TWISTED MAN IN THE IRON LUNG
An Essay About Darth Vader and Cybernetics
Hernández, O.M.D., U.B.
I had my gallbladder out, and was captivated to learn that I have as
a result of this operation a total of four large titanium clips inside
me, near my liver. I assume these clips had to be clamped in place to
keep me from dying. The clips join company with another prosthetic--
a "replacement" part over which I will draw the veil of charity;
then there are my glasses, with a prescription that causes me to resemble
a large insect.
This got me thinking about some of the fantasy design and artwork I
did as a child. We had a shop teacher in junior high who had lost his
leg. It was a tragic accident, which occurred when sheet metal severed
his leg. He was just 18 at the time. This teacher, who had to limp along
on a prosthetic leg that looked no better than Captain Ahabs,
inspired me. He had been hobbled so long-- he was about 55 when I knew
him. I designed realistic, bio-dynamic prostheses by the dozens.
Then I discovered the great mathematician Norbert Wiener and his crazy
ideas about the science he founded: cybernetics. He thought about the
marriage of the biological and the technological. This affected me deeply,
and I began to think about dismembered folks who might one day look
forward to receiving an arm or leg that was fully integrated into their
bodies. It would bring a great New Age like no other.
There is a popular website I visit because I am a rabid "Star Wars"
fan (though perversely, I am no great fan of George Lucas). At this
site there is quite a debate going on about Annakin Skywalker-- the
evil Darth Vader, Sith Lord. It isnt the fans fault that
Lucas is a crummy writer, but much debate has been bouncing off the
cyber-walls about just how much of Annakin turns into a cyborg and how
much of his mechanization is psychological. I state that
Lucas is a crummy writer because he made Alec Guinness describe Vader:
"more machine than man... twisted and evil." Ah well, Shakespeare
Well, these fans cannot settle themselves down-- like toddlers whove
raided the cookie jar and just ate one too many. They cant tell
if Vader is "more machine than man" because of his bionic
tools or his brainwashing. Lucas, a genius of continuity if ever there
was one (yah, right, and Im Queen Elizabeth, hello, how DO you
do) once said that Vader was a man in an iron lung. Thats all.
An evil man with some of his (formerly hot) body missing.
I am beginning to take exception to these negative portrayals of what,
in just a few more years, promises to be a true, viable medical science
especially if stem cell and cloning dont fly. I have examined
and seen demonstrations of all kinds of bionic arms, legs, and other
Scientists are not building a sci-fi monstrosity: they are giving the
injured and disabled a new lease on life. To hear the Star Wars fans
debate the issue, one almost gets the impression that this generation
thinks cybernetics equal evil, the same as stem cells and cloning.
George Lucas wanted an unforgettable villain, a Frankensteins
monster with a metal exoskeleton, synthetic voice, eye shields and a
respirator. He wanted a partially robotic villain, an unforgettable
metal skull capped with an old Nazi helmet, so thats what he designed.
As we all know and fans hate to hear the truth Lucas didnt
give the creation a second thought, except to conjecture that he may
have been injured and "thrown into a volcano". It wasnt
until the second "Star Wars" sequel that Lucas even gave any
thought to the man inside the "walking iron lung".
My point here is that Darth Vader can symbolize dozens of things: the
failure of humanity over technology, the failure of good over evil,
the failure of heterosexuality over homosexuality, or just the failure
of a frustrated animator over his lackluster imagination. One thing
Vader does not symbolize is the beaut- and truth of cybernetics.
Many people actually use the things that characterize Vader. They have
breath masks, "fake" eyes, rebuilt body parts, vocalizing
machines. Some of the prosthetics people wear today are mechanized,
and some of these are really "bionic" parts, fully connected
to the nerves and brain. They are a fright to many people, as Darth
Vader originally was when we first saw him swagger onto the screen.
What a pity.
Cybernetics are not at the foundation of this character, nor are they
even meant to frighten so much as sadden: think of what Vader could
have been had he not been evil. It was the sight of his beautiful son,
Luke, that redeemed him. The rest was just life support....
Now, back in the 1960s, or so the tale goes, a pilot flying black-op
super-spy planes had a terrible accident. He is said to have lost body
parts and most of his face. He was fitted with "bionic" cybernetic
parts-- rebuilt, in essence. He had previously given consent to be used
for this "cyborg (cybernetic organism)" experiment.
The doctors rebuilt him; it is said that his recovery and rehabilitation
took over two years. Then he was back in his trademark black flight
suit, back in the cockpit, black flight helmet and mask firmly in place
so that he wouldnt scare the bejesus out of anybody and accidentally
get something else shot off.
But the flight suit, so the story goes, was scary enough. This true-to-life
Darth Vader, said to have been a Marine colonel, stood almost seven
feet tall, never removed any part of his black "iron lung",
and had a loud sort of respirator which I suspect was an oxygenator.
He scared the hell out of everybody at Area 51 anyway.
It seems a sure thing that George Lucas knew of this tale, and used
the general idea in developing Darth Vader. Not just that, but Lucas
is also quite a folklore buff- surely he knows all the tales about
evil, semi-human creatures who threaten mankind and always dress in
black. Some of these creatures even wear masks and appear to use technology
foreign to us. The Mad Gasser(s) of Matoon, Illinois, the Men in Black
and Spring-heeled Jack are but a few examples.
These are all just components of silly stories.
What bothers and moves me is that future attitudes are built on todays
prejudices. To the Star Wars fans I say: forget about the ridiculous
dialogue in the movies, and just enjoy whats on the screen. Enjoy
watching the evil villain turn good at the eleventh hour, because that
is what life is about, that is what moves humanity.
Vaders mask is removed and behind it we see a poor, injured old
man, smiling with happiness not because hes free of the
life support, but because he is free of his own karma, able to look
upon the face of his beloved son with his own eyes. This scene always
reminds me of an old Nazi I knew, who later turned his hatred into a
Cybernetics is not responsible for evil. It is not evil in physical
form. It is not "brought on" by evil. The man who invented
the science was not evil. How can anyone with half a sane mind think
Stop staring at Darth Vaders mask, thinking he is a hideous freak.
Because there but for the grace of God go you or I.
© Rev Antonio
Hernández, O.M.D., U.B.
May 19th 2003
of the Sith
all rights reserved