I grew-up watching “Six Million Dollar Man”, and bionics were also a staple of early cyberpunk. In common usage, “bionics” refers to fitting humans or animals with mechanical/ robotic parts.
Such “old school” bionics are seldom encountered in Transhuman Space (THS), their role being served by biomods. It can, of course, be argued that something like a Virtual Interface Implant (VII) or a population of nano-symbiotes is bionic. I suspect many of the devices of THS will be in fact be hybrids of biological, mechanical and electronic technologies. A VII might be powered by ATP from metabolizing circulating sugars and fatty acids. A hyper-lung might consist of a polymer matrix populated by nano-machines and permeated by cloned blood vessels.
There is, however, little point in giving someone a mechanical prosthetic when the patient’s limb or organs can be easily regrown. Obstacles such as tissue compatibility have been overcome, and it would be a very rare individual that could not benefit from such technology. Some individuals might refuse biomods on religious grounds, but a robotic replacement would probably be just as objectionable unless the religion has some form of mechanical or robotic fetish.
What Are Bionics?
The term “bionic” is a little ambivalent. In common and medical usage it refers to organisms with electro-mechanical parts. It is also used for robotic or mechanical systems inspired by biological systems or materials. To avoid confusion the latter may instead be refereed to as biomimicry, “bionik” or biomimetics. In this article “bionic” is used in the common/ medical mode.
Bionics in Transhuman Space
In the THS-verse, bionics are most likely to be encountered when they offer a better solution to biomods and other technologies. While it may be potentially possible to create a biotech gun, it is much simpler to adapt an existing mechanical design to a pop-out implant. In Under Pressure 3e p.42, the considerable technical challenges to creating a gill biomod for humans and parahumans is discussed. An electromechanical implant solves many of these problems, although a cybergill will probably need a power source.
GURPS Cyberpunk 3e, GURPS Ultra-Tech and Cyberpunk 2020 will prove useful sources of inspiration to players and GMs wishing to include bionics in a THS campaign. The availability of certain bionic items is likely to be different in THS. Bionic limbs are essentially the same as those used on android and gynoid cybershells. Medical practitioners that can install them may be harder to find than in a cyberpunk campaign, but may be found. On the other hand, technologies, experience and facilities for full body cyborg conversion (aka “full borg”) will be extremely rare, possibly experimental, and correspondingly much more expensive, if they can actually be found at all.
In what situations would a robotic-bionic device might be preferable to a biomod? A few examples occurred to me:
Bionic eyes (aka Cyberoptics) offer numerous advantages over biological ones. Firstly, they would be considerably more resistant to damage. This may be a consideration for combat-orientated individuals, or those who have already lost one or both original eyes. Trying to eye-spear bionic eyes will hurt your fingers! Dirt or liquids thrown into the eyes also have less effect. Spectral range of bionic eyes is likely to be greater, ranging from the ultraviolet to near infra-red, with possibly some thermal imaging capability. Eyes might include an IR light-source, useful for signalling and conditions where there is insufficient starlight. Unlike a biological eye, the owner can also limit their spectral sensitivity to view things in more limited bands. Bionic eyes automatically and instantly compensate for excessive or low-light levels, and are unaffected by conditions such as snow-blindness. Bionic eyes may compensate for focus when underwater. Telescopic and macro capabilities may be an option. Visual acuity is likely to be hyperacute. GURPS Ultra-tech 4e (p.209) suggests bionic eyes have the Nictitating Membrane 2 and Protected Vision advantages. It is possible that bionic eyes might include an actual nictitating membrane for additional protection and damage resistance. Another possible option is for bionic eyes to change colour. This can be done for cosmetic or disguise purposes. Glowing or unnatural colours can be used for pranks and intimidation. The sclera of the eyes can be darkened for better camouflage at night.
Bionic ears may be a full replacement, or may replace just parts of a biological ear. Bionic hearing enhancement provides the owner with more sensitive hearing than their original ears. It can also filter out excessive or harmful levels of noise. One can still be deafened by a loud sound or explosion, but the effect ends as soon as the sound ends. Or you can switch your hearing off if you want some peace and quiet. If both ears are bionic or partially bionic, the sound input from both can be quantified, allowing the likely source of a sound to be more easily located.
Claws are a classic bionic enhancement; Molly in “Neuromancer” had them. In THS they are more likely to be found as a biomod, but the user may wish for something stronger than a biological material such as polykeratin. Metal or ceramic claws or sheathing may be combined with a claw biomod. A claw biomod may extend from between the fingers rather than the finger tips. This resembles an Indian bagh nahk or ninja nekode and can be used for climbing as well as combat.
A small, bionic organ, implanted in the lower lungs, which provides an independent air supply. A lung-sponge can be integrated with a hyper-lung implant. A lung-sponge resembles a spongy, oxygen-binding foam with a control system and a small power source. When active the lung-sponge releases stored oxygen to the blood and binds carbon dioxide. While the power system is available it also electrically converts some carbon dioxide back into oxygen. An inactive character with a lung-sponge can hold their breath for 25 minutes, or ten if active. This performance is unaffected by body type or stats. Larger individuals have more room for more lung-sponge material, but have greater oxygen needs, so in game terms this evens out. Duration may be affected by other factors that influence oxygen consumption and metabolic rate. A character may have both a lung sponge and respirocytes. Once normal breathing resumes, the lung-sponge takes two minutes to replenish its oxygen stores.
Subdermal Armour and Enhanced Skin
Subdermal armour could possibly be counted as a bionic. This will probably resemble a layer of flexible material between the skin and the muscle beneath. This layer is of a material that resists penetration and dissipates the energy of impacts. In THS such a layer would most likely be built by a swarm of nano-machines.
Subdermal armour does nothing to protect the skin or clothing above it. The survivor of an attack may be relatively unharmed, but look quite gory. For this reason subdermal armour may be combined with an enhanced skin biomod. This resembles normal skin but is thicker and more resistant to damage. Skin-weave threads fibres through the skin tissue. A hybrid-bionic variant of enhanced skin gives the owner conscious control of skin colour. Within a minute skin colour can be varied from any natural skin shade from white to dark brown. This gives protection from the sun but can also be used for better camouflage in snow or at night.
The skeletal system could be strengthened by hybrid-bionic means. Nano-machines reinforce the existing natural structure by adding a matrix or metallic or ceramic material. This is known as bone lace. This process has numerous advantages. There is considerably less change of injury when jumping down from heights, although it helps to land on your feet. Your bones are unlikely to take damage if you punch someone. Even if the bone of the skeletal system is damaged, the damaged part will remain load-bearing. The ribs may be modified to form overlapping plates that better protect the internal organs.
Some Assembly Required
Bioroids in THS can be regarded as a bionic organism. Their skeletons are grown on a polymer or carbon-composite framework, which is often left in place. Many of their proteins are made by internal nanofactories rather than their genes. Even their biological tissues and organs may be made by biogenetic nanomachines. (THS 3e p.76) A bioroid is as much built as it is grown.
The ratio of biological to non-biological components probably varies with model and manufacturer. Units for heavy-duty roles may have skeletons made entirely from materials much stronger than bone. Military models may be fitted with more resilient bionic eyes and ears that will not have their hearing damaged by firearms use.