Slashing the Borg: Resistance is Fertile

(C) Mark Dery 1996; all rights reserved; reproduction in any medium without author's written permission forbidden.

Cyborg writing is about...seizing the tools that mark the world that marked [one] as other. The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities.
--- Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto"

In Science Friction, mechanical reproduction is strictly X- rated.
The Toronto-based queer 'zine is devoted to campy, techno-porn burlesques of Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Borg" episodes. (For non-Trekkers, the Borg are the implacable man-machines who periodically imperil Truth, Justice, and the United Federation of Planets on ST:TNG.) The 'zine features panting tales of RoboCopulation, pornographic "Sonnets from the Borgugese," and "heart-stoppingly explicit illustrations," spiral-bound and sealed in a "plastic splash guard cover" for your one-handed reading convenience.

Science Friction, whose battle cry is "If Paramount can't give us that queer episode, just make it so!," is a textbook example of textual poaching---a sort of guerrilla semiotics in which consumers-turned-producers perversely rework popular fictions. Henry Jenkins III, a professor of literature, and Constance Penley, a feminist film theorist, have documented a form of textual poaching known as "slash"---erotica written by female fans of the original Star Trek TV series and published in underground fanzines. Typically, it is about Captain Kirk and the Vulcan science officer Mister Spock and is thus dubbed "K/S" for short, yielding the term "slash."

Spun from the perceived homoerotic subtext in Star Trek narratives, slash tales are often animated by feminist impulses. In "Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching" (Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction, 1991), Jenkins points out that although science fiction is arguably "by, for, and about men of action," Star Trek

seems to hold out a suggestion of nontraditional feminine pleasures, of greater and more active involvement for women within the adventure of professional space travel, while finally reneging on those writers characterize themselves as 'repairing the damage' caused by the program's inconsistent and often demeaning treatment of its female characters.
In "Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics, and Technology"

(Technoculture, 1991), Penley theorizes that "slashers" (their preferred term)---the majority of whom are heterosexual women working in the "pink-collar, 'subprofessional,' or high-tech service industry sectors"---embroider gay themes because "writing a story about two men avoids the built-in inequality of the romance formula, in which dominance and submission are invariably the respective roles of male and female."

Since slash is at its heart a utopian vision of male-female interaction cloaked in the tropes of mainstream SF, it presumes a 23rd century man who is neither Schwarzeneggerian "hard guy" nor Alan Alda-esque "sensitive man," but the best of both. Further, writes Penley, "Slash does not stop with retooling the male psyche; it goes after the body as well." A subgenre has sprung up around the sexual heat that overcomes Mr. Spock and all Vulcan males every seven years, the pon faar; in Fever, an underground "'zine" given over to pon faar porn, slashers play nimbly on the obvious parallels to menstruation, even to the extent of depicting Spock as suffering from the male equivalent of PMS. Another, more marginal subgenre revolves around Kirk and Spock's attempts to have a child. In one story, Dr. McCoy genetically engineers a fertilized Kirk/Spock ovum which is brought to term in an artificial womb designed by Scotty, the starship's Chief Engineer.
Slashers' feminist attempts to "rewrite" the male body as well as the male psyche through the vehicle of homoerotic SF fantasies is underscored by "a very real appreciation," Penley writes, "of gay men in their efforts to redefine masculinity, and...feelings of solidarity with them insofar as gay men too inhabit bodies that are still a legal, moral, and religious battleground." Gay bodies, like those of female slashers, intersect with technology in cyberculture, a point made dramatically (and comically) clear in gay Trekkers' own attempts to rewrite gender norms by slashing the Borg. (The term "slash" seems to have come unstuck from the strictly literal usage; it is increasingly applied to TV-inspired homoerotica, whether Kirk/Spock or not.)
On Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Borg function as a "hive mind," or collective entity, their nervous systems linked via the meta-nervous system of their monolithic, cube-shaped ship. They are sealed in sculpted black body armor, their bleached flesh penetrated by fetishistic high-tech prostheses, with "extensive infiltration of microcircuit fibers into [their] surrounding tissue," according to The Enterprise's Dr. Crusher. Their shibboleth, intoned in an electronically-filtered, Darth Vader-ish monotone, is "Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated"---an ominous pronouncement borne out in the immensely popular two-part episode "The Best of Both Worlds," in which the Borg cut a swath through the cosmos, obliterating everything in their path. Abducting Captain Picard, they transform him into Locutus of Borg, a bionic interface between the conqueror cyborgs and the soon-to- be-assimilated humans---a metalmorphosis described in the TV novelization Star Trek/Deep Space Nine #1: Emissary (1993):

One of Picard's arms had been extended with an intricate mechanical prosthesis, his eyes augmented with a sensor-scope protruding from one temple; his pale face was utterly, frighteningly blank...Sisko got a fleeting mental image of mindless hive insects excreting skeins of metal, wrapping Picard in a cocoon of machinery.

Like the original series, ST:TNG is built on an unshakable bedrock of liberal humanism. The Borg, mindless cogs in a totalitarian civilization whose monomaniacal goal is the extinction of all free thought, provide a cartoon antithesis to the series' endlessly reiterated thesis that humanist values (read: the American way) are destined to triumph over the enemies of democracy and free enterprise. The crypto-fascist Borg are not just inhuman, they're un-American.

And, horror of horrors, they're queer! At least, that is, in the alternate universe of Science Friction, which highlights the gay subtext of the Borg episodes. Once "outed," the Borg appear to be so obviously and so variously wired into gay myth and metaphor that it seems almost unthinkable that the connections could have gone unnoticed.

Like sailors, bikers, cops, and other stereotypical characters in homoerotic fantasy, the Borg are an all-male society living in close quarters. They are in constant physical communion with one another, literally bonded by electronic interconnection--- "borgasm," to use the co-editor Glenn Mielke's elbow-in-the-ribs coinage. "Wait a minute," says Geordi, in Mielke's "Beamed on Borg" (Science Friction No. 2), "you mean to say that the Borg are in constant sexual link?" "Yes," replies Hugh, "we are with each other always." The reader half expects him to break into Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself": "I sing the body electric/ The bodies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them." Anonymous and continuous, the exchange of fluid data among the Borg conjures the fleeting, faceless sex, in bars, bathrooms, and public parks, of the gay sexual demimonde in the '70s and early '80s. The Borg's cadaverous pallor evokes urban nightcrawlers---sybarites who come out only after dark, like the androgynous vampires in Anne Rice's best-selling homoerotic novels.

Although none of the Borg slash I've encountered employs overtly Nazi imagery, there is nonetheless an implicit tension in the genre. The man-machines evoke RoboCop as drawn by Tom of Finland, the gay cartoonist whose obsessive, fetishized renderings of highway patrolmen, sailors, and other macho men servicing each other have earned him a devoted following. With their metallic, monotonal delivery, stolid expressions, and penchant for skin-tight black outfits, the Borg call to mind the Nazi cheesecake theme that is Tom of Finland's guilty pleasure, lovingly embellished in some of his more outre illustrations.

In this context, the sign of the Borg points simultaneously in opposite directions. On one hand, the Borg remind us of the sublimated homosexuality that troubled the Nazi cult of the warrior male, with its problematic emphasis on male bonding---a necessary evil in the formation of a cohesive killing machine, but inescapably haunted by the specter of a more than platonic bond between brother warriors. On the other hand, they recall the curious appropriation of Nazi iconography by the gay pornographic imagination, which Susan Sontag attributes in "Fascinating Fascism" to the "natural link" between sadomasochism and fascism, both forms of "sexual theater" in which the master-slave relationship is aestheticized (A Susan Sontag Reader, 1983).

In a delicious irony, Borg slashers reprogram the technophallic killing machine for the very "softness" it abhors. In "Locutus" by Gigi the Galaxy Girl (Nancy Johnston, Science Friction No. 1), a Borg's hardware has been reconfigured so that he may boldly go where no man-machine has gone before:

Instead of puckered flesh, his Borg anus had been enhanced and altered to receive. He had the perfect access conduit.

The Borg also suggest a mechano-erotic take on the gay "clone" of the '70s, the mustachioed, short-cropped fixture of San Francisco's Castro district, instantly recognizable in Levi's and leather, flaunting his gym-toned muscles. Dank, dark, and hazy with mist, the tangled catwalks of the Borg ship cross the gay bathhouse with the S&M pleasure dungeon. The results are a natural habitat for man-machines in form-fitting black armor that resembles the accouterments of the bondage fetishist, their flesh punctured by cables in a semiotic echo of the pierced ears and nipples popularized by gay culture.

The Borg make perfect mascots for a strain of gay eros that appropriates the imagery of the machine age. In The Culture of Desire: Paradox and Perversity in Gay Lives Today (1993), Frank Browning mentions a sex club called "Big Ironworx." This and other gay "invitation" clubs of the early '90s, he reports, took place in "open rooms in the warehouses of depleted industrial zones, where in the small hours of the morning, young men lined up with their buddies to probe, caress, and gnaw at one another's flesh in dimly lit tangles of animal abandon." Browning goes on to argue, following Georges Bataille, that sex can never be truly safe in the most profound sense because it is, "for most of us, our primary, residual, atavistic connection to the realm of animal existence."
But if the animal is shorthand for that which is "inhuman" in every human, then one might just as easily argue that anonymous sex, conducted assembly-line style in abandoned industrial sites, unleashes the machine within. In Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On (1987), a stunned young man observes, of bathhouse orgiasts, "Their bodies were tools through which they could experience physical sensation." Thus, in ravenous sex, when the intellect is utterly mastered by the cravings of the flesh, the person in question has in some very real sense been mechanized. Sontag refers in her essay on "The Pornographic Imagination" (A Susan Sontag Reader) to the Marquis de Sade's vision "of the body as a machine and of the orgy as an inventory of the hopefully infinite possibilities of several machines in collaboration with each other."
From such a perspective, the subsumption of individual organisms into the Borg collective looks less like an Orwellian nightmare and more like a paradise of desire. It calls to mind the literary critic Leo Bersani's vision of a dizzy free fall into utter abandon, following the dissolution of conventional definitions of masculinity. Browning paraphrases Bersani:

The organization of male desire...around the power to dominate and penetrate covers up the existence of a counterdesire within men, 'the perhaps equally strong appeal of powerlessness...the loss of control'...Homosexual desire..acknowledges the will to shatter the authority and integrity of the male self.

The Borg ship becomes a place where slashers "invent a theater of transgressive desire and enter into the symbolically exploded self," to borrow Browning's eloquent characterization of S&M. In "Locutus," Johnston reimagines the abduction and Borging of Captain Picard as a coming-out story. In Part 2 of the original episode, the scene in which mechanized surgical instruments descend on a prone Picard in the Borg ship is strongly suggestive of a repressed sexual experience, in much the same way that Whitley Strieber-esque accounts of alien abduction are sometimes interpreted as nightmares about incest. Moreover, the conclusion of the two-part episode ends on a disquieting note: As an eerie melody spirals over a dark drone, Picard gazes into the star-flecked infinity of space, ostensibly lost in the traumatic memory of being Borged. Johnston turns this moment into a feverish flashback to a gay S&M experience:

As his eyes adjusted to his surroundings on the Borg ship, Picard thought at first he had materialized inside a medieval dungeon. He stood restrained by metal clamps in an alcove...He gasped involuntarily as the Borg began tracing a line from throat to chest. The open palm of the mesh hand coming to rest over his heart. He felt his body shudder in response. His nipples became erect.

In Johnston's story, Picard manages to escape in the process of being Borged, an operation involving the implantation of computer chips in his brain and the connection of "feeder tubes and computer access conduits" to his body. Hiding from his captors, he witnesses two Borg abandoning themselves to the pleasures of the cyber-flesh:

The humming in [Picard's] mind was intensifying. Thousands of male voices whispering, encouraging. The second Borg dropped his gloved hand from his partner's neck and touched the panels of plexisteel which concealed his own groin. Instead of deathly pale flesh, the panel revealed a second prosthesis. The Borg penis was sheathed in a synthetic shaft. At the tip, glints of liquid shone against the black latex. Picard watched breathlessly as the synthetic organ began to spiral out of its containment. It was not of human dimensions.

Overcome by desire, Picard masturbates as he watches, his mind a hornet's nest of worrying urges: "The voices were becoming clearer now. He could not purge his brain of their insistence. 'Incorporate. Assimilate. Resistance is Futile.'" Finally, the stiff, starched Captain gives himself over to desires long denied and now threatening to break down the closet door: "Picard stepped from his hiding place...Resistance was futile. He raised his hand and touched the throat of the Borg. 'I am Locutus.'"
In this and other Science Friction stories, the Borg admonition, "You will be assimilated" (the magazine's motto), is transformed into a playful yet empowering slogan. More promise than threat, the phrase augurs an alternate universe whose only law is the Vulcan maxim that many Trekkers see as the Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's most valuable contribution to the show's mythology: "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination"---a saying that reverberates with innuendo, in this libertine cosmos. Slashed, the Borg become the "army of lovers" envisioned by Plato in his Symposium---a durable image that has served, at one time or another, as the gay community's image of itself. With its steamy, claustrophobic passageways (tunnels of love?), the Borg ship is a spacebound pleasure dome that conjures up the gay poet John Giorno's musings about "great, anonymous sex" with strangers in a subway bathroom:

The great thing about anonymous sex is you don't bring your private life or your personal world. No politics or inhibiting concepts, no closed rules or fixed responses (You Got to Burn to Shine, 1994).

Looking back on "the golden age of promiscuity," before the long, dark night of AIDS, Giorno reflects, "I thought of us as the combat troops of love, liberating the world." Pieces of that dream glint, here and there, in Science Friction's Borg porn, where the totalitarian cyborgs that menace mainstream humanism and the misogynistic Terminators reviled by academic feminism are reread and rewritten as the liberatory Borg, a Queer Nation in space, hurtling unstoppably toward "sector zero-zero-one": Earth. Resistance will be futile, of course.

Byline: Mark Dery ( is a cultural critic. He edited the essay collection, Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (Duke Press). His study of fringe computer culture, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, will be published by Grove Press in March, 1996.