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February 23, 2006

Borg Eyes

I am Borg. No, I really am.

Translation for cave-dwellers: I'm talking about the pathologically aggressive alien species on my favorite Star Trek shows, i.e. "Next Generation", "Deep Space Nine", and "Voyager". (The original, Borg-less series is only good if you were watching it back then, or if you didn't get the memo about the death of irony; and "Enterprise" can suck my ass.) Aside from the lovely sci-fi-iness (and the increasingly good writing and characterization in each show as it went into later seasons), my main fascination with NextGen Trek was its lovely obsessions with multiraciality, as expressable in aliens, robots, and especially mixemup, mixemup cyborgs.

The Borg, did not reproduce, they grew their numbers by assimilating other species. Assimilation involved penetrating the victim's body with knuckle-tubes to the neck (all rape-y and vampiric and knuckle-sandwichy like that) to implant/infuse them with little bitty nanobots. The 'bots built cybernetic implants in the body, which then came bursting all metal-plantlike and horrifying out of the host's skin, reinforcing, rewiring, or just plain replacing the original organs. The brain was hooked up to a galaxy-wide, wifi internet system -- a hive mind -- and the host put into a "maturation" chamber so that his/her/its psyche could be brought to heel through mental enculturation. In return, each new assimilated species' brains were mined for information about their indigenous culture and ideas, and these added to the consciousness -- and techno-cultural arsenal -- of the collective.

Okay, from that description alone you can see how much symbolism and analogy to imperialism, colonialism, multiculturalism, totalitarianism, political correctness, cultural appropriation, sex, rape, blah, blah, blah can be mined in the Borg episodes. The Borg were wildly popular on the show from the time they first appeared in the second season (spring 1989) until suck-my-ass "Enterprise" ended last year-ish, and it's no coincidence that the rise of their popularity coincided with the end of the cold war, and the sudden American need for a new enemy. The Borg tapped into a number of terrifying archetypes, recalled a 500-year history of global expansionism, and shrewdly extrapolated the less desirable implications of all of our New Technology. Plus, they added their name (now a synonym for "fascist automaton") and the phrase "resistance is futile" to our mainstream pop vocabulary.

The concept of the Borg was already satisfyingly complex and, as early nineties history moved on, the show's relationship with the Borg grew more complex. Inevitably, reclaimed Borg characters began to appear, providing frameworks for discussions about: free will and cultural choice (Hugh), the corruption of diplomatic and military life (Locutus), and most tellingly, the painful conflicting values of bi-nationality (Seven of Nine). It's no coincidence that of all the multi-species (i.e. multiracial) characters on Star Trek (Spock, Worf, Data, Alexander, Sisko, Dax, B'Elanna), I identified the most with Seven of Nine. First of all, she was hott. But she, of all the culturally conflicted mixies on Star Trek, was the only one whose struggles did not come with a black and white tagline. She chose, moment by moment, which set of values (and hardware) she would use for which situation; her choices were often counterintuitive to the average viewer. And, as she grew more "human", she reclaimed her Borg virtues more and more articulately and confidently.

In Seven of Nine, culture was manifested physically in her implants, but it was also just culture. That was probably the best thing about the Borg, in its way: how much their cybernetic enhancements could suggest -- and how friggin' cool they looked. Cool and cold, both. They were the one truly frightening visual element in all the NG Treks, a hybrid of zombies, robots, vampire bats and storm troopers. And yet, they were always being talked about -- in voices of horror and fear and disgust -- using the language of virtue and superiority: they could "adapt" and "assimilate", their exoskeletons made them stronger and their inner computers made them smarter and faster. Plus, they had personal energy shielding. But their best visual was their simplest: they had one human eye, and one red laser beam, usually replacing the right eye. When they turned toward the camera at a certain angle, the laser hit the camera-eye in such a way that the whole screen lit up red for a moment. They were mindless drones until you annoyed them, then they turned and pinned you with their laser beam. That's just cool.

I can do that.

Well, not really, but I can do something close to that. See, about ten years ago I was diagnosed with cataracts, a progressive condition where your natural lenses, located behind the cornea, cloud up. Eventually the cloudiness is such that you can't see through it anymore. There's no cure, so what they do is wait until it gets really bad, and then remove your natural lenses, replacing them with plastic implants. That's right implants. Although only by the stretchiest stretch can my lenses be considered mechanical, you can still say that some of my organs have been replaced with technology. Mm hmm. I'm a cyborg.

And, although it sounds like it should be, this ... enhancement is not invisible. When the light strikes me just so -- usually when it's sort of dark and there's a strong light source coming at me from the side -- my plastic lenses light up. So if you're looking at the right moment, you'll see my pupils glowing white. To you it looks like ghostly cats' eyes. To me it looks like being zapped by an albino Borg. Since the operation six years ago, I've grown used to people stopping, looking at me more closely, and going, "What is that? That is so cool!"

But that's misleading, that I've grown used to it only in the last six years. I've been used to it much longer, because all my life, people (even people who know me quite well) have been stopping me suddenly and looking intently into my eyes and saying things like "Your eyes are blue. That's so cool!" or "Your eyes are green. I never noticed before!" Yeah, no, my irises aren't Borg. And the moment of revelation usually has something to do with the light, and the angle at which it's striking my eyes. My irises, like many, many others', are made up of concentric bands of three or four different colors, which means that the light, the room's walls, the shirt I'm wearing, my mood, the drugs I've taken, etc. etc. will affect which color dominates at any given moment, and how it looks to a viewer. (Most of the time they just look dark, though, so don't get all excited.)

The laser-eye moment is the one in which you begin notice something strange about somebody, and then somebody turns towards you and zings you with their full-on "strangeness". But strangeness, or coolness, is all about context: there should be an eye there, not a laser! pupils are black! yours shouldn't be reflecting like a cat's! you're Asian-y, your eyes shouldn't be blue! The power (and popularity) of the Borg culture on Star Trek lay in the delightful shock they produced every time they appeared on screen. As we grew used to this shock, the show produced ever greater shocks: Cubes, Spheres and lollipops! Human, Klingon and Romulan Borg! Jean-Luc Picard Borgified! Baby Borg! I was a teenaged Borg! A hot Borgy blonde with big boobs! Yeah, 'cause once you've invented a sufficiently complex analogy for human hybridity, you'll find that hybridity never ceases to surprise you. Half-breeds are never what you think, when you think it, and it's a narrative just getting through the day with them.

I got one of my Borg eyes laser adjusted at the doc's yesterday, and yes, the laser was red. I was laser-zapped in one eye for ten straight minutes, so half my vision was red red redred red red redredred red, while the other half was normal. And then for an hour afterward I was seeing blue in the one eye. But this morning, just in time for my birthday, I can see again. I can see! Having actual hardware in my face is still exceedingly creepy, but much cooler than not having it and being blind. In fact, the tiny facial manifestation of my cyborg self is rather more cool than not. It gives me something to talk about, something that I didn't much have a choice about (unless I chose to go blind) but something that felt like a choice. I didn't choose the irises, or any of the physical and cultural shit around them, and I can claim and reclaim and boost and celebrate all I want ... at the end of the day, I didn't choose, and I don't get to control when people lean in and notice, hey! you're even more different than I thought!

I chose to get the implants. And as I get older and more pieces fall off, I'll choose more hardware, more and more hybridity -- I'm already looking forward to the next add-on -- and I'll be ahead of the game. I can already assimilate better than you. And with hardware I get to choose what you see. Hardware's where it's at. All the rest is just organics.


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What an awesome post. The Borg episodes were often my favorite as well, because of their sheer relentless nature. They would keep coming, keep assimilating, keep pushing until they conquered you. Not a matter of if, but when. And so the suspense was finding out how the crew could either get away or fight them off before they could call for reinforcements.

I got pointed here by Gwenda Bond, btw, and I'm enjoying the hell out of your posts so far.

I enjoyed your interesting description of the blog world and how it correspondes to today's culture. Another Borglike mechanical impliment I'd like to mention is the clipon cell phone. Very Borglike indeed the need to communicate withe the collective.

Yay! So awesome!

This is Nabil, you liked my mixed-race alien thing on the feminist sf blog, and I like yr borgian thing! yay! i wish I liked Star trek!

See above for my email addy-- send me yr writing!



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