An Essay About Darth Vader and Cybernetics

Reverend Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., U.B.

Recently 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 Ahab’s, 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 isn’t 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 it isn’t.

Well, these fans cannot settle themselves down-- like toddlers who’ve raided the cookie jar and just ate one too many. They can’t 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 I’m Queen Elizabeth, hello, how DO you do) once said that Vader was a man in an iron lung. That’s 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 don’t fly. I have examined and seen demonstrations of all kinds of bionic arms, legs, and other parts.

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 Frankenstein’s 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 that’s what he designed. As we all know –and fans hate to hear the truth– Lucas didn’t give the creation a second thought, except to conjecture that he may have been injured and "thrown into a volcano". It wasn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 today’s prejudices. To the Star Wars fans I say: forget about the ridiculous dialogue in the movies, and just enjoy what’s 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.
Vader’s mask is removed and behind it we see a poor, injured old man, smiling with happiness– not because he’s 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 loving activism.
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 such things?
Stop staring at Darth Vader’s 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

Revenge of the Sith


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