Did Irish Scientist J.D. Bernal Invent Star Trek’s Borg Back in the ’30s

Here’s another question about writers inventing or predicting later scientific concepts. In my last such post, I wondered whether Poul Anderson had predicted James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis back in 1952 in a story about alien plants growing on an asteroid, which had become symbiotically linked so they acted as a superorganism. This time the writer. who predicted later SF trends, is J.D. Bernal, a scientist from Ireland, who was also a Communist. In the 1930s Bernal wrote a pamphlet, The World, The Flesh and The Devil, discussing future trends in technology, the colonisation of space and human evolution. Although it’s something like 90 years, it’s still immensely influential and many of its predictions are scientifically plausible. It’s one of only two scientific works included in Mike Ashley history of British SF in 100 stories. This notes that, among other inventions, it suggested that people would live on the inside of spherical space colonies containing up to 10,000 people. These have been named Bernal spheres after Bernal. He also proposed space elevators carrying spacecraft to orbit, which have since become associated with Arthur C. Clarke through his book The Fountains of Paradise. Clarke said on reading Bernal’s book that he was amazed how many of the ideas he thought were his were actually Bernal’s, though the idea of space elevators was actually first invented by a Russian.

Bernal also suggested that humanity would merge with machines, and so predicted cyborgs, although he doesn’t use that term for them. This was invented by NASA scientists in the ’60s. He also suggests that robots could be networked together and linked to a human operator to form a kind of hive mind, although he doesn’t call it that either. Hm. Cyborgs linked together so that they form a collective intelligence? That sounds very much like the Borg, one of the villains from Star Trek. These are a race of cyborgs, who have done exactly that, crushing all individuality in the process. They consider themselves superior to all other races, whom they forcibly assimilate, uttering the chilling words: ‘We are Borg. Resistance is futile. Your biological and technological distinctiveness is at end. You will service us.’ It struck me that the Borg is partly a metaphor for Communism, its extreme levelling and the reduction of the individual under its mass society to drones, apart from the more obvious fear of an alien threat coming to destroy and enslave us. I don’t know whether the writers of Star Trek ever read Bernal’s book. I doubt it, and it seems to me that they created them independently. But Bernal does seem to have got there first with the concept of a group of robots or cyborgs with a single, collective mind.

The Borg, Star Trek’s cyborg villains. From Michael Westmore and Joe Nazzaro, Starlog Presents The Official Magazine Star Trek The Next Generation Makeup FX Journal (New York: Starlog 1992).


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