Exploring cybernetic tropes in science fiction

The process of replacing an organic living thing’s body part with robotic technology is almost as central to science fiction as time travel or the depths of space. Something about the merging of man and machine to create something new and incredible has captured the imagination of writers for generations.

Horror icon Edgar Allan Poe is credited with the first literary example of a cyborg, as his 1839 story The Man That Was Used Up featured a war hero whose body had to be pieced together piece by piece. Almost two centuries later, the concept has evolved into everything from weapons to medicine to the key to human evolution.

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In a work of science fiction, cybernetics is either a central part of storytelling the world or an excuse to allow the author any fantastical events to occur. Cybernetic prosthetics exist in many cases, allowing characters to sustain immense injuries but later recover and be useful in future conflicts. In a fantasy story, magic is a general purpose plot solution that can do anything the writer asks it to do. Science fiction writers can abuse cybernetics in the same way. For any given job, cybernetics can replace a damaged body part, give a person superhuman strength, give an animal wisdom, and more. Despite the theoretically endless variety, there are a few themes that generally appear in every story on the subject.


If cybernetics is not a central aspect of a science fiction narrative, then it is a means to an end. Most examples in big-budget science fiction follow this sort of arrangement. Maybe a single character wields a cool robotic arm, maybe a character has sustained a serious injury in battle and is using a cybernetic prosthesis. The Star Wars franchise features plenty of cybernetic limbs, but they can rarely be called enhancements. Most of Darth Vader’s body is cybernetic, but the added benefits it brings far outweighs its disadvantages. Ditto Luke’s right arm, which has been replaced with a metallic hand that mostly just replaces his previous hand. In a series that has made famous many of the most iconic weapons and tools in sci-fi history, it’s odd that they never capitalize on this concept.


The Marvel Cinematic Universe is known for being a hodgepodge of concepts from different genres and fictional worlds, and the way it handles cybernetics is no different. Bucky Barnes lost his arm in the long process of rebuilding after his presumed death, and the monsters who brainwashed him also endowed him with a metal arm. His arm is the most unique of his set of abilities, so it’s the most central aspect of his action scenes. Conversely, Rocket Raccoon is what he is through a combination of genetic and cybernetic enhancement. The metal framework in its spinal cord gives it its upright gait and enhanced intelligence. It’s mentioned very briefly, but the unethical experimentation that produced it is a fascinating aspect of the franchise universe. The limited philosophical exploration of the concept comes in his classic catchphrase, “Ain’t no thing like me, ‘cept me.” He may have once been like any other raccoon, but cybernetics have made him something very different. This is the easiest way to dip your toe in the pool of philosophy that surrounds this concept.


In any work of science fiction that places cybernetic augmentation at the heart of its fictional universe, the central concern is how replacing organic matter with technology affects identity. If mankind can replace everything they have with steel and wires, will they still be human? That is the basic question that underlies everything cyberpunk to modified carbonto three quarters black mirror and beyond. This concept is philosophically interesting and raises questions about the role of the body and the metaphysical concept of the soul. Some would argue that with the power of the internet, wearable and wearable technology, and the way technology is affecting modern life, most of us are already cyborgs. Cybernetics in fiction takes this idea and cranks it up to eleven, increasing the power of technology and ingraining it more firmly in the human genome.


There are some problematic aspects in the way cybernetics is presented. Questioning humanity’s relationship to technology becomes difficult when the machinery that gives one human the power of a god gives another the ability to walk or breathe. Sometimes cybernetics cause insanity, a deeply uncomfortable suggestion that the need for medical devices or prosthetics makes a person less whole or less human. An intelligent work of science fiction might ask what evil and what good could come from the merging of a human and a machine. A less intelligent or less curious text might just point out the bad things some people do with futuristic tools and write off the entire scientific discipline.

There are countless examples of both, as this is one of the most common questions in all of science fiction. Humanity wondered if their relationship with technology was healthy when the telescope pioneered it. We’ll all have to wait and see how this conversation plays out as companies release an iPhone that fits the brain.

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