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Steampunk versus Cyberpunk: Prosthetics and Cybernetics

Geareetings fellow travelers,

In this blog, we continue our thoughts on Cyberpunk. And today, I want to contrast it with Steampunk. In particular, the role of prosthetics and cybernetics. Before we discuss their role in Steampunk, I delve into the topic of cybernetics itself.

Cybernetics is a vast field that could roughly be translated into anything related to control and communications between animals and machines. However, it can also relate to the interaction between organisms and social systems. Overall, it refers to feedback systems, be they social or technological. But one can imagine how innovations have changed cybernetics as global interactions have become instant. Their only limitation is that we need to interface with machines that connect us to the internet, like PC, monitors, keyboards, and mice. This is why the next step in cybernetic evolution would be integrating the human brain into the internet.

Cybernetics is not about increasing an individual's performance through stronger limbs. It's about optimizing an individual for their environment. How soldiers navigate the battlefield. How people speed the information highway or play video games. Robot limbs could help in physical jobs. Again soldiers would be an example, as people working in logistics. But overall, Cybernetics concerns information.

Cybernetic limbs are, therefore, a bit of a misnomer. But implants related to delving into virtual environments, as in The Matrix, are Cybernetic. And in such ways, the Cybernetic era has already arrived.

As developments stand, we do not expect prosthetics to improve humans' physical abilities.

Right now, prostheses are purely medical technologies. Great strides are being made. But as anyone with, for example, severe arthritis will tell you, joint replacements are a last resort. Something that they only do on people of advanced age so these prosthetics can last them till the end of their lives, and no further intrusive surgeries have to take place. Steel might be strong, but unlike human biology, once it's broken, it remains broken.

For that reason, apart from perhaps highly specialized jobs that push the human body to its extremes, we do not expect people to start cutting off their body parts to gain an edge in their professional careers. After all, there is more to life than work. More likely, we have implants for identification and help us with financial transactions. As a matter of fact, it is already happening. In that context, we are more concerned about questions such as, can states and/or companies force us to use such implants as the sole means to access essential services.

In fiction, however, we can take these technologies to their extreme.

Marie Pelican from the Casket Girls. Art by Eric Hawkins

In Cyberpunk, transhumanism and cyberspace are common topics. But a distinction must be made in how the audience interacts with physical augmentation in fiction and gaming.

To casual gamers who play games like Syndicate, Cyberpunk, or Deux Ex, prosthetics are like perks or passive abilities that can be purchased. They give you in-game benefits that are no different from the abilities you pick for characters in D&D and World of Warcraft. In Fantasy stories, we do not ponder on the nature of these abilities, how characters become more resistant to fire or develop inhuman strength while retaining the appearance of an underwear model. It's just another trope of the genre.

Now, in settings such as Cyberpunk 2077 or Shadowrun, there are trade-offs. Adding cybernetics reduces a character's essence, the mental connection that character has with its humanity. With few upgrades, this is a minor problem. But as the character keeps replacing body parts with chrome and plastic, the weaker their mental fortitude becomes. Eventually, they are reduced to nothing but cybernetic brutes who can't distinguish dreams from reality.

What often gets suggested in Cyberpunk is that technological innovation leads to degeneration. I wonder if that is a relevant question today...

This doesn't just apply to the psychological but also to cultural perceptions of the human body overall. For those who read our blog, Cyberpunk was created in the 80s—a time associated with rampant consumerism and aggressive marketing - That is what we call projection folks. Anyway, computers were still in their infancy, but the markings were on the wall. Everything without a pulse got commercialized... Well, I guess there are pets, but you get the idea.

But what is the final frontier? What was the one thing they failed to monetize? The human body, of course... Well, that is not entirely true. Medical quacks and salesmen have been selling miracle cures and cosmetics since the dawn of time. Remedies to keep your teeth. Salves to cure infections and protect against common diseases.

But in the last hundred years, there have been this many improvements in health care; many we are not even aware of. Not just vaccination, disinfectants, and medicine. But sanitation, traffic safety, etc., etc. In the West, our most prevalent diseases are welfare diseases. Plastic surgery is on the rise, both due to an aging population and good old fashion trends.

But if they could sell you brand-new limbs that were even better than your old ones. Imagine the benefits to professionals. Blacksmiths could hold red-hot steel, and athletes could jump the grand canyon. Pro Wrestling would be worth watching again! And, as with all things, they would make their way in daily life. What starts with the professional necessity to be competitive in your field becomes a social requirement. Not to forget the emergence of things like Virtual Reality and the Matrix. Technology that requires special implants to function. This is already starting in our society today, where people are implanting themselves with chips for basic financial transactions and proof of identity, and even vaccination.

This is what makes more and more people wonder, are you already living in a cyberpunk world in which the human body has been reduced to a commodity to be sold and modified?

Prosthetics are of all ages. From peg legs to hooks and articulate limbs. But what about organs? Organ failure is a massive problem. The only way to deal with that today is donor organs, for which the waiting lists are extensive. Now, there is a particular country today that found a shortcut, but let's not discuss that situation.

Instead, let's imagine scenarios where they managed to make synthetic replacement organs or maybe even superior ones. Who doesn't dream of an iron liver, better lungs, or a stronger heart? This is suggested in Repo! The genetic opera and Repo, in which human organs have become commodities leased or offered as retainers. And if you can't pay the bills, the repo men come to collect. But at least the removal surgery is free.

That's just organs. In Altered Carbon, people have digitized their consciousness allowing them to swap bodies like, well, sleeves. And by swapping bodies, one can achieve immortality. And if you can afford infinite bodies, you can live on infinitely. A lifestyle, of course, is only achievable by the most wealthy. In the meantime, the immortal elite just keeps amassing wealth, making it harder and harder for the common people to climb the social ladder.

This, of course, leads to the question, what is a human being? If we don't identify with our bodies, what makes us who we are? This is the topic of Ghost in the Shell, in which Mokoto Kusanagi struggles with identity as she becomes a full cyborg at a very young age. She grew up being nothing but a cyber brain, capable of swapping bodies whenever it suited her. Therefore, everything about her appearance is tailored to her desires. It's one of the reasons she dresses provocatively in the series Stand Alone Complex. So people will look at her and desire her even because that is the only thing that makes her feel she exists to others. Motoko sees her synthetic existence as a tragedy. She did choose this life, which made her appreciate life all the more. She is also painfully aware that the only thing that allows her to exist is society itself. Without its information networks and industrial power, her body would break down and die.

Cyberpunk Edgerunners, however, is the opposite. A series I highly recommend. This is a series about the criminal elements in a cyberpunk world. Here we see our mercenary protagonist, Martinez, swap out organs and limbs like car parts. His operation table looks like an actual assembly line. And in one scene, he already talks about how he looks forward to the next upgrade before the operation is even done. One has to question why he is getting the upgrades at this point. Is it because he needs them, or is he craving them? Injecting himself with the inhibitor to suppress the side effects of such heavy implants makes him euphoric, like popping open a beer after a hard day's work. But as the series progresses and his implants build-up, he needs larger quantities and more powerful drugs, like a junky. And the longer he keeps up the lifestyle, the more likely he'll go berserk. He becomes a raging machine, not in control of his faculties or even aware of what he is doing.

Narratively speaking, Edgerunner compares upgrading oneself to addiction. This is a pretty common theme in Cyberpunk, with plenty of characters treating their bodies like commodities that be modified according to the latest fashion. Addiction to plastic surgery is already a problem today, and if we would ever see a Ghost in the Shell-esque future, it might have dire outcomes for people enhancing themselves with cheap prosthetics for the kicks.

How about Steampunk? As always in our essays, we must distinguish the aesthetics from the genre. Prosthetics in a lot of Steampunk imagery breathe the Rule of Cool. How could it not? But if you think about it, dear Lord. The weight of some of these designs would render an individual invalid within weeks. Also, how would steam-heated prosthetics be controlled without microchips? I mean, without using outright magic, as is the solution to everything for the lazy author. Who knows?

So, let's focus on the narrative implications instead. There are basically two flavors in the setting. Either the protagonist is special due to his prosthetic that turns him into the setting's sole superhero that can save the day. The others are setting where prosthetics found general use. In the latter case, it can just be the Rule of Cool. Or it can be an exploration of a society that industrialized to such an extreme they mechanized the workforce and/or armies. They could replace the limbs of the wounded so they could fight again. Or the working conditions are poor that a loss of one's limb is part of the job. But those prosthetics have unintended side effects, such as lead poisoning.

Regardless of the setting, in most Steampunk fiction, prosthetics are associated with tragedy. The mechanical arm can be a cool prop, but it also serves the purpose of a scar. A tragic event, such as a battle or an accident, leads to the loss of a loved one. These limbs are also a labor of passion, be it love or the enactment of their vengeance. In that regard, these limbs aren't disposable. They are a reflection of the character's past and their ambitions.

A common theme is that of a warrior who, after losing their limb in a battle against a powerful foe, gets transformed into some type of super trooper. His new arms became not only a tool to exact his vengeance, but it was also a reminder of that dark day of defeat.

The reverse can also be true, such as the character Violet Evergarden; a soldier who lost her hands in battle while trying to defend her superior officer. Knowing nothing but war, Violet is on a quest to find her humanity by typing letters for others. The limbs she used to kill with been replaced with metal hands she uses to express people's emotions that are alien to her.

This is an interesting juxtaposition of themes that come with the genres. Both can explore prostheses in a grand narrative sense, such as human exploitation. In general, Steampunk tends to take a more character-focused approach where characters have a personal connection to their limb replacements. In Cyberpunk, prosthetics are a symptom of that society's culture and perceptions of the human body as a sellable commodity.

Eventually, we will explore cybernetics and prosthetics in more depth in our own series, the Association of Ishtar. As a matter of fact, we discuss both in the series' first novel, The Wrench in the Machine. If you don't want to miss any of our blogs, don't forget to subscribe to our mailing list. And to meet like-minded people, join our discord community.

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