Scifi writer Jon Wallace considers whether implants will unlock some hidden human potential – or do irreparable damage to our existence

Last month, The Engineer reported on progress towards bionic eye implants. An array of silicon nanowires arranged in an electrode grid, implanted behind the retina and linked to a wireless device, has potential to restore sight. Once again engineering news astounds and delights – the scifi eye given life.

Technological implants play a solid role in science fiction as a crucial component of the idea of the ‘transhuman’: that is, an evolutionary leap that sees mankind combine with technology to alter its perception and abilities.

Interest in implants tends particularly towards the neural interface: as science has come to understand consciousness as more a product of the brain’s complex functions (as opposed to the awareness granted an immortal soul), so science fiction has explored the fascinating prospect of tampering with our brain’s computing.

Writers like to explore the farthest reaches of such progress: will implants unlock some hidden potential or do irreparable damage? Could they unite humanity through a new, shared reality, or create new conflict – between those who embrace transformation and those who refuse it? Can we forfeit some precious part of ourselves yet be better people for it?

These are all excellent foundations for stories: the fact that this research centres on the eye only rings more scifi bells: eyes are often the giveaway ‘otherness’ in the implanted or adapted: see Star Trek’s Seven of Nine and her bulky ocular attachment.

The Borg are a reasonable representative for the portrayal of implanted characters, who are often disfigured, manipulated figures. The Borg’s implants are their chains, playing on our fears of an inescapable totalitarian commotion in our heads, countless voices drowning out our thoughts. Star Trek’s writers return to the Borg (again and again) because the stumbling, mindless drone, ‘awoken’ from captivity, makes a wonderful character. As long-lost relatives they can comment on our society with pleasing effect.

Cinematic bad rap
‘Implants’ generally bad rap in cinema extends to many other forms. In The Matrix they are part of a ruthless trick, both duping man into oblivious service of machines and harvesting his energy. In Johnny Mnemonic and Elysium they are the tool by which men are made data mules: heroes chased and harried for the precious treasure in their heads. Novels such as Iain M Banks’ Feersum Endjinn, meanwhile, see implants deployed by the ultimate future surveillance state, allowing the King to jump into his subjects’ heads at will and see through their eyes – although they also grant humans a kind of immortality beyond ‘base reality’. CONTINUE…