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Ben Berman Ghan

The Cyborg as a figure in popular culture—the body in a literal state of “human/machine symbiosis” (Katherine Hayles How We Became Posthuman 112)—is often conceived as a monstrous figure, as a figure of otherness, a being whose status as a hybrid has made it less deserving of the title of humanity. The Cyborg, when portrayed as an inhuman monster, has “always defined the limits of community in the western imagination” (Donna Haraway The Cyborg Manifesto 64).

However, in embracing this hybrid status, the Cyborg need not remain a subhuman Other, but rather, can become the figure in which queer and repressed bodies might break free from the constraints that their normative culture places on them. This essay argues that the Cyborg, under critical posthumanist and queer theory, can range from hybrid subjectivities grafted to the human body, or inhuman bodies fused with human subjectivities, to bodies that have found an equilibrium in both their human/machine avatars, and finally, to figures that have become cyborgs of both the body and the mind.

Subjectivity, throughout this essay, refers to how a creature sees its world, and how that creature sees and defines itself as a part of that world. A human’s subjectivity, for example, might involve an understanding of linear time and mortality, and an understanding of who they are in relation to others. A dog’s subjectivity, by contrast, might be similar to the human’s, but not identical, with its subjective understanding of time, and certainly of social structures, differing. How a machine or extraterrestrial might perceive themselves and their universe is further still from what the human subjectivity perceives. In short, subjectivity will be used as a shorthand for how characters are capable of thinking about their external and internal worlds.

This Mind and Body Cyborg as a queer figure raises its head in Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s 2019 epistolary novel This Is How You Lose the Time War, as two Cyborg bodies shed their previous subjectivities in order to find a queer understanding of one another. Through their altered subjectivities, the post-human Cyborg as a queer figure is one that can flourish and reach out to one another in new forms of "Cyborg writing" (Haraway 54) that the "pure" human world could never achieve.

This is How You Lose The Time War opens with each of the two protagonists already in possession of two separate types of Cyborg bodies. Red—the agent of a post-singularity "techy-mechy dystopia” (El-Mohtar & Gladstone 36)—represents the most traditional figure of the Cyborg as a human/machine symbiosis, whose “gyroscopes whir in her gut, lenses click beneath the camouflage jelly of those pure black eyes” (14). She operates in a world where these enhancements and implantations are not invasive but natural. Blue—Red’s initial opponent, and eventual romantic partner—descends from an opposing “viny-hivey elfworld” (36) future. Blue exists as a body in symbiosis not with the traditional artifice of technology but with a sentient nature represented as “Garden” (6). “Garden” stands as a potential alternative future to the AI intelligence of “Agency” (6) that created Red.

To continue to call Blue a literal Cyborg is to acknowledge how “plant sentience and intelligence are […] explicitly associated with the mediation of machines” (Teresa Castro The Mediated Plant 11). Blue remains a figure of human/machine symbiosis, even if that machine has taken a different form (that of a human/plant-machine). Like Red, Blue sees her own body as natural, and Red’s as the unnatural. She emphasizes that while the Cyborgs of Red’s world are created artificially and decanted, the children of Garden are “grown […] seeds planted, roots combing through time” (El-Mohtar & Gladstone 126). The struggle to overcome the dualisms of natural/unnatural is both a central conflict of El-Mohtar and Gladstone's novel and a critical project in queering the figure of the Cyborg, the hybrid body focused on breaking down the dualisms and binaries of normative human culture.

When This Is How You Lose the Time War speaks of being infected by or "infiltrated" (8) by one another both mentally and physically, Red and Blue often speak of the act of reading as the most potent infiltration point for the writer. In a letter, Red—one of the two correspondents of the novel—acknowledges that their reading of each other has “built a you within me, or you have” (94). The novel treats the act of reading and writing as a way for Red and Blue to trigger personal "apocalypses" (defined below) of their subjective notions of purity and otherness within one another, with writing creating not new moments, but new worlds. “Letters are structures, not events. Yours give me a place to live inside” (94) argues Red, illustrating how Blue’s words alone have restructured her sense of self, and her sense of belonging.

The novel's preoccupation with ways to instigate such personal apocalypses mirrors the very literal apocalypses on a planetary scale that both Red and Blue seek to trigger through history, travelling "upthread into the stable past or downthread into the fraying future" (10) to infect and destroy timelines by changing events in an attempt to “preserve what matters [for their own sides] and let what doesn't fall to dust: mulch for the more perfect future's seed" (El-Mohtar & Gladstone 60). The planetary apocalypses throughout the story intend not to end the world, but to radically alter it. As I explain below, this is a posthumanist application of the term apocalypse, and the one best applied to how Time War treats change in both character and world.

Creating not the physical but the cognitive Cyborg always requires these apocalyptic rearrangings of subjectivity in order to wipe away the binaries and dualisms of traditional human culture—binaries such as the strict gender norms of man/woman in a single binary (hetero) normative sexuality, or the dualisms of self/other, human/inhuman, or us/them that would keep the figure of the Queer Cyborg constrained. As Time War applies apocalypse on a global scale by rewriting events, it applies apocalypse on the subjective scale through Red and Blue’s literal writing of themselves and each other.

Apocalypse, as applied to subjectivity, is not the "end to the physical world, per se, but the world as structured for the characters" (Glazier, Beck 5). Looking outside of Time War, the cognitive Cyborg received its post-apocalyptic birth in literature by coming into contact with transformative and apocalyptic writing. In Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life, the protagonist Louise Banks correctly identifies how her personal apocalypse and global/societal apocalypse coincide “when ships appeared in orbit and artifacts appeared in meadows” (Chiang 2). In Chiang’s global apocalypse, the mere arrival of the alien is enough, as the presence of otherworldly beings forces the Earth to re-examine the idea of "human exceptionalism" (7) that is assumed by humanism. However, while the mere arrival of the Heptapods is the epoch for the global apocalypse in Chiang, for Louise, their arrival is only “how it began” (Chiang 2). While Story of Your Life only briefly concerns itself with the global apocalypse that the Heptapods herald, Chiang’s narrative keeps its focus on Louise's more personal apocalypse: the restructuring of her subjectivity. The radical change to Louise’s subjectivity goes beyond the presence of the alien, and actually hinges on the insights forced onto Louise by the Heptapods' languages, and more specifically the Heptapods' written language, which gives birth to Louise’s own “unique sense of apocalypse” (Glazier, Beck 5).

The Heptapods’ written language—what Louise refers to as “Heptapod B” (Chiang 14)—suggests a version of temporality unlike the “sequential mode of awareness” (31) that Louise had previously experienced. Where human language—analogue language—uses separate symbols to act as signified/signifier for one another, Heptapod B suggests a "digital" mode of temporality, where there are no separate words or terms that can represent signified or signifier (Glazier, Beck 12). The Heptapods “experience events all at once” (Chiang 31) without being bound to sequence or linear cause and effect, and they express this “simultaneous mode of consciousness” (Chiang 32) through Heptapod B. Louise’s pre-apocalyptic life was “before [she] learned to think in Heptapod B” (Chiang 35). While there are instances where Louise truly experiences “past and future all at once” (36) as Heptapods do, Louise's subjectivity becomes “an amalgam of human and Heptapod” (Chiang 35).

Instead of becoming entirely digital, as the Heptapods are, Louise's after(-)life is one which must incorporate both her previous human language and the "memories of destiny" (Glazier, Beck 16). Through these changes in language and writing, Louise revises her concept of the subject, as it forces her to reconcile different identities through her life. Her new subjectivity revises her many identities through time as single, married, divorced, childless, pregnant, a mother, and a mother grieving for her child into a single digital sense of self. The personal apocalypse that Louise experiences through this new language is one that shatters her humanist, static identity of "I" into an "I" of many simultaneous "multiple selves" (16). Louise's apocalypse ultimately results in not only a change but a radical expansion in her subjectivity. Chiang’s narrative then creates a type of cognitive Cyborg with an entirely “pure” physical human body, but a mind that has become a fusion, with an inhuman understanding being fused to a human subjectivity.

However, the cognitive Cyborg can go further in muddling notions of human purity, as can be seen in Alan Moore's Saga of the Swamp Thing: Book One. In the comic, the protagonist initially believes himself to be only a literal fusion of plant and a human body, akin to the physical human/plant-machine symbiosis of Time War’s Blue. Though his subjective understanding of self has incorporated an inhuman body, he still maintains a self-image of a purely human existence underneath, separate and apart from the inhuman. But this notion of human purity is destroyed through contact with writing, when Swamp Thing stumbles upon writing about himself and his own nature. This writing reveals the origin and truth of Swamp Thing’s body and creation: he is not a human within a monstrous figure but "a mass of plant fiber that had somehow been infected with the consciousness of Alec Holland" (66). Returning to the idea of subjectivity being an infection, Swamp Thing becomes the inverse of Louise from Story of Your Life, an entirely alien body of inhuman origin, whose subjective understanding of the world and the self has become more like the human. Swamp Thing’s subjective self after this apocalyptic revelation is no longer that of Time War’s Blue, but a new cognitive symbiosis of human consciousness/plant-machine body. As with Time War, the figure of Moore’s comic had already begun as a kind of physical hybrid, but only through writing do they become a new kind of Cyborg through a fusion of human/artifice within the mind alone, free to cast off the constraints of their previous understanding of the self.

The Cyborg of the mind, or the cognitive Cyborg, exists not in opposition to Hayles’s physical Cyborg, but as a less literal companion. Andy Clarke, in Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence, proposed that a Cyborg could be created out of any fusion between the "pure" human and the use of any artifice that the human might use to express themselves or enable their identities. Clarke alludes to the use of writing utensils, digital platforms, and other technologies that can become an extension of the self without the literal "intrusion of silicon and wire into flesh and blood, as anyone who has felt himself thinking via the act of writing already knows" (Clarke 5). This alternative method of Cyborg creation suggests it is not the physical hybrid status of the body that triggers the creation of the cognitive Cyborg, but how writing may expose a body to new ways of thinking about themselves.

Returning to The Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway argued that Cyborg writing is "about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other" (55). This Is How You Lose the Time War creates an opportunity for two characters to engage in Cyborg writing as an active, rather than passive process, as they each receive their apocalypse through contact with the writing. Neither Red nor Blue are limited to the role of author or audience, but rather both serve as reader and writer for one another, each allowing the other a chance to redefine what it means to be a hybrid for both.

Though Haraway originally posited how women of colour might be understood as the “cyborg identity” (54) most powerfully placed to be enabled through Cyborg writing, applying Cyborg theory to narratives like This Is How You Lose the Time War shows how other “taboo fusions” (52) that stray from the notions of purity that are “persistent in western traditions” (59)—such as those inherent in heteronormativity—might also be primed for the act of writing as a transformative process.

The letters sent and shared between Red and Blue continually infect them throughout the narrative. In both purpose and style, they evolve throughout the novel from only short taunts and cruel allusions of what each believes the other’s world to be like to a “confession of real, curious ignorance" (El-Mohtar & Gladstone 36) about the other's opposing world. Their ignorance of any real knowledge of one another has been fostered by both Agency and Garden's "manic compulsion to name the Enemy" (Haraway 9) as entirely Other.

When these early letters speak of infection and infiltration, it is only in binary terms, each fearing the other is trying to entirely convert or “recruit” (36) them to the “enemy’s” side. However, Red and Blue’s letters to one another move into Cyborg writing once they begin to seek understanding over conversion. Curiosity and desire drive them to each attempt to "say something true" (37) about themselves to one another. In this quest for truth, Red and Blue move past writing in stifling binaries into the realm of storytelling, each attempting in letters to write their own origin stories to one another. Haraway also defined Cyborg writing as the act of “retelling stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities.” (Cyborg Manifesto 55). From the beginning, each origin complicates the binary definitions of what each Cyborg believes the other to be.

Within the binary of their war, Red’s world is one of connection, a species all plugged into one another where “there is no mono-we, there are many uses […] pieces laid atop pieces" (El-Mohtar & Gladstone 43). Red's cyborg civilization is supposed to be the one where the entire human race is in a constant state of symbiosis. However, the origin story that Red writes for herself destroys that image of constant connectivity with a tale of isolation and solitude. Blue’s image of Red’s world and Red’s identity is that of one massive “artificial god the size of mountains, built for making war” (64); so Blue is then asked to reimagine her idea of Red as a small girl who has purposefully walked away from the whole to be “the only person on that tiny rock.” (63). In writing her origin story, Red not only takes control of how she is observed by Blue, but it also allows her to subvert the myth of purity that her culture has placed upon her. Though Red's culture is one of vast sameness, in her writing, she can label herself "deviant" (64), as something other than only the cultural norm enforced upon her by both Blue's perceptions and Red's society.

Similarly, the origin story Blue writes for herself is of one not subsumed by the myth of purity that is her culture, that her world demands one be a part of a greater whole, and though she is “enmeshed in this wholeness—they are not the whole of me” (72). Blue contrasts Red’s origin by being involuntarily “cut off” (123) from Garden, as opposed to Red’s self-imposed episode of solitude. In the choice to create and share these origin stories of themselves for each other through writing, Red and Blue as “cyborg authors subvert the central myth” (Haraway 55) of the normative cultures that would keep the one/other binary intact at all costs.

While sharing each other’s origin stories through writing is an act of empowerment and fusion – empowering Red and Blue to tell their own stories, and making their writing a part of each other in the process—Time War goes further, giving Red and Blue a chance to retell the other's origin once they have told their own. They can perform this new fusion of entering each other's origin stories through time travel, Blue becoming the "something like a wolf" (63) that Red encounters, saving her from attackers during her solitude, and Red going back to give the infection of a "kiss and something to eat" (122) that had initially cut Blue off from her Garden, inoculating her against the poison that Red's Agency will later attempt to use to kill her. Both of these retellings allow the two Cyborgs to redefine the stories of their origins from events of barely surviving "enemy action" (121) to an event of being protected by a loved one.

Having shared this act of Cyborg authorship, Red and Blue can no longer continue along the constraining dualism that their cultures insist upon. As they embrace each other’s writings, each taking the other’s story into their own, Red understands that “it’s wrong to call you enemy” (79). It is in the death of the idea of the enemy that the figure of the Queer Cyborg can finally be born. Red, having broken the binary holding her back, is allowed to admit, "I love you, Blue. Have I always? Haven't I?" (129). If the Cognitive Cyborg is a Queer Cyborg, as they are in Time War, it's the breaking down of the dualisms and restrictions inherent in a heteronormative subjectivity that necessitates that queerness.

The body and mind under heteronormativity work to “affirm a structure, to authenticate [the] social order” (Edelman No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive 2-3) that man/woman is an absolute binary, there are two genders, and two sides to a single “pure” sexuality (that of heterosexual couplings), all of which is subsumed under the politics of what queer theory labels “reproductive futurism” (3)—the idea that the goal of all couplings must be to produce children, that by “transmit[ting life] to the future in the form of its inner Child” (3), life and romance gain their only meaning. If the goal of Cyborg writing is political—and all writing is political—then "Cyborg politics” (Haraway 59) is queer politics as well. In reference to Terry Eagleton’s 1990 play Saint Oscar, “you hold that a man is a man and a woman is a woman. I hold that nothing is ever purely itself, and that the point where it becomes so is known as death” (Eagleton, cf. Heaney 1995, 86-87). These binaries, imposed by culture and not nature, can be cast aside by those who reject the absolute power and authority of such binaries.

As Red and Blue fall in love, Red states, “I want to be a body for you” (El-Mohtar & Gladstone 129). The body, as constructed in Cyborg politics, stands as opposed to the body and its purpose under heteronormativity. Queer/Cyborg bodies and Queer/Cyborg politics are bodies of “those not fighting for the children [but fighting on] the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism” (3). The queer Cyborg is free to “subvert the structures of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender” (Haraway 57). The binaries of man/woman, mother/father, and parent/child are not necessary destinies for the body of the Cyborg, who is free to seek out other forms of coupling, and pursue other desires. Or, in Blue’s own words: “Sex improves when decoupled […] from animalistic procreative desperation” (El-Mohtar & Gladstone 50). Cyborgs' bodies, unbound from the “purity” of the human body that is promoted by normativity, and indeed heteronormativity, do not need to "dream of community on the model of the organic [nuclear, or reproductive] family" (Haraway 9).

Though queer couplings of course can have children (and heteronormative couples who choose not to reproduce are equally valid), and queer parents are as capable and legitimate as any other parent type, Edelman’s argument is not that queer culture cannot produce children, but instead that queer culture is one where the end result of love and couplings does not necessitate children, with love flourishing beyond the normative demand that reproduction be the end goal of coupling. Cyborgs are free to pursue new modes of community and ideas of love through their altered states of subjectivity, their hybrid status, and their place as a fusion of different modes of thinking/being. This Cyborg idea of love is not a separate concept from that of queer love under Edelman’s argument, but is an expression of queer love. Cyborg love, as Red and Blue love each other, is a love without the motivation of creating future generations, or a love constrained by the pressure to do so. They do not aim to find children, or necessarily a place within child-rearing culture, but instead aim only to find each other, without the ulterior motives or directives that (hetero)normative culture might demand of them. They do not dream of procreation, but only of one another.

For the two hybrids of This Is How You Lose the Time War, the choice to become that cognitive Queer Cyborg through writing is embraced both as a state of mind and as a physical manifestation. As Red completes her apocalyptic transformation, she "reads Blue into her: tears, breath, skin […], she builds a model of Blue's mind from the words she left; models her body to the letters' measure" (El-Mohtar & Gladstone 183). Red takes the Cyborg writing of connection and origin and takes it into herself until "new organs bloom from autosynthesized stem cells to shoulder old bits of her away […] a different mind plays around the edges of her own" (183). Red becomes a new fusion, human/machine and human/plant-machine, forsaking all normative concepts of purity and dualism as she becomes a hybrid that is capable of crossing back and forth from the post-singularity future of her Agency to the Mediated Plant future of Blue's Garden. Still a Cyborg of Agency's origins, she is rejected by Garden. Nevertheless, no longer the pure Cyborg of her own culture, she cannot be accepted back. Her Agency, strictly adhering to the dualism of Us/Them, cannot accept the queer Cyborg as a creature no longer playing within the rules of normative dualism.

The queer body of the Cyborg, that which has been achieved by an apocalyptic shift of subjectivity, cannot exist within binary culture. A queer culture, a Cyborg culture, is a hybrid of impurity that must create its own writing and politics, and must write its own origin story and future, not as a part of "pure" heteronormative culture, or as an option within normativity's binaries, but as something that exists as a new state, as a fusion of states. As Time War ends, Red and Blue have embraced one another as hybrids, and so no longer belong to Agency or Garden. They seek a Cyborg culture all of their own, a “bridge between our shifts” (198) that yields to neither. As Blue proposes in their final letter, the cognitive Cyborg has the power to defect “not to each other’s sides, but to each other” (198).

Queer bodies and the hybrid bodies of Red and Blue can find each other not through the language of binary or heteronormativity or war, but by forging that new Cyborg culture through their writing, and through their cognitive states. When the queer Cyborg embraces Cyborg writing and embraces the power and changes and fusions that such writing brings, then the queer body is free. To quote the final words of This Is How You Lose the Time War, as the two cognitive cyborgs set out to become those new queer bodies for one another: "This is how we win" (198).


Work Cited:

El-Mohtar, Amal, and Max Gladstone. This Is How You Lose the Time War. Saga Press, 2019.

Moore, Alan, et al. Saga of the Swamp Thing Book One. DC Comics, 2012.

Clark, Andy. Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford Univ. Press, 2010.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010.

Haraway, Donna J. “The Cyborg Manifesto.” Manifestly Haraway, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, pp. 3–90. Print.

Castro, Teresa. “The Mediated Plant.” E-Flux, Sept. 2019, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/102/283819/the-mediated-plant/

Glazier, J. and T. Beck. "Apocalypse, Language, Temporality: An Alien Encounter in Ted Chiang's 'Story of Your Life.'" Subjectivity, vol. 11, no. 3, 2018, pp. 267-284 (1-18 PDF).

Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others. Kamila.net.2016. PDF.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke University Press, 2007.

Eagleton, Terry. Saint Oscar. Field Day, 1989.

Heaney, Seamus. "Speranza in Reading: On 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol.'" In The Redress of Poetry. Oxford, 1995.



Ben Berman Ghan is a Jewish Settler, writer, editor, and scholar based in Tkaronto/Toronto, site of Treaty 13 and Williams Treaty territory, working on his MA at Ryerson University's Literature of Modernity Program. He has worked as an editor on The Spectatorial, The Goose, The Hart House Review, Terse Journal, The White Wall Review, and a book of nonfiction for Guernica Editions. His essays, poems, and stories have been published in various journals, and his fix-up novel What We See in the Smoke was published by Crowsnest Books (2019). His research focuses on queer, postcolonial, and cultural posthumanist theory, and always on science fiction.
One comment on “Queering the Cyborg: How the Hybrid Body Can Set Us Free”

[…] This essay in Strange Horizons is relevant here. Writing about queer cyborgs, Ben Berman Ghan posits that Red and Blue’s mutually-altering correspondence allows them to build a space of their own; a queer space apart from the dominant, binary paradigms of the Agency and Garden. It allows them to imagine something else. In the closing words of the text: “This is how we win.” […]

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