Cyborgs – entities that are part organic and part machine – are a major theme in the science fiction genre, be it fiction or visual arts. However, when one thinks of artistic depictions of cyborgs, the first image that pops up is usually of a sexualized female cyborg with bolt-on breasts. Thus, the exploration of mental and spiritual implications of such entities takes the back seat.
On top of that, the focus on “body beautiful” drives out the element of “body horror,” the strangeness and alienness of organic-machine hybrids. The artistic depictions we selected here explore – to call it thus – the wider spectrum of cyborg possibilities.
“The Invisible Harp” by Salvador Dali, 1934
It’s not difficult to see how Salvador Dali’s work – and surrealism in general – has influenced science fiction art, especially looking at his arid, otherworldly settings and elongated, strangely mobile figures.
Here, the black “costume” brings to mind the texture of latex and seems to be part of the figure’s skin. The device that covers its eyes can be interpreted as a visor – a mechanical enhancement –, and the phallic head, a Freudian metaphor for the creative force of the mind, also seems to anticipate H.R. Giger’s Necronoms, that would later become the Xenomorphs of the “Alien” film franchise.
“Beyond This Horizon” by Bruce Pennington, 1967
Robert A. Heinlein’s novel “Beyond This Horizon,” originally serialized in 1942 and first published in single volume in 1948, deals with the transhumanist theme of genetic engineering in order to produce individuals of superhuman physical and mental capacity, as well as the moral and spiritual implications of such a practice.
Artist Bruce Pennington’s illustration for the cover of the 1967 edition can be retroactively described as “steampunk.” However, while steampunk focuses on a Victorian aesthetic, the figure’s supple, flexible armor is more reminiscent of the 16th century.
“Phoenix” by Paul Lehr, 1970
The novel “Phoenix” by Richard Cowper (pseudonym of John Middleton Murry), first published in 1967, focuses on time travel rather than human-machine hybrids, dealing with a protagonist who undergoes suspended animation and wakes up to a retrograde, conservative future.
On the other hand, the eerie cover design by Paul Lehr dwells on the idea of artificial preservation of the mind. The head – that is, consciousness and individuality – is preserved in a strange bio-mechanic device with a texture similar to that glass, but made up of organic tendrils.
“Work No. 456, New York City VI (Torso)” by H.R. Giger, 1980
H.R. Giger is mostly known for designing the titular aliens of the “Alien” movie franchise, yet the creatures represent only a small fraction of the artist’s disturbing, sexually charged and eerily fascinating universe, based on the exploration of the symbiosis between organic and mechanic entities. In this 1980 work, the boundaries between the two are blurred to the point where it’s impossible to say where the organic ends and the mechanic begins.
H.R. Giger’s involvement with entertainment also includes turning 70’s icon Debbie Harry into one of his biomechanoids, as well as creating a statue for French Canadian singer Mylène Farmer’s “Mylenium Tour” and a microphone stand for Korn vocalist Jonathan Davis.
“Untitled” (“Strider”) by Zdzislaw Beksiński, 1985
A unique, tragic figure of 20th century European art, self-taught Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksiński is remembered for his striking dystopian scenes, influenced by Surrealism, and strangely menacing figures. The main figure in this painting seems to be made up of a strange mix of organic and mechanic elements and decaying matter. The ghostly head that seems to come out of its stomach bears a resemblance to the portraits of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes.
The second figure, looming by the former’s side, recalls the aliens of science fiction pulp art. Perhaps this is a post-apocalyptic Don Quixote accompanied by an alien Sancho Panza but, as the artist himself was uninterested in possible interpretations of this work, we will not dwell upon this idea.
“Le ressuscité de l’Atlantide” by Gilles Francescano, 1994
Gilles Francescano is one of the best known and most prolific contemporary science fiction and fantasy artists of the French speaking world, having illustrated over 300 works in the genre.
This is the cover Francescano designed for the science fiction novel with the same title by Canadian author Jean-Louis Trudel, in which a survivor of the legendary sunken continent of Atlantis is resurrected in the 23rd century. The simple, sketch-like quality of the illustration emphasizes the contrast between the warm tones of the man’s skin and the cold, artificial character of the machinery used to bring him back to life.
“Sanctuarium” by Dariusz Zawadzki
While Zawadzki’s style is reminiscent of fellow Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksiński, his work stands out through a focus on spiritual themes and a fascination with birds that recalls Surrealist artist Max Ernst.
The figure depicted here is a human-bird-machine hybrid that also brings to mind Medieval-era plague masks. At the same time, the monastic sleeves and incense dispenser seem to suggest that the figure is the priest in charge of the titular sanctuary. All in all, the painting is a fascinating look at the possible spirituality of a post-human world.
“Soul-Forge” by Gerald Brom
Author and illustrator, Gerald Brom, known professionally as just Brom, creates disturbingly beautiful figures that can be described as a fascinating mix of fantasy, fetishism and cleverly used symbols. If the “Soul Forge” is the place where a soul is made, then how are we to interpret the threatening face above the female figure? Is it a demon? Is the soul that is being created an evil one? Still, the female figure’s expression is peaceful, and her multiple arms, that recall Indian deities, suggest a higher state of consciousness.
The knife-like instruments that she wields may indicate that she is the one forging her own soul, while the mechanic cocoon that envelops the lower half of her body shows that she is not yet a complete work. As for the cross, it is a Christian symbol, as well as a fetish prop. All in all, this is a highly complex, fascinating work.
Major Motoko Kusanagi
created by Masamune Shirow, animated by Hiroyuki Okiura in “Ghost in the Shell” (1995, director Mamoru Oshii)
Granted, Major Motoko’s physical depiction falls under the “sexualized female cyborg with bolt-ons” category. However animator Hiroyuki Okiura’s version of the character differs from manga artist Masamune Shirow’s original design. Her face is more androgynous and her expressions more grave and melancholic, to emphasize the contrast between her strong, youthful body and her “old” mind and inner conflict: she is not sure that she has ever been human and contemplates the possibility that she might be entirely synthetic.
The two videos for the 1999 single “King of My Castle” by Wamdue Project use footage of Major Motoko Kusanagi to illustrate the Freudian concept used in the song: that the human ego is not free, not “king of its own castle” and is instead controlled by the unconscious id.
The Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact, 1996
In “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the Enterprise encounters the Borg Collective, a race of cyborgs travelling in a cubic ship, whose purpose is to “assimilate” other beings – that is, turn them into cyborg members of their collective. The 1996 movie “First Contact” introduces the character of The Borg Queen, played by South-African actress Alice Krige.
The character never refers to herself as the “Borg Queen.” What she says is, “I am the beginning, the end, the one who is many. I am the Borg.” It is (intentionally) left unclear how the Borg Collective functions, as their functioning is so different as to have no connection left with human morality and thought patterns (thus falling under the “blue and orange morality” trope).
The Queen refers to the Borg soldiers as “my drones,” which may suggest a hive-like functioning. Still, she herself is not unique and there are many versions of her. Rather, the Borg are – or rather, is – one entity that functions as a network, and the Queen is that part of the network that acts as its messenger. Alice Krige’s intelligent portrayal shows a character that is authoritative, yet understated and menacingly seductive.
Anca Rotar is a Romanian-born writer, over-thinker and caffeine addict. She is the author of two books, Hidden Animals and Before It Sets You Free, both available from Amazon.com. Among her interests, which she finds it hard to shut up about, she counts fashion, yoga, city breaks and deadpan sarcasm. She is also currently studying Japanese, so wish her luck. You can sample bits of Anca’s creative writing here.