To get both my sci-fi and near-future dystopia fix, I’ve been fiending out on Deus Ex: Human Revolution since the game released late last month. While pausing for a moment to upgrade protagonist Adam Jensen’s cybernetic augmentations, I started thinking about cyborgs and cybernetic modification in general, and then specifically, the fact that characters featuring such modifications have been around in some form for as long as I could remember.
Humans have been dreaming up cyborgs for use in fiction for as long as we’ve had mechanical objects. One of the earliest instances is an 1839 short story by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Man That Was Used Up,” where an unnamed narrator discovers that a famous and charismatic war hero, John A. B. C. Smith, is mostly comprised of prostheses after sustaining innumerable battle wounds. Over 150 years later, we’re still captivated by tales of mechanically augmented individuals, continuously exploring that theme of blurred humanity and the value of natural flesh.
In light of this never-ending cultural fascination, here are the 10 best fictional cyborgs.
Dates active: 1983-1986
Hardware: An unending stream of gadgets summoned by his trademark command, ‘Go-Go-Gadget.’ Notably, coiled spring legs and hat-mounted helicopter blades.
Why he’s awesome: One of the most lighthearted cybernetic characters in fiction, the goofy inspector was essentially a high-tech version of the bumbling Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther series. With an endless supply of interesting but often useless gadgets, tons of physical comedy, and a plucky niece and genius-dog combo that ended up solving most of the crimes themselves, Inspector Gadget had all the right elements for an immensely entertaining kids show, complete with public service announcements delivered by the Inspector after each episode dealing with one or more of the dangerous topics encountered.
Dates Active: 1987-1994
Hardware: Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement, otherwise known as VISOR. Later, prosthetic eye implants.
Why he’s awesome: In tradition with the socially groundbreaking history of the original Star Trek (one of the first multi-ethnic cast on prime time television and an imagined future where humanity moves beyond racism), LeVar Burton portrayed a media rarity, an African American character that was a gifted scientist and intellectual as Geordi LaForge—Chief Engineering Officer aboard the USS Enterprise-D, where he often repaired the high-tech devices of the ship and discovered scientific phenomena.
8. Dr. No
Dates Active: 1958, 1962
Hardware: In the film, bionic metal hands. In the original book, simple prosthetic pincers.
Why he’s awesome: The film portrayal of Dr. Julius No by Joseph Wiseman is one of the earliest instances of a menacing cybernetic villain, and the first criminal mastermind of the James Bond series of movies (though he originally appeared in Ian Fleming’s sixth Bond novel). No’s metal hands, though lacking in finesse, had terrifying power, showcased in the classic scene where he menacingly crushes a metal figurine. A cyborg villain that helped set the stage for one of the most popular and long-running movie franchises? That’s pretty awesome.
Dates Active: 2003-2009
Hardware: Flesh and blood but with a digital molecular structure that allows enhanced abilities and downloadable memories.
Why She’s Awesome: Tricia Helfer’s portrayal of the menacing and seductive Number Six, the first revealed humanoid Cylon model of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, was arguably the number one wow-factor that kicked off the immense popularity of the new series. The best sci-fi TV show in history deeply examined the meaning and boundaries of humanity, blurring the line between man and machine with every plot twist and new development.
6. Six Million Dollar Man
Dates Active: 1973-1978
Hardware: Right arm, both legs, left eye replaced with bionic implants that greatly increase his natural abilities.
Why he’s awesome: “We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better…stronger…faster.” Just about everyone with exposure to Western television is familiar with the famous opening narration that began every episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. Astronaut Steve Austin (in a time when we still loved our space program and astronauts were heroes) crashes in an experimental craft and is rebuilt by the secretive Office of Scientific Intelligence. Austin is reborn as a secret agent who uses the abilities granted by his prosthetics to basically become cyborg James Bond, complete with some of the earliest (effective) uses of slow motion scenes in combat, before they became the cliché they are today.
Dates Active: 1987, 1990, 1993
Hardware: Everything but the face, cerebrum, and cerebellum replaced with a combat ready cybernetic body. Hip-stored 9mm handgun.
Why he’s awesome: First, ignore all the terrible drivel that followed the original 1987 movie (there’s a lot of it). The original RoboCop was a purposefully over-the-top, ultraviolent satire of American culture that lampooned the endless stream of explosion-laden war and action movies of the era, featuring a smart and engaging female lead at a time when women were either one-dimensional or totally absent in blockbuster films. The rebuilt Officer James Murphy’s robotic mannerisms, deadpan one-liners, and hip-holstered hand cannon made Robocop an instant pop-culture figure that left it’s mark on the action films of the next few decades.
Dates Active: 1963 – present
Hardware: Originally, magnetic chest plate to keep shrapnel from damaging his heart, full suit of powered armor. Later, the full suit is stored within his bones, complete with a neural interface.
Why he’s awesome: According to Stan Lee, the original goal of the Iron Man character was to create a capitalist, arms-manufacturing rich playboy that went against all the anti-war youth currents of the day and “shove him down their throats and make them like him.” Lee later regretted the early Iron Man’s anti-communist focus, but the character was an instant hit and has evolved into one of the most popular and complex characters in the entire Marvel roster. As Iron Man, Tony Stark represents the upper limits of human ingenuity, as he constantly modifies his own suit, and later, his own body, to further his abilities, all while battling recurring alcoholism and a neurotic need to have absolute control over everything he touches.
Dates Active: 1977, 1980, 1983, 2005
Hardware: cybernetic arms, legs, and respirator.
Why he’s awesome: One of the most popular fictional characters conceived in the last 100 years, we could make a list of best cars, put Darth Vader in every slot, and people would still love it. That kind of clout is well deserved though, as few characters have had anywhere near Darth Vader’s impact on subsequent pop culture. He has everything that makes a character engaging: He’s tall, dark, scary, disciplined, tragic and immensely skilled at piloting, lightsaber combat and choking out back-talking greyshirts. The only reason he’s not number one here is because he’s number one in just about every other list he’s on, and we feel like shaking things up.
Dates Active: 1981, 1984, 1986, 1988
Hardware: Razor sharp retractable blades under her fingernails, extensively augemented reflexes, senses, and metabolism, eyes sealed over with reflective vision enhancing lenses.
Why she’s awesome: Molly Millions is the definition of alternative cyberpunk cool, and she’s easily the coolest, most in-your-face cybernetic female of all pop-culturedom, especially considering they didn’t even exist before William Gibson wrote her into existence in the early 1980s, single-handedly creating the entire genre of cyberpunk all by his lonesome, incredibly awesome self. The short story she originally appeared in, “Johnny Mnemonic” (ignore the awful Keanu Reeves rendition), was one of the first stories to feature a tough as nails female lead that protects her vastly less hardy male companion, fighting off cyborg Yakuza assassins (for real) to keep the both of them safe.
Date Active: 1982
Hardware: Nexus-6 model replicant body grants superhuman strength and endurance, and geniuslevel intellect, at the cost of a four year lifespan.
Why he’s awesome: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain… Time to die.” That final speech, delivered by replicant Roy Batty in his final moments before his limited lifespan runs out, endures as one of the greatest dramatic moments of all science fiction, drawing a powerful close to Ridley Scott’s dystopian epic Blade Runner. As Roy Batty, Rutger Hauer hit every aspect of the cyborg (arguably a synthetic human, but the line between that and cyborg is anything but clear) that makes the construct engaging. He has abilities beyond a normal man, he rebels against his use as a beast of burden, he leads his fellow replicants to freedom, and he makes the ultimate human choice to save agent Deckard, demonstrating that his humanity extends further than the human Blade Runners that unquestioningly “retire” his kind. That’s 100% awesome.