The allure of the cyborg is so widely-accepted that it's become a cliche in science fiction, but people rarely ask why. Doesn't it seem a little strange that humans are so powerfully attracted to synthetic versions of themselves?
It all depends on how you interpret human/cyborg love. Is it about romancing a version of ourselves, only perfected? Or is it about achieving erotic union with a creature who is completely alien, though covered Terminator-style in human skin?
The exotic machine
Let's assume the latter for a moment. That would mean mad scientist Baltar can't stop humping evil cylon Six in Battlestar Galactica because he's attracted to his dangerous opposite: The inhuman machine, her thoughts and desires incomprehensible even to the most brilliant human mind. And yet Six seems so familiar. She may have a glowing spine, but she looks like a standard-issue Hot Human Centerfold Model. And she's even obsessed with monotheism, which is hardly an exotic fixation among Homo sapiens.
But other stories offer more of an opposites-attract scenario. In the Appleseed series from Japan, we see heroic warrior Deunan fall in love with Briareos, a man whose body has been almost entirely destroyed in war. Now Briareos looks like a mecha - a cyborg whose body is essentially armor with a vaguely humanoid form. And in Battlestar Galactica prequel series Caprica, which returns to Syfy channel in a few weeks, our hero is a teenage girl whose consciousness has been ported into the bulky, skeletal body of a prototype cylon. To go on dates, she plunges into virtual reality so she can wear the human body she once had. But in real life, she has become a tanklike creature, far bigger than her own father.
Consider that some of the most powerful human/cyborg relationships occur in the Terminator and Battlestar Galactica franchises, both about violent robot rebellions. Cyborg romance is the flip side of the robot uprising. Our mechanical creations love us instead of nuking us from orbit. The fantasy here isn't about making it with a hot fembot. It's about wanting approval from our children, wanting them to grow up without obliterating us.
You can see this wish at work powerfully in Steven Spielberg's movie A.I., where a perfect cyborg child expresses perfect and eternal love for his human mother – even ten thousand years after her death.
Cyborg lovers are not Stepford Wives. The mechanical woman-replacements in that 1970s feminist nightmare were robots after all, not unions of human and machine. The flawless Stepfords have no biological parts, nor any human emotions. What's attractive about the cyborg is that he's screwed up, just like we are. Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, is therefore the cyborg equivalent of Mr. Right. He's rich, powerful, and has major issues . . . plus, he's nuclear-powered and spends a lot of time inside a smart exoskeleton.
But if you prefer your cyborgs less complicated, there's always the cyborg astronaut in 1980s comedy Making Mr. Right, played as a childlike romantic by John Malkovich. Despite his lack of social skills, he wins the heart of a promoter hired to sell the public on the idea of sending sentient robots into space.
Even the flawlessly romantic "romeo droid" in another 1980s classic, Circuitry Man, becomes desirable to the woman hired to protect him only after she realizes that his emotional baggage is just as screwed-up and complex as any human's. And in Blade Runner, the erotic tension between Deckard and replicant Rachel runs high precisely because the two are both emotionally broken.
Deckard's final encounter with the replicant Roy takes on a sheen of romantic intensity because it is the first and last time that we see Roy succumbing to a human biological flaw: Death. Perhaps what we love about cyborgs is what we are afraid to love in ourselves, including our ephemerality.
We are all synthetic
Cyborgs who remind us of ourselves also have the power to make us strangers to ourselves. Because if cyborgs are like us, then perhaps we are all like cyborgs too. That was the underlying theme to much of Joss Whedon's flawed but fascinating series Dollhouse, about a technology that can program the human brain like a computer. The "actives," people who have had their minds wiped and formatted for new personality implants, have been so utterly altered by technology that they can't qualify as human anymore.
Adele, who runs a Los Angeles "Dollhouse" full of actives for rent, even falls in love with a personality implant she puts into the active called Victor. Once in a while, he becomes her perfect mate and they go to a beach house for the weekend. Yet she never forgets that he's been programmed, and that any human can be programmed to be anything. In Dollhouse, we're constantly confronted by the fact that as human beings we are all synthetic, cobbled together out of molecules and memories. Our bodies and minds can be manipulated just like a cyborg's can.
This is sure to be an issue in the upcoming Tron: Legacy. Characters from the 1980s film Tron, like hacker Kevin Flynn, have been living in the digital world for decades and creating pieces of software like Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who feel and act like humans. What is the difference between Flynn fabricating Quorra out of software, and fabricating his biological child Sam the old-fashioned way? Given that Quorra is treated like Flynn's daughter in the forthcoming film, the Tron series suggests the difference is moot.
We humans love cyborgs for the same reasons we love each other. But there is something more to it than that. As Morpheus tells Neo in The Matrix, the entire world and everything in it are parts of the "matrix," a synthetic reality created by machines. Constructor and constructed are always switching positions in cyborg tales. Who really made whom?
Humans who love cyborgs also embrace their own synthetic selves. That's the way of desire. You are constructed out of what you love.
This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs, a project created by writer Tim Maly to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term. Visit the site and check out all the other amazing posts about cyborgs there!