Androids, Cyborgs, &; Transhumanism. Oh My! — Part I: The Tin Woodman

Reflecting upon my last series about Odd John, the Ubermensch, and the Sci-Fi tragedy, I have decided to take a slightly different approach to dragging you through my experiences in the rabbit holes of literature. I am going to try to tell this as more of a story, rather than a hodge-podge brain vomit into my type-machine.

For this series, so aptly named, we will be traveling through the realms of sci-fi greats like Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and Arthur C. Clark. We will venture into the unknown lands (at least for me) of anime and manga with works like Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell, and Gunnm (or Battle Angel Alita).

All of this will be done under the umbrella of transhumanism, arguments for and against, as seen through these works.

So let’s establish what transhumanism is — it is the idea that humanity can be enhanced or evolved past its current state, usually through the means of technology.

There are plenty of places from which I could start this story, but I have decided to choose an unusual one … with L. Frank Baum. Yes, creator and author of the Oz books.

Now, you might be able to see where this is going already, but nonetheless, let us begin.

Enter the Tin Woodman, or Tin Man, as it is commonly seen now. The Tin Woodman is a major character in the Wizard of Oz, and throughout the series of Oz books. He has some interesting adventures even on his own and he has also been the subject of a couple of stand alone spin offs for the telly.

His backstory, however, is what makes him relevant to this discussion.

So the story goes: The Tin Woodman was once a human named Nick Chopper, who found himself smitten with a girl. This girl was a servant to someone who did not wish to lose her services. So, in an attempt to keep the two from marrying, the Wicked Witch of the East enchanted Nick’s ax to periodically severe his limbs and body parts. Each of these body parts were replaced by tin prosthetic, until eventually there was nothing left but a tin man. He didn’t even have a heart, which the tin smith forgot to make for him. Thus, without a heart, the now-tin Woodman had nothing to love his sweetheart with.

Now, I’m not going to even try to make the argument that Baum was somehow making a comment on transhumanism, which didn’t really arise until the latter part of the 20th century. However, the story of the Tin Woodman, if treated as a parable, or something more symbolic than just a story (is it ever “just a story?”) we can see his story echoed throughout some future works of transhuman literature and entertainment.

The questions at hand, in the way I will be presenting this topic, is this: Is humanity an essence that can be achieved and lost? Or is it a constant, given the capabilities of an organism to maintain it?

So let’s look at our friend, the Tin Woodman, or Mr. Chopper. Piece by piece Mr. Chopper had his human parts replaced for parts made of tin. In following currently accepted sci-fi definitions, I believe this would make our dear Mr. Chopper a cyborg. This comparison is not made without great difficulty since Oz is a fantasy world and I am working with science fiction concepts. But let us at least try to entertain for a moment the similarities.

You see, a cyborg is an organism that has enhanced abilities, or in this case, restored functionality, using artificial components (as defined by Joseph Carvolko in The Techno-human Shell-A Jump in the Evolutionary Gap, 2012). In this case, if we look at the Tin Woodman for what he is [sans the magic (I’m assuming, since it’s fantasy] that keeps the tin parts functioning), as an organism that has restored functionality thanks to artificial components, then he fits the definition.

So let us assume that the Tin Woodman is a sort of quasi-cyborg (or at least a cyborg-turned-android since he eventually becomes 100% “mechanical”). Knowing now that he was human before he was a man made of tin, did he lose his humanity? (Remember, humanity as an “essence of what it means to be human”).

His quest, at least in the Wizard of Oz, is to once again have a heart. Obviously the heart in this sense is a symbolic one — a physical representation of emotion, love and compassion. Even though he is no longer technically human, we can see his humanity preserved even without the presence of a physical or symbolic heart. By the end of the Wizard of Oz, the Tin Woodman proves himself to have just as much compassion as any human in the story.

“But Bookkeeper, this is fantasy, not sci-fi,” I hear you say through the internet. And yes, I know. But my final point before moving on with the story is this. Despite the Tin Woodman no longer being human, there was still something he possessed, an essence, that preserved his humanity. Part of that essence is this: compassion, or the choice to act upon feelings of empathy or sympathy.

Before delving any further, let me clarify. I am not stating that compassion is what makes someone or something “human.” I am merely stating that is is part of the essence of humanity.

So as we journey through other works of fiction throughout these posts, compassion is something we will look for when answering the question “Is humanity an essence that can be achieved or lost?” For each character or story analyzed in this way, I will be looking to see if compassion is preserved, achieved, or lost. Through that, we will see what happens to humanity when it melds with technology.

I do hope that you continue with me down this rabbit hole. I am excited to show you where it leads.

Until next time.

— The Bookkeeper.