From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Cyborg Nation: Beyond Terminator Salvation

“I’ll be back,” said the T-800 Model 101, a phrase that quickly became the schoolyard cliché ad nauseam, compliments of The Terminator (1984), directed by James Cameron. The Terminator began with a simple idea: metal endoskeletons cloaked in human skin, an idea prompted by the 1960 Outer Limit episodes, Soldier and “Demon with a Glass Hand,” both written by Harlan Ellison, but this idea was not new, not even to Ellison.

Edgar Allan Poe described a man with widespread prostheses in his satire, “The Man That Was Used Up,” first published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine (1839):

It was early when I called, and the General was dressing; but I pleaded urgent business, and was shown at once into his bed-room by an old negro valet, who remained in attendance during my visit. As I entered the chamber, I looked about, of course, for the occupant, but did not immediately perceive him. There was a large and exceedingly odd-looking bundle of something which lay close by my feet on the floor, and, as I was not in the best humor in the world, I gave it a kick out of the way.

“Hem! ahem! rather civil that, I should say!” said the bundle, in one of the smallest, and altogether the funniest little voices, between a squeak and a whistle, that I ever heard in all the days of my existence.

“Ahem! rather civil that, I should observe.”

I fairly shouted with terror, and made off, at a tangent, into the farthest extremity of the room.

“God bless me! my dear fellow,” here again whistled the bundle, “what—what—what—why, what is the matter? I really believe you don’t know me at all.”

What could I say to all this—what could I? I staggered into an arm-chair, and, with staring eyes and open mouth, awaited the solution of the wonder.

“Strange you shouldn’t know me though, isn’t it?” presently re-squeaked the nondescript, which I now perceived was performing, upon the floor, some inexplicable evolution, very analogous to the drawing on of a stocking. There was only a single leg, however, apparent.

“Strange you shouldn’t know me, though, isn’t it? Pompey, bring me that leg!” Here Pompey handed the bundle, a very capital cork leg, already dressed, which it screwed on in a trice; and then it stood up before my eyes.

“And a bloody action it was,” continued the thing, as if in a soliloquy; “but then one mustn’t fight with the Bugaboos and Kickapoos, and think of coming off with a mere scratch. Pompey, I’ll thank you now for that arm. Thomas” [turning to me] “is decidedly the best hand at a cork leg; but if you should ever want an arm, my dear fellow, you must really let me recommend you to Bishop.” Here Pompey screwed on an arm.

“We had rather hot work of it, that you may say. Now, you dog, slip on my shoulders and bosom! Pettitt makes the best shoulders, but for a bosom you will have to go to Ducrow.”

“Bosom!” said I.

“Pompey, will you never be ready with that wig? Scalping is a rough process after all; but then you can procure such a capital scratch at De L’Orme’s . . .” (Poe)

And Poe wasn’t the first. Jonathan Swift’s poem “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” is a satire depicting artificial bodies:

Corinna, Pride of Drury-Lane,
For whom no Shepherd sighs in vain;
Never did Covent Garden boast
So bright a batter’d, strolling Toast;
No drunken Rake to pick her up, [5]
No Cellar where on Tick to sup;
Returning at the Midnight Hour;
Four Stories climbing to her Bow’r;
Then, seated on a three-legg’d Chair,
Takes off her artificial Hair: [10]
Now, picking out a Crystal Eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.

Her Eye-Brows from a Mouse’s Hyde,
Stuck on with Art on either Side,
Pulls off with Care, and first displays ’em, [15]
Then in a Play-Book smoothly lays ’em.

Now dextrously her Plumpers draws,
That serve to fill her hollow Jaws.

Untwists a Wire; and from her Gums
A Set of Teeth completely comes. [20]

Pulls out the Rags contriv’d to prop
Her flabby Dugs and down they drop.

Proceeding on, the lovely Goddess
Unlaces next her Steel-Rib’d Bodice;
Which by the Operator’s Skill, [25]
Press down the Lumps, the Hollows fill,
Up goes her Hand, and off she slips
The Bolsters that supply her Hips.

With gentlest Touch, she next explores
Her Shankers, Issues, running Sores, [30]
Effects of many a sad Disaster;
And then to each applies a Plaister.

But must, before she goes to Bed,
Rub off the Dawbs of White and Red;
And smooth the Furrows in her Front, [35]
With greasy Paper stuck upon’t.

She takes a Bolus e’er she sleeps;
And then between two Blankets creeps.

With Pains of Love tormented lies;
Or if she chance to close her Eyes, [40]
Of Bridewell and the Compter dreams,
And feels the Lash, and faintly screams;
Or, by a faithless Bully drawn,
At some Hedge-Tavern lies in Pawn;
Or to Jamaica seems transported, [45]
Alone, and by no Planter courted;
Or, near Fleet-Ditch’s oozy Brinks,
Surrounded with a Hundred Stinks,
Belated, seems on watch to lye,
And snap some Cully passing by; [50]
Or, struck with Fear, her Fancy runs
On Watchmen, Constables and Duns,
From whom she meets with frequent Rubs;
But, never from Religious Clubs;
Whose Favour she is sure to find, [55]
Because she pays ’em all in Kind.

Corinna wakes. A dreadful Sight!
Behold the Ruins of the Night!
A wicked Rat her Plaister stole,
Half eat, and dragg’d it to his Hole. [60]

The Crystal Eye, alas, was miss’t;
And Puss had on her Plumpers p—t.

A Pigeon pick’d her Issue-Peas;
And Shock her Tresses fill’d with Fleas.

The Nymph, tho’ in this mangled Plight, [65]
Must ev’ry Morn her Limbs unite.

But how shall I describe her Arts
To recollect the scatter’d Parts?
Or shew the Anguish, Toil, and Pain,
Of gath’ring up herself again? [70]

The bashful Muse will never bear
In such a Scene to interfere.

Corinna in the Morning dizen’d,
Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison’d. (Swift)

Cyborgs have a long and illustrious presence in speculative fiction, but The Terminator certainly made cyborgs a household fear. The franchise released two sequels, this week its third, and the original film enjoys a place in the Library of Congress’s archives as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Since the 1984 original, fans have followed the series, waiting eagerly for the long anticipated full frontal view of 2029 Los Angeles, not to mention the resistance leader, John Connor, in his post-apocalyptic glory.

In the 1984 release, John Connor was a fetus inside his mother’s womb. In the sequels, fans watched Connor mature amidst homicidal cyborgs and burgeoning apocalyptic settings. Now little Johnny, all grown up and played by Christian Bale (The Dark Knight), is the resistance leader, the man in charge, compliments of Sony Pictures and director, Joseph “McG” McGinty Nichol. Critics are split over Bale’s performance though they generally agree that the special effects deserve an A rating.

For many cyborg enthusiasts, Terminator Salvation will pump the bio-pistons once again. Yes, the Terminator is, indeed, back, and here’s a list of cyborg fun to keep those pistons pumping.

The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman (1973-1978)
ABC Network

Who can forget the 1970s classic made-for-TV movies and series, The Six Million Dollar Man, and its spinoff, The Bionic Woman? Steve Austin, a cyborg working for the Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) chases down bad guys, snaps metal chains with his bare hands, and leaps from tall buildings to carry endangered young women to safety at cheetah speed, all except for Jamie Sommers, of course. The bionic woman is quite capable of taking care of herself and the bad guys.

Blade Runner
Directed by Ridley Scott (1982)

Blade Runner is a cult classic starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young. The screenplay, written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, is loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This film features a dystopian Los Angeles in 2019 where replicants, or biologically engineered humanoid beings, are illegal, perceived as dangerous. Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard, reluctantly agrees to help hunt a recently escaped Nexus-6, “the worst yet.” Blade Runner, like The Terminator, belongs to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

RoboCop (1987)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Set in near future and dystopian Detroit, Michigan, a cop, played by Peter Weller, suffers torture and gang execution. He’s brought back via cybernetic technology and released to patrol the city. Riddled with one-liners reminiscent of The Terminator, this film has taken on something of a cult following itself. Critically acclaimed as satirical, the film uses ultra-violence in an over-the-top, stylistic social commentary.

Star Wars (1977)
Directed by George Lucas

Darth Vader, the cyborg father of Luke Skywalker, needs no introduction. After his body burns beyond repair, scientists save him with machine augmentation, including of course, a heavy respirator. Of all the cyborg villains, Darth Vader may truly be the most memorable.

Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)
Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Jeri Tayler

Star Wars may have the most memorable cyborg villain, but Star Trek arguably wins the creepiest cyborg award for aesthetics. Melding beauty with machinery, the Borg Queen is a sultry mix of grace, poise, and sociopathic tendencies.

I, Robot (2004)
Directed by Alex Proyas

The original I, Robot stories, nine in all, were written by Issac Asimov and adapted into the 2004 film which chronicles Del Spooner, played by Will Smith. Spooner, a futuristic detective, takes a murder case involving a robot suspect. Spooner’s prejudice against the robot is an ironic spin as Spooner, himself, was fitted long ago with a robotic arm after suffering a tragic accident. Spooner, a cyborg, must look past his prejudice against robots in order to find inner peace and solve the crime.

Soldier (1964)
The Outer Limits

Written by Harlan Ellison, this episode of The Outer Limits depicts a futuristic soldier, Qarlo. Qarlo is sent back in time where he’s captured by the government, and they don’t know what to do with him. Tom Kagan, a philologist, decides to take Qarlo home to the wife and kiddies. Critics disagree over whether this is classic sci-fi at its best or exalted SF. Either way, the most distressing issue about the episode is the narrator’s and characters’ inabilities to settle upon a pronunciation of Qarlo’s name. Is he [karlo] or [quarlo]? If you like “Soldier,” check out Ellison’s other episode, “Demon with a Glass Hand”:

The Matrix (1999)
Directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski

As with The Terminator, purists and neo-cyborgists argue over the validity of The Matrix as a true cyborg film. Does the permanent receptacle in the head qualify? How about the hooked up pod babies? Whatever the classification, Matrix science certainly allows for human, machine correlation, set in sci-fantasy, dystopian, and futuristic settings.

Starship Troopers (1997)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Another sub-genre of cyborg classification includes the use of exoskeleton suits nicknamed lobsters, a concept penned by author, Bruce Sterling. Based on Robert A. Heinlein’s “Starship Soldier,” published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1959). Starship Troopers portrays foot soldiers fitted with exoskeleton suits. The suits regulate temperatures and enhance sensory abilities while on the battlefield. The concept of lobster cyborgs calls into question the definitive term. Must an exoskeleton invasively connect or hook into the human in order to qualify as cyborg?

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Directed by Gavin Hood

X-Men Origins: Wolverine gives the backstory to the character, Wolverine, the dark, edgy man-animal who fans love to fear. The movie certainly puts to rest the depth of this character’s pain, but a question still lingers. Is he cyborg or not? He certainly has movable metal parts, but the parts are not robotically mechanized. Rather, they move by extra-sensory ability. Maybe Wolverine deserves his own cyborg sub-genre. He is a mutant, after all. Either way, this film is a must see in 2009 for the Marvel Comics fan-base. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is action packed, socially satirical, and full of beautiful mutants.

What are some of your favorite cyborg films?

Rae Bryant is a 2008 recipient of the Whidbey Writers’ Prize and editor nominated for StorySouth‘s Million Writers Award. Her works have appeared or will soon be appearing in Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, Literary Traveler, and Southern Fried Weirdness among others. Rae is currently a graduate student at Johns Hopkins finishing an M.A. in Writing. Read more about Rae at

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