishlist!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Yay cyborgs! I guess that tells you which camp I'm in. What a great run-down. Thanks!

Sweet Lily said...

Wonderful! Awesome!

Lisa Richards/alterlisa said...

Thoroughly, enjoyed this. Plus thanks for the headsup on this new author/series, who I've added to my wishlist. Awesome history lesson.
Passing this on to my daughter (a future history professor) to show her history CAN be fun.


alterlisa AT yahoo DOT com