The Top Four Body Modifications in Science Fiction
One of the great draws of speculative fiction, and a theme that has been recapitulated again and again, is the dream of transcending the limits of the human body. So many sci-fi technologies hinge around altering the user’s biology, granting superhuman strength, psychic abilities, or anything else the author can dream up. After all, who wouldn’t want superpowers on demand? But some bodily enhancements just have more panache, charm, and raw cool than the others, and have the je ne sais quoi to help the works they originate in become iconic. Here are four of the best ways to get cybernetically enhanced in sci-fi universes.
Fremen biology (Dune)
The natives of the harsh desert planet Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s classic novel, its sequels, and its often-trippy film adaptations, are the ultimate survivors. Descended from a nomad religious sect, the Fremen have spent thousands of years in the driest, most unforgiving conditions imaginable, and through both natural evolution and artificial means they are the only people who can thrive in the wilds of Arrakis. They are attuned to the hallucinogenic spice, mélange, which the story revolves around and which permeates their environment. By consuming mélange-tainted food they obtain uncanny sensory perception and their entire eyes–pupil, iris, and eyeball–are stained a brilliant blue. They are also all bonded to water-conserving stillsuits, which filter moisture from the outside world and from their own bodies, meaning Fremen can go for weeks without a drop to drink, camel-style. Their Spartan-like way of life makes the Fremen among the best warriors in the Dune universe, and protagonist Paul Atreides organizes his private army from Fremen who have special voice-box devices that can turn specific spoken words into weapons. These supersoldiers are called the Fedaykin, and may have inspired the similarly-named Dovahkiin, protagonist of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, who also has the power of a mystic voice.
Etherium filigree (Magic: the Gathering)
Magic cards have been around for 20 years, so naturally the game has taken place in many different settings during that time. For many players, one of the most memorable worlds of Magic is Esper, one-fifth of the splintered plane of Alara. Esper is a metal world, an example of the “magitech” science fiction/fantasy crossover genre. Its inhabitants are sharply segregated between the wealthy, who live in crystalline spires and follow the machinations of scheming courts, and the poor, who are forced to scrounge for scraps in the great junkheaps of the Tidehollow and other areas of the planetary depths. The most marked distinction between rich and destitute is the amount of filigree a person bears. Filigree body parts are made from etherium, a semi-intelligent magical metal that bends directly to the will of its user. It naturally forms into beautiful and delicate lacework, hence the name filigree. The more etherium in an individual’s body, the more magic energy that person is capable of storing and channeling, and the wealthiest and most powerful on Esper are almost one hundred percent filigree. Unfortunately, etherium has flaws that make it degrade over time and cause its users to go mad–unless it’s alloyed with the mineral carmot, which can only be found on the savage wasteland world of Jund, in high concentrations under the nests of dragons. Even so, it’s a much better alternative to the other major form of cybertechnology in Magic: The Glistening Oil, handiwork of the first main villain, which is a corrupting virus that turns entire worlds into undead industrial hellscapes.
Biotics (Mass Effect series)
The very name Mass Effect comes from this popular video game RPG series’ explanation for faster-than-light travel. The substance known as “element zero” gives off mass effect waves of dark energy when electrified, which pressurize spacetime in order to increase or decrease the mass of matter. A spaceship with an element zero drive can have its mass reduced to almost null, meaning that it can travel at speeds greater than that of light in much the same way that a tachyon can. As amazing as this technology sounds when used in a spaceship, it also has impressive applications when an individual uses it. Biotics are people who have element zero nodes implanted in their bodies and can exert mental control over them through nervous system links. A biotic thus gains the equivalent of a new set of limbs–one that manipulates the physical world through creating small mass effect fields. Some alien races, such as the blue-skinned and parthenogenic Asari, have inborn biotic talents, while others, like the non-oxygen-breathing Quarians, are biotic much more rarely. Still, it’s possible for almost anyone to access biotic powers after receiving the element zero implants, and biotics are known to be able to throw, pull, and catch heavy objects with their minds, paralyze opponents through sheer concentration, and generate impenetrable forcefields around themselves and their friends.
Adeptus Astartes (Warhammer 40,000)
In the grim darkness of the forty-first millennium, when there is only war, who’s going to protect ordinary humans from ravenous Tyranids, piratical Orks, and the demons of Chaos? The Adeptus Astartes, or Space Marines, are the human Imperium’s last best hope in the Warhammer 40,000 miniatures game, roleplaying games, and novels. Space marines are trained and modified from childhood to become ludicrously powerful fighters, one-man armies who are more demigod than human by the time they’re inducted into their Legion chapters. Candidates are subject to horrific trials–battling their own fellow trainees to the death, exposure to the elements with no tools but their own wits and fists, psychological torture to simulate the horrors of battling otherworldly eldritch entities–and the survivors are fitted with entirely new organs grown from the genetic material of the Primarchs, the Legion’s deified founders. These bizarre body parts include a secondary heart, a gland that obviates the need for sleep, a set of acid nodes that make even the Space Marine’s saliva deadly, and a “Black Carapace” that lets him use high-tech powered armor. Thus, even without their advanced weaponry and tactical genius, the Adeptus Astartes are among the deadliest foes in the Warhammer 40k universe.