First off… thanks for those who wrote back about One Thousand Days. Glad it struck a spark with folk, both crip and abled.
One of the things I mentioned there was my increasing involvement with other cyborgs and various disabled communities (god that sounds like some awful care home doesn’t it? I’m sticking with ‘crip groups’ thanks).
As a follow-up, here’s a piece I wrote for r/cyborgs_only: I’d been talking a bit about the Shrine of the Useless Eaters with Cy and she asked for my thoughts.
As I wrote this during the process of doing 1k Days, there’s come overlap; hope it’s still of some interest nonetheless.
I figured the easiest way in to a spirituality which didn’t require a religious adherence and was thus available to atheist/agnostic people was ancestor veneration in a kind of chaoc magic approach; and, as my old pal Ru Callender (who has a book out about his work as an alternative undertaker) taught me, we can choose our ancestors just as much as we choose our family-of-choice, creating ancestral lines of kith instead of kin.
TOWARDS A CYBORG SPIRITUALITY
I became a cyborg on 11 December 2017ce.
The procedure was a double discectomy with fusion of the C5 to C7 vertebrae, as a result of burst discs and the need to remove bone spurs from inside those vertebrae which were growing into my spinal nerves. This neurological damage was causing both severe shooting pain in both arms and a massive loss of sensation in my hands. (And also, a complete lack of humour re. Donald Trump jokes about his bone spurs.)
The operation was as successful as possible. The awful pain stopped, and most of the sensory loss in my hands was regained. Plus, I got a really sexy scar on my neck, and could give as answer when asked why it was there, that ‘I had my throat cut by professionals’.
I could and can still feel the place where the titanium was bolted to my skeleton, where the double helix latticework surrounding it was fusing with my bones. Last week, while thinking about the Borg Diem project, I came up with the term ‘Interfascia’ for that place ‘where the metal meets the meat’.
The other word I offered was ‘Borgods’. They are the subject of this piece.
Before I was a cyborg, I was a crip. Was never a healthy child (actually blinded by hay fever conjunctivitis at the age of 9 for a couple of days, always prone to flu and such, then diagnosed as Type II diabetic at 40 by developing gangrene in my foot after a martial arts injury). Diabetes leaves one prone to other ailments: in my case, Dupuytren’s Contracture (‘trigger finger’) and early onset arthritis in my knees.
I was also, I regret to say, involved with what Cy would now call Tryborg culture. I was one of the people involved in a web-based side project from the comic book Doktor Sleepless by Warren Ellis and Ivan Rodriguez. The book is set in a near-future where DIY transhumanists – known as Grinders – attempt to upgrade their bodies with whatever they have to hand. The book became a major influence on the biohacker movement.
Sorry about that.
(And even sorrier that Ellis was later outed as a serial sexual predator, using his fame and power to manipulate literally hundreds of women.)
But before all this, I was a nerd and a practicing magician.
My interest in what I usually just call ‘weird shit’ began at the age of seven, and persisted throughout a life which has had some quite odd moments. Because this began in the early Seventies and I was a working-poor kid, my resources were scarce. The local library was kind and gave me adult book access very early (Aleister Crowley before you’re ten is… educational). But British TV and other media at the time was rife with supernatural oddness, with shows like Children Of The Stones, Ace Of Wands, The Changes, Sky and others firing my imagination, alongside books by the likes of both Colin and Robert Anton Wilson, various fringe materials such as Chariots of the Gods? and Bermuda Triangle conspiracy theories, and the rise of paranormal celebrities such as Uri Geller.
A huge SF and horror nerd already, my paranormal experiences and love of low culture media combined into something I later discovered was being paralleled by magicians in Leeds and London; a form which eventually became known as chaos magic.
A key aspect of chaos magic, for those who don’t know, is that belief is treated as a tool: something which can be adopted and maintained fiercely for the duration of a magical working and then simply dropped and swapped for something else. As the system drew heavily from SF and fantasy (its eight pointed Chaosphere symbol from Michael Moorcock, the colours of magic associated with each point from Terry Pratchett), the use of pop culture characters as entities to be invoked or even worshipped was common.
My first exposure to the idea that we could create and work with new gods came from a Jewish atheist SF writer, Harlan Ellison. In the introduction to his 1975 collection Deathbird Stories, he wrote:
“As the time passes for men and women, so does it pass for gods, for they are made viable and substantial only through the massed beliefs of masses of men and women. And when puny mortals no longer worship at their altars, the gods die. To be replaced by newer, more relevant gods. Perhaps one day soon the time will pass for Jehovah and Buddha and Zoroaster and Brahma. Then the Earth will know other gods. Already we begin to worship these other, newer gods. Already the Church fights to hold its own. The young grow away from the old religions, the world seems to swing between the old and the new; more and more each day, interest in the occult, in the magical, in the phantasmagorical surges to the fore, leaving priests and rabbis and ministers concerned where their next god will come from. This group of stories deals with the new gods, with the new devils, with the modern incarnations of the little people and the wood sprites and the demons.
The grimoires and NECRONOMICONs of the gods of the freeway, of the ghetto blacks, of the coaxial cable; the paingod and the rock god and the god of neon; the god of legal tender, the god of business-as-usual and the gods that live in city streets and slot machines. The God of Smog and the God of Freudian Guilt. The Machine God. They are a strange, unpredictable lot, these new, vital, muscular gods. How we will come to worship them, what boons they may bestow, their moods and their limitations; these are the subjects of these stories. A New Testament of deities for the computerized age of confrontation and relevance. A grimoire and a guide. A pantheon of the holiest of holies for modern man. Know them now – they rule the nights through which we move.”
They certainly ruled mine.
Eventually, this would lead to a career as a Fortean journalist (I was the first to write longform on the Slenderman phenomenon and later covered the Waukesha tragedy caused by belief in that hyperreal entity for Fortean Times), involvement in political action (first in queer politics then opposition to Dominionist Christianity, the parent of the current Q and Proud Boy movements) and involvement with a series of public magical workings with a political leaning, such as various ceremonies connected to the British Discordian revival of interest in the work of Robert Anton Wilson (a lifelong crip due to childhood polio and a huge Star Trek fan) and several workings to curse the fascist Brexit project alongside the art-rock band The Indelicates.
With this as background, I would like to share some of my approach to working with gods – both known to be fictional and alleged to be historical – as a way of engaging with disability and cyborg existence.
When I fell ill in February of 2020 after giving a talk on magic and authenticity in London, I figured the flu-like symptoms would pass. When they did not, I thought I could handle the feeling of constant illness for a few months – I had dealt with the spinal problem and my cyborg transformation, I could handle this…
That was two and a half years ago. My condition, a form of Long Covid with neurological symptoms, got worse. And, in the midst of the strange times that awful disease has wrought, alongside the rise of blatant fascism worldwide, I fell into a deep depression.
Through lockdown and ever since, me and my wife (who has had ME/CFS for all of our nearly thirty years together and saw much that was painfully familiar in my condition) have had a tradition of making Sunday nights Date Night. We would make a nice meal and take turns choosing a movie to watch together. Often, these would be documentaries (not some folks’ idea of date material, but we both love learning new things – Neophiles, in Bob Wilson’s term). One that hit us both especially hard was Crip Camp (2020), about the early days of disability activism. This birthed in me a need to be more active in crip political agitation, but in our condition, there wasn’t much we could actually do aside from be grouchy on Twitter.
Then I picked out a Date Night film I had been interested in for some time: Marwencol (2010).
The film is a biography of the artist Mark Hogancamp, and his singular creation which gave the film its name. After a brutal mugging led to severe brain damage, Mark (like so many crips) had to develop a set of highly personal mental and physical approaches to his new existence. In his case, his toolkit was to build in his garden a hugely detailed model town in 1/12th scale, populated by customised figures of the GI Joe/Action Man variety.
This was partly a physical therapy, a way of redeveloping his hand/eye coordination using readily available hobby materials, but in developing the deep history of Marwencol (his conception of a small Belgian town occupied by the Nazis and then freed by a combination of American GIs and local resistance fighters), he was able to confront the trauma of his attack… by envisaging the various brutally killed Nazi figures as his abusers.
Whether he knew it consciously or not, that’s as direct a piece of sympathetic magic as I have ever heard of.
Back when I had the gangrenous foot, I was under enforced bedrest for about two months while the foot healed from the debridement of the rotting meat there. (Debridement – such a delicate term for such an agonising procedure to wake up from.)
While I lay in bed with this Cronenbergian vaginal opening granulating slowly, I acquired an XBox. I soon found that first person shooters were, for me at least, a kind of wellness sim. I could be someone who could walk! Run! JUMP! And gun down countless enemies while doing so. It kept me calm while I healed, and my love for FPS continues.
In the midst of my Long Covid depression, I had watched helplessly as the far right wing’s grip on the modern world tightened. The path from the Sad/Angry Puppies furore at the Hugo awards, the GamerGate ructions and their sequels, QAnon, Brexit mania and Trumpism seemed a clear line, and one with no good end.
I took again to my gaming habit, deciding an apt replay would be the modern reimagining of the Wolfenstein series. The modern incarnation is a far cry (yes, I also like Far Cry) from its 8-bit origin; the hero B.J. Blazkowicz now a philosophical warrior-poet fighting in a resistance in an alternate universe where the Nazis won and dominate the world.
Luckily – or perhaps fatedly – I found the limited edition of the game with the 1/12 scale figure of ‘Terror Billy’ was still available. And once I had my hands on this plastic incarnation of a character who, in the game New Colossus, becomes a cyborg from the neck down, I had an idea.
There seem to be an awful lot of cyborg protagonists in first person shooters. John-117, the Master Chief in the HALO series; the variously shaped and gendered incarnations of V in Cyberpunk 2077 – the synchronicity of the male version of V in the game sharing my name was not lost on me. And Adam Jensen of the Deus Ex prequels; whose often-memed line in the first game is for me a fundamental difference between us and the tryborgs…
“I never asked for this”.
Although I lacked both the money and the space to build an entire village of 1/12 scale cyborg heroes fighting the fash, I could at least make a small shrine to these new cyborg gods. My own private Marwencol.
As there was a space on my bookshelf opposite my bed where my Warren Ellis comics used to live, I felt that was the perfect area for something… righteous. Something I could see when I woke up every day, to help me get out of bed and get on with my life.
I gave up the idea of relative scale, but I did want one more 1/12 figure to balance BJ, so I went old school and acquired a vintage Steve Austin figure.
(The original Martin Caidin novels that The Six Million Dollar Man drew from were a lot stranger than the show, its Bigfoot encounter notwithstanding. For example, in Cyborg IV – published the same year as Deathbird Stories – Austin has his bionic limbs and sense organs removed and the interfaces used to join him with an armed space shuttle, making him a living spaceship.)
I picked up an Adam Jensen figure and one of Vic Stone aka Cyborg from Justice League and Doom Patrol; Luke Skywalker and Seven Of Nine joined them. And then I realised the shrine could also be not only an altar of sorts, as well as a visual symbol of resilience I sorely needed… it would connect to the long line of anti-fascist resistance fighters, and a memorial for all those lost to the Holocaust. So I expanded the remit to include other disabled heroes (Charles Xavier, Deadpool) as well as Jewish, Romani and trans exemplars. If I couldn’t find a figure that I could afford or fit in the space, I stuck a picture of them on the fake brick wall backing. I also included pictures of Hephaestos and of ‘actual’ cyborg heroes – Douglas Bader, Viktoria Modesta.
Upon that wall, I put the awful Nazi term for those they considered disposable, the ones that Niemöller forgot, the ones they truly first came for, a phrase I wanted to reclaim in the same way as we have the word ‘queer’…
The idea of ancestor worship is perhaps one of the oldest of human religious impulses. Many cultures would elevate their Beloved Dead to a form of higher spiritual significance, even to full godhood. In the various African Diaspora religions and magical systems such as voudon, this kind of elevation is still common.
From my experience with the Shrine of the Useless Eaters and half a century of working with spirit-like-entities ranging from classical gods and demons to the likes of John Constantine – while never quite believing in them, treating them as an interface to the unknowable Wyrd – I would suggest that honouring our cyborg ancestors of all stripes would be a good place to begin building a spiritual practice for cyborgs.
One advantage of this approach is that step backwards from full belief that chaos magic encourages. Allowing for the most atheist of us to play with these concepts, the ’psychological model’ of magic where the weird shit us mages do is just a set of tools to trick our brains into different kinds of functionality. As chaos magic’s unknowing godfather, Austin Osman Spare, used to say:
“Treat all such phenomena as if they are real, not as real”.
And as Alan Moore, who not only created my magical colleague John Constantine but also had a couple of odd occasions where he met him in the real world, once said:
‘The one place Gods inarguably exist is in our minds where they are real beyond refute, in all their grandeur and monstrosity.’
We can draw on our borgods for strength in times of crisis; we can invoke their characteristics into ourselves as needed. And we don’t have to ‘believe’ they are ‘real’: it’s a false dichotomy, as false as the one that separates our prosthetic parts from our meat and bone parts.
They are all Us.
(Much of my thinking around disability, cyborgs and magic comes from three friends and colleagues: Craig Slee aka Mr. VI, writing in Cold Albion, AI ethicist Dr. Damien Williams and my sensei David Southwell, creator of Hookland and founder of Folklore Against Fascism. I remain in their debt.
Written to Michael McCann’s score for Deus Ex: Human Revolution.)
For reasons I hope are self-evident, in this list, I draw no distinction between heroes and villains, ‘people’ and monsters. I do (mostly) draw a distinction between traumatic and elective cyborgs, leaving out the majority of the latter: a list of elective cyborgs would include pretty much all the secondary cast of Cyberpunk 2077, Deus Ex, Ghost In The Shell, half of Doktor Sleepless… and could be considered as try-and-succeed-borgs?
Nuada Airgetlám (‘the Silver Arm’); first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Silver arm was built by Dian Cécht.
Osiris; after his murder and dismemberment into 14 pieces by his brother Set, his wife Isis recovered his parts, except for his penis, which had been eaten by fish. Isis made him a strap-on.
Pelops: Greek hero, lost shoulder blade replaced with ivory construct by Hephaestos.
Freyja, Norse goddess of beauty, fertility, sex and war: wife of Odin; often described as weeping red-gold tears – her acclamation as a cyborg appears in the paper ‘The End Of The Human? The Cyborg Past And Present’ by Carole M. Cusack, as a post-Haraway riff.
-a version of her appears in the anime Cyborg 009 as a villain.
Vishpala, warrior-queen mentioned in the Rigvela: she lost a leg in battle and got an iron replacement The princess Vadhrimati lost a hands; gold replacement made – in both cases ‘by the gods’ (though my Hindu mythology is scant, there may be more on both these…)
Tezcatlipoca: his lost right foot replaced with obsidian.
Steve Austin/Jamie Summers/Barney Miller et al, The Six Million Dollar Man and its spin-offs
-Half man. Half Machine. yadda yadda. A new FPS game with Peter Weller back in the role is coming soon. ) I note the not-great remake had Alex Murphy played by Joel Kinnaman, who also played Takeshi Kovacs in the first season of Altered Carbon – see below.)
-For my money, the best being Cameron Baum, played by Summer Glau in The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Sorry, Arnie. (Though I must also mention Catherine Weaver, a T-1000 played by Shirley Manson.)
The Daleks and Cybermen and various other villains in Doctor Who
Root, from Person Of Interest.
-The first acolyte of the first artificial intelligence/god known only as The Machine, she integrated with The Machine first through data received via Bluetooth headsets, then by an updated cochlear implant installed after being tortured by the US intelligence officer known only as Control. If you haven’t seen Person Of Interest, I highly recommend it; not only is Amy Acker’s performance amazing, so is her eventual fate. And it’s much better than Westworld.
Adam Jensen: Deus Ex . He never asked for this.
V and Johnny Silverhand: Cyberpunk 2077.
Vic Stone aka Cyborg: member of both The Justice League and Doom Patrol at various points.
Seven Of Nine, Geordi Laforge, Airiam, Keyla Detmer, Sam Rutherford et al, Star Trek
Anakin and Luke Skywalker, General Grevious etc. You know where.
Master Chief and the early generations of Spartans in the HALO games.
Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Camina Drummer in The Expanse. Beltalowda!
Bucky Barnes, The Winter Soldier
Deathlok, Cable, no doubt several other Marvel characters, including Tony Stark post-Extremis. (I don’t keep up with the Big Two at this point.)
Frankenstein’s Monster!! Because of the electrodes (not bolts) in his neck.
Cliff Steele aka Robot-Man in Doom Patrol
BJ Blazkowicz, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus.
Molly Millions, Johnny Mnemonic and others in William Gibson’s Sprawl stories.
(Funny how Keanu’s played two cyborgs named Johnny… woah.)
Jane #57821 in Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer
Battle Angel Alita
Motoko Kusanagi in various versions of Ghost In The Shell
–SO many in anime!
The Tin Woodman in Oz
Helva, The Ship Who Sang: protagonist of the Anne McCaffrey series. One of several ‘brainships’ constructed from deformed babies whose growth was further restricted, and then grafted into titanium shells to be fused with spaceships. (NB how Steve Austin also became a spaceship for a time.)
The Shrike, aka the Lord of Pain, Angel of Final Atonement, Angel of Retribution from Beyond Time, in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos: a six-armed metal beast of ferocious killing ability, including the use of time travel in combat. Based on the DNA of human officer Fedmahn Kassad.
Takeshi Kovacs, and many other characters in Altered Carbon. (Sadly, the author Richard K. Morgan is a huge transphobe – ironic in a series where consciousness is commonly downloaded into different constructed body ‘sleeves’ of all genders…)
Murderbot. Seriously, you need to read Martha Wells’ Murderbot Chronicles.
We3: cybernetically enhanced military project turning a cat, a dog and a rabbit into killing machines, who escape and seek freedom. One of Grant Morrison’s (they/them) most heartbreaking comics.
The Company in Kage Baker’s time travel series: orphans kidnapped by a Time Police organisation, turned into immortal cyborgs.
The Peripherals in The Peripheral (both William Gibson’s book and the TV show, especially triple amputee Connor Penske) and the Marine Haptic soldiers therein.
Many characters in Shadowrun (I have to note here the truly unpleasant trope in that universe that the more cyberware one has, the less ‘soul’ one has. Originally a game-balancing mechanic to stop players making vastly overpowered cybermages, the implicit ableism was somewhat corrected in later editions.)
Mad-Eye Moody in Those Books By That TERF Woman.
John Probe aka M.A.C.H. 1 in the early issues of the classic 2000 AD comic. Probe, (Man Activated By Computopuncture Hyperpower) was a Steve Austin rip-off with more violence and moral ambiguity.
5th century B.C.E. (via Herodotus) Hegesistratus, a Greek soldier, lost a foot to torture; wooden prosthesis
-fought for the Persians against the Spartans who mutilated him
M. Sergius Silus (via Pliny), a Roman veteran of the Second Punic War against Carthage, wore an iron hand.
Ivar The Boneless: Viking warlord, famed for his many successful attacks on Britain. Appears to have at least worn metal splints for walking (does so in the TV show Vikings). The subject of a new novel by actor and disabled activist Nabil Shaban.
Gotz von Berlichingen. In 1508, he lost his right arm in the Battle of Landhut. He could afford to buy two technologically advanced iron arms with locking hand positions. He used his good hand to set a series of springs and releases so he could manipulate the artificial hand.
Tycho Brahe and his metal nose
James Edward Hanger: US Civil War veteran and engineer who upgraded his prosthetic leg and passed on the tech.
Douglas Bader: English WWII pilot who lost both legs in a plane crash. Captured by the Germans, escaped, was recaptured and sent to Colditz Castle, the infamous prison for escapee POW’s. He insisted to the commandant that not only should he keep his aluminium legs, but he should be permitted exercise walks in the countryside… during which, he stuffed the legs with Red Cross aid package chocolate and passed it around the local German civilians to subvert the population.
Viktoria Modesta: if you’ve not seen her Prototype video, treat yourself. Played a fine villain in the show Killjoys.
David Aguilar aka “Hand Solo”, The Lego prosthesis guy
Oscar Pistorius: perhaps the most problematic fave on the list, what with being a murderer and all.
Ruby Rose (she/they): the John Wick star suffered an injury while playing Batwoman on TV and had the same spinal operation that I did… and had to return to work a week later. She left the show after one season, citing this and other issues with the production.