Flesh Versus Steel

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to: navigation, search
"*Know* that flesh cannot mark steel. *Know* that steel may mark flesh. In *knowing* this, Zerthimon became free."

A motif quite often present in Science Fiction and sometimes also in Fantasy: We have two civilizations, one is organic, possibly psychic, and tends to involve lots of tentacles and ichor. The other is inorganic, prefers metal or robotics. Often (but not always) "flesh" has connotations of hedonism and desire (especially hunger and lust) while "steel" has connotations of discipline and austerity. If there is a third faction, expect lots of Pure Energy Technology.

It is not Nature Versus Science as in most cases *both* are highly technologically advanced: Rather it is about biotech (or biomagic) versus inorganic tech.

Tends to be a big component of either a Bug War or a Robot War, depending on which side humans count as.

See also: Force Versus Discipline, Science Is Bad, Ludd Was Right and most of the other similar tropes. Strong Flesh, Weak Steel is the literal version of this.

Examples of Flesh Versus Steel include:


Card Games[edit | hide | hide all]

  • In Magic: The Gathering, the shards Esper and Naya in the recent 'Shards Of Alara' block represent steel and flesh (respectively).

Film[edit | hide]

  • Conan the Barbarian in the movie there is a similar motif: Thulsa Doom controls flesh and disparages steel.
    • Or, as Doom himself asks, "What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?", implying that even the greatest weapon is useless unless it rests within the hands of a warrior strong enough to use it. Of course, Conan goes on to Take a Third Option.
    • This is described to Conan by his father at the beginning of the movie as "the Riddle of Steel", that for all its strength, the arm that weilds it is stronger
      • His father's position is the contrary of Thulsa's. He remarks to Conan "For no one - no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts. [Points to sword] This you can trust." Cue shock when it snaps while fighting Thulsa Doom
    • What Doom meant was that loyalty, and power to control people, meant more than weapons. Remember his demonstration: He considered the power to command people to give up their lives greater than the power a sword in your hand gives you.
  • The Alien tetralogy, with the technology-using humans vs. the organic Xenomorphs.
  • The movie of Starship Troopers, with the alien bug castes as biological weapons vs. the human technology or lack thereof.
  • The second Star Wars trilogy featured humans (later clone troopers) against droids.
    • And the first Star Wars movie comtained the immortal words: "The power to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force."

Literature[edit | hide]

  • Star Wars: The New Jedi Order.
  • Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling brings us the conflict between the Shapers and the Mechanists. The Shapers work with genetics while the Mechanists prefer cybernetics.
  • The future war backdrop of the Belisarius Series, with the two hyper-evolved offshoots of humanity at war with each other. One has become artificial and inorganic, the other claims to be "pure humans" but aren't. Rare case of the inorganics being the good guys.
  • Second Apocalypse has aspects of this, we have the hyper-rational Dunyian vs. the Lust-obsessed Inchoroi, although there are hints they might come to the same conclusions in the end.
  • In Leviathan by Scott Westerfield, the alternate World War One is like this, fought between the Clankers, who use walking tanks, and the Darwinists, who combine and alter DNA to create living airships and such.
  • The Dune prequels are classic Machine vs Human. The 1st trilogy doesn't have a Machine 'race' but is also Flesh vs Steel. On Arrakis, flesh, standard unarmored humans, is the most durable. War machines and even basic technology doesn't handle the sand, electrical activity and local wildlife very well.
    • The prequels also emphasize this aspect by having many humans engage in hand-to-hand combat with machines. Why? It's never made clear, as the machines don't have Holtzman field technology. The only possible explanation seems to be fanaticism.

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • In Star Trek: Voyager we have the Borg vs. Species 8472: Techno-zombies versus a biological species with an immune system so powerful it kills any other living creature they come into contact with.
    • Of course, it's a decidedly one-sided conflict. When a single Species 8472 bioship (piloted by a single being) can destroy a dozen Borg cubes before they even finish their You Will Be Assimilated speech, and the Borg nanites are useless against them, then you know the Borg are doomed. Oh, and about half-a-dozen of these bioships can merge their beams in a Death Star-like manner to obliterate a planet.

Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • The Imperium in Warhammer 40,000 relies on mass-produced vehicles and weapons, non-disfiguring biological implants, and sheer stubbornness to face mutated Chaos monstrosities and the Tyranid swarm.
    • The Eldar use some psychic powers and a lot of hyper-advanced technology for everything, while the Dark Eldar are vat-grown and have a fondness for growing strange monsters and grafting bits onto themselves.
    • It's heavily implied that the Necrons and the Daemons of Chaos wage war on each other regularly, intending to destroy each other. This is good, and bad, because if Chaos is destroyed, our universe and the Warp will not become one, but the Necrons will eat most life in the galaxy and keep the rest around to breed new snacks (and then eat them again. Repeat for all eternity). If Chaos wins, the Necrons are no longer a threat but the Chaos Gods' plans continue.
  • The Slaad and Inevitables from most versions of Dungeons & Dragons.
  • This is how
  • This is what happens when you combine WARMACHINE and HORDES.
  • This is the principle conflict in Mortasheen, with the human-dominated, technophilic civilization of Wreathe versus the chaotic city of mutants and monsters that is Mortasheen. The latter are our heroes by the way.

Toys[edit | hide]

  • Bionicle seems to be hinting at tension between the biomechanical Matoran and the mostly organic Agori. The Agori of Bota Magna, in particular, take it to the extreme and have rejected all mechanical technologies, instead using primitive weapons and plant-based armour.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • The Trope Namer is Dak'kon from Planescape: Torment, who puts a spin on the origin story of the Githzerai (and Githyanki) from Dungeons & Dragons. The Gith were slaves of the illithids, psionic mind-controlling brain eaters, but at one point a Gith named Zerthimon finds a steel knife embedded in the skull of a corpse. He is surprised by the concept that something might die without becoming food for the illithids. This leads him to formulate the Scripture of Steel: "Steel may mark flesh, but flesh cannot mark steel." And he reasons that while the Illithids *know* flesh and can shape it to their will, they do not *know* Steel...
  • StarCraft has aspects of this as well. With the technological terrans, psychic protoss and biological zerg.
  • KKnD (short for Krush, Kill 'n' Destroy) has the "Evolved" (mutated humans riding giant insects) versus the "Survivors" (surviving unmutated population using high-tech equipment) the sequel adds a race of sentient tractors as well. Making it bridge the entire scale.
  • In Point of View (a Game Mod for Half Life), it is stated that a factor of Xen's hostility to humankind is that humans use technology, while the Xen aliens use controlled evolution, and their "machines" are organic. (Note that it's strictly Fanon.)
  • System Shock and especially System Shock 2. SHODAN thinks flesh is worthless and weak. The Many is all about flesh.

SHODAN: Your flesh, too, is weak. But you have... potential. Every implant exalts you. Every line of code in your subsystems elevates you from your disgusting flesh.
The Many: Do you not trust the feelings of the flesh? Our biology yearns to join with yours. We welcome you to our mass. But you puzzle us. Why do you serve our mother? How can you choose cold metal over the splendor of the flesh?

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • Transformers has used this trope on a few occasions. In both Beast Wars II and Beast Machines, the heroic, technorganic Maximals fight against the evil, purely robotic Predacons/Vehicons. This situation was inverted in Robots in Disguise, in which the heroic, completely mechanical Autobots fight the evil, technorganic Predacons.

Webcomics[edit | hide]

  • Hinted at somewhat in Quentyn Quinn, Space Ranger .... the Big Bads of the series, the Kvrk-Chk, are largely living berserker battletanks. It's further implied by the biotech quarters aboard the Sapphire Star... biotech based civilizations are noted as being rather rare, and are regarded as technologically inferior due to the many inherent problems with organic technology.