British Association for American Studies


Cyborgs, Simians and San Francisco (part two) – Vampires and Mood-Organs

In part two of Antonia Mackay’s series on Cyborgs, Simians and San Francisco, Mackay re-reads LA and San Francisco through the fantastical bodies in Cold War fiction. Catch up on the first post here.

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In flux and in change, between chaos and embryo – these are the new Western city spaces as I discussed in part one of this two part post. Both Los Angeles and San Francisco emerge as urban areas caught between the real and the imagined, tied into the ever developing world of hyperreal spaces in the postwar era. Without an absolute definition but rather a mix of media imagery, myth and an increasingly simulated sense of the real, what happens to the subjects, or to be more specific bodies, who reside here? If we consider bodies as reflectors and signifiers of their space – if these spaces are ambiguous –  do bodies also become so? In continuation from Part One, this post posits a new reading of the cities of LA and San Francisco and reads them as representative of the them/us tension as seen through the fantastical bodies in Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Richard Matheson’s I am Legend.  By doing so, I will argue for the creation of new, technologically enhanced bodies who mirror their newly changed and gadgetry-filled city locale.

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Set in the post-apocalyptic near future, where Earth and its populations have been damaged greatly by a nuclear war during World War Terminus, Do Androids  (1968) follows the story of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who is tasked with retiring six escaped androids. These ‘Nexus 6 brain’ models pose a serious threat to humanity for they have learnt empathy – something which up till now had differentiated humans from their androids. “The morning air, spilling over with radioactive motes, gray and sun-beclouding, belched about him, haunting his nose; he sniffed involuntarily the taint of death” – this is the atmosphere that assails Deckard in the new West – an insidious, and strangely menacing space increasingly peopled by technology.[1] Even in the 1982 film version of Dick’s text, Blade Runner,  the setting of the crumbling San Francisco apartment buildings typifies the urban renewal of postwar America and seems to suggest modernity’s salvation lies in the restoration of society through urban redevelopment.[2] But Deckard’s world is not only grey, it is also filled with gadgetry, from televisions and vidphones, to mood organs and humanoid robots and it is this latter category of technology that poses the greatest issue: the ability for that which isn’t real to appear so. Of course, Dick’s investment in postwar ideologies appears quite blatantly in the text: Deckard must seek out the infiltrator who looks like the rest of us, but ultimately isn’t and instead wishes to destroy us. We can hear Truman’s doctrine loud and clear, but the question this poses is more complex, for if bodies can’t be determined via sight and their identity read, then how can we contain ourselves against foreign infiltration? Furthermore, if the only way to separate these cyborgs from us is through their lack of individuality, then this is perhaps the key to determining realness. This however, is another troublesome concept, for the way to determine Cold War identity was supposedly through visible conformity – contradictions all round.  In the words of Deckard, “rather than learning about ourselves by our constructs, perhaps we should make the attempt to comprehend what our constructs are up to by looking into what we ourselves are up to”. [3] Indeed, Deckard’s experience of policing the boundaries between human and ‘other’ teaches him to question the traditional self-other binary. A binary of this nature is  something which could affirm our mastery over the mechanical world. Instead, the cyborgs he encounters teach him that the human condition is part of the landscape and in effect, human and machine shape each other’s existence. Once again, we are reminded of the manner in which spaces and bodies are intertwined where to be within the landscape is to establish connections between ourselves and objects. But this being so it begs the question: can real Americans exist in a simulated and gadget-filled space such as this?

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As Donna Haraway writes in her seminal work on Simians, Cyborgs and Women,  Dick’s use of the cyborg is there precisely to act as an image of material reality – this a version of our bodies, of ourselves and the increasing commodification of the city space – “the machine is us, our embodiment”.[4] But at the core of cyborg imagery is the potential for control over our bodies – a mapping of the self that is not normally available to us – an opportunity to re-craft ourselves in our own making. So whilst the cyborg’s of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep serve to instil a fear of the unknown communist body in our midst, they also suggest bodies could find increased autonomy by succumbing to technological gadgetry – again a problematic end. As the novel’s last pages testify, Deckard verbally renounces the ideology of a living community restricted to humans and humans alone – exclaiming “the electric things have their lives too”[5]. Technology is seen as a vital part of the landscape in which we live and to overlook this means denying the idea that technology might impinge on the human subject. It is therefore, the disconnecting of Rick’s and Iran’s mood organs that really marks the end of the construction and mechanisation of human beings – Dick’s real robots- and signals the commencement of our task to reimagine the conditions of our subjectivity in the new urban world.

Matheson’s New Masses

part twp 3Rick Deckard isn’t alone and as other texts set in the spaces of the new West tell us, the newness of space redesigns the body. In Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (1954), the protagonist Robert Neville must survive the pandemic vampirism which has spread across the city and destroyed all inhabitants. By barricading himself inside his house at sundown and defending himself from vampires who stalk his grounds at night, Robert suffers from depression and alcoholism and much critical attention has turned to Matheson’s investigation of the human condition. However, it is the use of the city in relation to science fiction which seems to be have been overlooked here. Both Dick’s San Francisco and Matheson’s LA are constructed as spaces of difference and otherness, imagined here as cities which are open to infiltration from foreign bodies intent on the destruction of the American body. This suggests there exists a fundamental issue at the heart of new and emerging Western cities – their lack of authenticity. As Jean Baurdrillard writes, there is a fascination with artifice in LA and San Francisco – an exhausting and intense energy – and it is the only place where simulacrum is home grown.[6] This notion of simulated city spaces harks back to Disneyland and its position within both the discourse of the real and the fantastical and it does indeed appear that Do Androids and I am Legend anchor their investigations of identity and bodies within these metropolitan spaces for precisely this reason. Both texts deal with the supposed enemy who comes in the guise of sameness – cyborgs appear as humans and vampires are humans who have been infected, but the body remains intact in its appearance and semblance to our own and even to Rick’s and Robert’s bodies. These new urban areas therefore appear to function as facilitators for disguising identity – actively channeling their own ambiguous, simulated and nuanced character onto the bodies therein. But as with the cyborgs, I am Legend destabilises the belief that the Cold War required bodies to be clearly delineated into visual versions of them and us. The vampires of I am Legend refuse the traditional categorisation of the supernatural and the natural as separate, and the result is that the ‘other’ becomes normalised. Eventually, it is Robert who becomes the ‘other’ outnumbered and outspecied by the vampire masses. Again, it is the space that seems instrumental in reconfiguring the familiar and the alien, for at the novel’s close, it is Robert’s home which appears to define him as threatening to the vampire community, redefining him as the interloper who does not join the realm of the outside. Much like Dick’s eventual conclusion that Deckard must turn off the mood organ and reengage with the outside world in order to truly be, Matheson tells us that we must redefine subjectivity in line with shifting definitions of space, science and selves.

Autotopia and Identity

Bodies and spaces in the new West are certainly bound to one another and with rapid expansion of space comes the rapid communication of that space and therefore, these city bodies. The Autotopia  (or so LA’s mass of freeways has been dubbed) and its configuration in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1953) further attests to this, where the freeways appear to both fragment and unite sections of the city and its inhabitants. Philip Marlowe’s entire career in sleuthing is experienced through the car, where crime and movement intersect suggesting the indestructible relationship between new space and new technology. The architecture of Marlowe’s world is one of man-made intervention which can either facilitate or impede man’s desire to murder, rob or generally commit crime and a space therefore which aids in the concealment of people’s true intention and identity. It is therefore the space of simulation and simulacra which appears fundamental in the creation of the new West and the bodies residing there – a space, in Baudrillard’s words which is “of incredible proportions but without space, without dimension… everywhere one recycles lost facilities or lost bodies or lost sociality”.[7] Indeed this is why we find our cyborgs, vampires and sleuths here; the space which expands so rapidly, which embraces all that is new and simulated, that bodies who remain anchored or even unaffected, can become lost. But the effect of this is that we must leave Robert’s house, Rick’s hovercraft and Marlowe’s car in order to find the real, must actively search for that thing that appears to have disappeared. The new West is not a parallel universe or an impossible one, rather it straddles the real and unreal divide, and in simulation becomes something else altogether – something that is everywhere, stretching our imaginations and sensibilities in much the same way it has stretched the modern metropolis – beyond the old tolerances, and past the point of being able to spring back to its earlier shape. As Umberto Eco states, here is a space where we must dig ever deeper to bring us back to the surface.[8]


[1] Philip K Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. (London: Orion, 1968), p.1

[2] Ridley Scott, Blade Runner. 1982

[3] Philip K Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. (London: Orion, 1968), p.184

[4] Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women.

 [5] Philip K Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. (London: Orion, 1968)

 [6]Baudrillard, J. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1994.

[7] Ibid, p.14

[8] Edward Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-Imagined Places. 1996. [starbox]

About the Author

After receiving her English degree, Antonia worked as a fashion journalist before returning to academia, where she completed an MA and PhD in American Literature. Since 2011 she has been an Associate Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University as well as a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. In recent months Antonia received the teaching award at Oxford Brookes and is currently working on her first book - a monograph of her thesis on Cold War spaces and identity.