Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cyborgs Revisited

Recently I watched JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN, a horrifying, nearly hopeless movie about a maimed World War I veteran, based (mostly faithfully) on an equally grim novel. The protagonist, Joe, has lost all his limbs and had his face blown off, unable to hear, see, or talk. He breathes and gets nourishment through tubes. His torso is intact, however, and his mind fully functional, although he's in the additionally nightmarish plight of having the doctors think he isn't conscious. By feeling the warmth of sunlight from the window of his room, he distinguishes day from night and starts keeping track of time. A kind nurse spells "Merry Christmas" with her finger on his chest, giving him a fixed point in the year. Eventually he communicates with the military doctors by tapping out Morse code with his head. He asks either to be allowed to die or to be taken on tour and displayed as an example of the horrors of war. The officer in charge refuses both requests. The movie expands the narrative that, in the novel, remains entirely inside the protagonist’s head. In the film, we see the hospital staff and hear their conversations about Joe, so we know he’s considered a hopeless vegetable until he reaches out with Morse code. If anything, the movie's ending seems more negative than the book's, which implies a faint chance that he might later succeed in opening further communications.

I started thinking about how Joe's story would play out in the present day. First, DNA testing would identify him, so he wouldn’t spend the rest of his life anonymously confined to a foreign military hospital. (In the book, he’s glad he can’t be identified, because he doesn’t want his family and sweetheart to learn of his horrible fate.) EEG readings would let the medical personnel know he’s conscious and aware of his environment. He would not be simply warehoused but would probably get regular stimulation such as massages, even if the exact extent of his mental capacity were unknown. Unless the auditory nerves are completely destroyed, implants might restore some degree of hearing. And he might get advanced prosthetic limbs. Coincidentally, this past Sunday I came across an article about an experimental robotic arm controlled by a chip implanted in the paralyzed patient’s brain. The user makes the arm move by thinking, like a natural limb!

Robotic Arm

Other technology would probably allow Joe to communicate through a computer, either by similar implanted electrodes or by the lower-tech method of teaching him to operate a keyboard with head motions.

A writing question: Could a man in that situation be a hero in a romance? Why not? The patient who’s testing the robotic arm in the above article has a girlfriend whom he met after his injury. In the novel JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN, Joe occasionally refers to “feeling romantic,” which I read as a euphemistic term for sexual stirrings; a doctor at the beginning of the movie, whose script was written by the author of the book, mentions that Joe’s genitals are undamaged. Although I wouldn’t be up to the challenge of writing that story, a gifted author could certainly accomplish it.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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