Steamy Cyborgs: A Woman’s Sexualized Role in Technology

Table of Contents

I.               Introduction………………………………..………………………………….3

II.             Review of Literature………………………………………………………….5

a.     Cyber to steam?……………………………………………………………………….7

b.     Donna Haraway’s (Fe)male Cyborg…………………………………………..16

c.     The Ambiguous Sexual Gender……………………………………….………..20

d.     The (Post)feminist femme fatale………………………………………………23

III.           Methodology……………………………………………………………………26

IV.           Analysis…………………………………………………………………………..27

V.             Findings……………………………………………………………………….…35

VI.           Conclusion………………………………………………………………………36

VII.         Bibliography…………………………………………………………………….37



In a world of rapidly advancing technology, where cybernetics, cyborgs and being plugged in are a mere finger’s breadth away, taking a step into the past may be just what the mad scientist ordered. Where cyberpunk is the future, steampunk is a return to the past in which all things technology is powered by steam and rusted gadgets. It can be seen through literary progression of time, space, and artificial vessels that the role of female protagonists has ever-so-slowly been changing its gears.

Early science fiction revealed women described as meek and situated in a role which though intellectual, was otherwise another damsel-in-distress. Its successor cyberpunk poised the role of feminist cybertheory argues that in some cases cyborgs were women objectified or centrally independent and able to commandeer their own vessels. Later sci-fi and cyberpunk novels feature dominant women whose bodies are turned cyborgized, while female protagonists in steampunk can be seen by their hard, mechanic exterior and soft, feminine insights in a masculinised world. Through analysis of several scenes depicted from the pivotal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, a brief mention of steampunk’s catalyst Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, and Stephen Hunt’s The Court of Air, this thesis aims to reveal a correlation among women protagonists, their growing roles in typically male-dominated professions to their own masculine identity, and the overt sexualisation of their characters. In addition, this paper will highlight the differences between cyborg infested females in cyberpunk to geared mechanical women in steampunk.

A look at Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto,” its contributions to the feminist cyborg and communication technologies, and its later development to cyberfeminism, will be compared to the flowering of steampunk. Why, as a society already infested with cyborgs, are fictional creations and techno-driven machines subverted to portray a feminine exterior? The issue of gender-role reversals and differences between gender and sex will be questioned. Where does the role of (post)feminism belong in an ever changing technological environment, 100 years in the past or 10 minutes into the future?

Review of Literature

The review of literature is divided in four parts: the first is an introductory history of the evolution of cyberpunk and steampunk, and how each in turn is defined by its characters; the second focuses on Donna Haraway’s popular manifesto and its role in gender and feminism; the third focuses on how a woman’s masculinised role as a cyborg or mechanic is still sexualized through actions or words, even through gender role reversals; and the last discusses the role of the femme fatale and cyborgs.

For those uncertain of what steampunk is, imagine the Information Age occurring a century earlier, in a time where the Industrial Revolution is entwined with concepts of larger-than-life attitudes. Take the essence of cyberpunk, alchemize advanced technology with steam, and steampunk is the chick cracking through its fragile shell. With its trailing gears, machinery, zeppelins and steam, alongside a touch of romanticism in the Victorian era, steampunk has evolved from the entrails of science fiction.

Steampunk is seen through an earlier notion of rebellion, a time of darkness, pollution and beauty. Where the imagery of cyberpunk is rooted in robots, sleekness and spaceships, the concept of steampunk goes back to the idea of tin cans, bulk and a steam-powered industry. If cyberpunk is the future world of technology incorporated into the human condition, steampunk is the imaginings of an anachronistic future in which technology did not take the same route.

As with all subcultures, steampunk contains its own separations of subcategories. There is the obvious link to Victorian aspects of ladylike petticoats and corsets, with high-necked collars and layered skirts. This is used frequently to describe women of status or integrity, who are relatively unexposed to the real world and ultimately naïve, as I will later describe. In contrast, there are those who emerge from the factories of the Industrial era who are grungy and dirty, dressed in rough, ripped clothing – usually represented by masculine, middle-class men, most often focused on brawn, not brain. Women in a mechanical role are typically portrayed as more masculine and given a tough exterior. Up above in the skies are the sky captains and militia adorned in old military attire, uniforms, holsters and popular goggles.

Largely prominent in the 1980s, the basic elements of steampunk emerged in the late 1970s (Vandermeer 1). Well established authors H. G. Wells and Jules Verne’s novels exemplify the very essence of steampunk, and are used for inspiration by current authors, but are excluded from generational authors. Exclusion comes because steampunk era occurred during their time in the industrial age. It was not until the 1990s that core concepts were brought to light and birthed by first generation authors like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and their co-authored novel, The Difference Engine.

Steampunk is a subculture that mainstream engages in, but is mainly unaware of its existence. Even in popular cinema, there are many who flock to steampunk without knowing what it is. In the featurette “The Making of Wild Wild West”, director Barry Sonnenfeld and actor Will Smith comment on the gizmos and theme of the 1999 movie. Both exclaimed that they “really don’t know what this movie fits into” (Wild Wild West 1999). That was in 1999, 12 years after the word was coined. Enter the year 2009, and the movie is used by many to explain the overall concept of what is steampunk. Steampunk, like cyberpunk, has joined the legions of subcultures that are slowly trickling and making their presence known in the mainstream. A large indicator is the increase in steampunk-focused or -themed ideals that can be seen in the fashion industry and Hollywood blockbusters. But how is the female character and identity altered through literary genres? Why does the female role in either cyberpunk or steampunk act as the ultimate foil of the male protagonist? How do the actions by said female contribute to become the pivotal catalyst of what the gendered male commits to? Ultimately, is there a difference between cyberpunk and steampunk female characters?

Cyber to steam?

Quickly recognized as a movement, “cyberpunk” was given many labels such as Radical Hard SF, the Outlaw Technologists, the Neuromantics and the Mirrorshades Group, before the label “cyberpunk” took hold (Sterling vii). In the early spring of 1980, the word “cyberpunk” was coined. A conscious creation of author Bruce Bethke, cyberpunk was identified in November 1983, when he submitted and published his short story entitled “Cyberpunk” in Amazing Stories, a science fiction story magazine (volume 57, number 4). The fusion of two words, like the start of many subcultures, came from “cybernetics” and “punk”. The original intention of the word was meant “to be only a character type name, meaning ‘a young, technologically facile, ethically vacuous, computer-assisted vandal or criminal’” (The Cyberpunk Project). It was a divergence from the well-known category of science fiction that featured space ships and aliens.

The prefix, cybernetics, came to popularity in 1947. Norbert Wiener, an American theoretical and applied mathematician, “…used it to name a discipline apart from, but touching upon, such established disciplines as electrical engineering, mathematics, biology, neurophysiology, anthropology and psychology” (Pangaro para 4). Wiener, along with Arturo Rosenblueth and Julian Bigelow, adapted the Greek word kubernetes, meaning “the art of steering” to represent their new discipline (McCaffery 47). The word was to “evoke the rich interaction of goals, predictions, actions, feedback, and response in systems of all kinds” (Pangaro para 5). Currently, the term cybernetics, with the prefix “cyber” is synonymous with cybernetic machinery or something mechanical. The term also refers to machines and technologies that imitate human behaviour.

The suffix of cyberpunk, “punk,” was in reference to the intensely rapid youth movement that made the world uncomfortable in the 1970s and 1980s. Originally signifying the “rotten” or “junk” aspects, the connotation turned to being a “troublemaker, [or] an ‘antisocial rebel or hoodlum’” (Robb para 5). Defined by Mohawks, leather jackets and the need to rebel against authority, punks were labelled by the misconstrued ideologies of music and criminal activities, rather than the original reference of ones attitude and outlook. In the word “cyberpunk,” “punk” refers to “….the anarchistic and anti-authoritarian part of it” (Bethke para 10). This can be seen in how characters are described as insurgents or dissenters against the government.

In the December 1984 issue of the Washington Post, Gardner Dozois, a science fiction editor and writer, picked up “the term ‘cyberpunk’ from the title of Bruce Bethke’s short story, redefining it as a ‘self-willed aesthetic school,’ members of which included Bruce Sterling, William Gibson… all ‘purveyors of bizarre hard-edged high-tech stuff” (Takayuki 48). Foremost in many minds, including Dozois, is Gibson’s award-winning first novel, Neuromancer (1984). William Gibson may not have been credited for the word cyberpunk, though he is noted for cyberspace, his novels pushed the concepts of cyberpunk forth – a term used synonymously with today’s growing World Wide Web. “Despite Gibson’s denial of any audiovisual influence on his works….Blade Runner depicts androids in punk fashion haunting a Japanese Los Angeles in 2019, Neuromancer represents cyborgs in punk mode within an extremely dead-tech Japanese cityscape” (Takayuki 49). Gibson’s fictional creations have brought a change from science fiction to cyberpunk, as it repositions sci-fi from its Earth-bound geography to space and his suggestions that objects of inanimacy and human beings have the ability to be interchangeable.

Neuromancer is the pivotal novel that propelled cyberpunk to the forefront, where concepts of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and genetic engineering are painstakingly drawn from the modern condition and formed to create a recognizable future. Gibson’s novel envisions a future where humans and machines increasingly interact; a place where technology begins to invade the body and machines turn human. In Neuromancer, protagonist Case is the antihero; a washed-up drug addict and once cyberspace hacker extraordinaire is now employed to go against an unimaginably powerful think-tank: artificial intelligence. Along with his samurai friend, both set off to become the fierce duo of reality and cyberspace. Through the gun shots and concepts of dangerous artificial intelligence, the person who captures the eyes of readers is the one with enhanced features and cyboric body.

Molly Millions is the almighty female superhero, the “kick-ass techno babe” that acts as the brawn of the operation (Gillis 12). Millions is the illusion-come-to-life of a “razor girl” – a hired hit-man, bodyguard and mercenary; she is a fantasy come true with her hardened attitude and sleek body.

‘That’s fine, man.’ The fletcher vanished into the black jacket. ‘Because you try to fuck around with me, you’ll be taking one of the stupidest chances of your whole life.’

She held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edged four centimetre scalpel blades slid from their housing beneath burgundy nails.

She smiled. The blades slowly withdrew (Gibson 37).

Millions comes alive with adrenaline with each adventure, but she is ultimately sexualized in her role despite her additional amped-up features. Millions’ character is the basis for future female characterizations in later cyberpunk novels. As the first to be labelled as the “razor girl,” she is the ultimate catalyst in leading (overly) sexualized, cyborg women.

Ultimately, the evolution of cyberpunk came to embody the combination of high-tech and low-life. The advances of technology and cyborgs have grown to take over a society that is beaten and broken. Cyberpunk focuses on those who live in the margins of society: nomads, outcasts, criminals, along with those who are innocent, yet nonexistent (Saffo para 3). As it can be seen in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the eventual movie adaption of Blade Runner, future cities become sprawls where only the strong survive. Large and deserted buildings that have seen better days continue to stand with few occupants. In Gibson’s Neuromancer, the underground world of drugs and sex is the pivotal movement of cowboy hackers like Case to move throughout the information and data-processing of computers and technology against the powerful artificial intelligence.

The transformation from cyberpunk to steampunk is a transition that occurs alongside the cyberpunk movement; hidden and unexposed until one stage dies for another. The foundation of steampunk was already planted, unconscious as it may have been, from the very beginning of cyberpunk. As seen in Neuromancer and Gibson’s description of a computer terminal: “It was contemporary, not an antique….with a beautiful arrangement of gears and miniature organ pipes. It was a baroque thing for anyone to have constructed, a perverse thing…” (74). This is a mere foundation that would grow and develop through cyberpunk’s evolution from contemporary science fiction.

Seven years after cyberpunk was conceived, put on the market and started to boom, steampunk finally took to the stage. Noted science fiction author K. W. Jeter jokingly envisioned a label to encompass the novels that were to appear: his own Morlock Night in 1979 and Infernal Devices in 1987; Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates in 1983, On Stranger Tides in 1987 and the Stress of Her Regard in 1982; and James Blaylock’s Homunculus in 1986 and Lord Kelvin’s Machine in 1992. In 1997, Paul de Filippo wrote The Steampunk Trilogy. In a letter proposed to The Locus, a science fiction magazine, Jeter uses the term “steampunk”:

Dear Locus,

Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I’d appreciate your being so good as to route it to Faren Miller, as it’s a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in “the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate” was writing in the “gonzo-historical manner” first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like “steampunks,” perhaps…

-K. W. Jeter (The Locus).

Jeter, along with compatriots Tim Powers and James Blaylock, paved their way towards a new focus away from cyberpunk. The previous concept was taken and reimaged from 100 years into the future, to 100 years into the past. Disciples of Philip K. Dick, the Jeter-Powers-Blaycock trio were at the helm, creating a world where steam power, rather than cyborgs, is widely used. Set in the 19th century, the novels prominently depict a Victorian-esque era, with distinguished elements of science fiction or fantasy. “Steampunk is primarily concerned with foregrounding the fictionality of its narrative universe” (Hantke 247). There are often fictional, technological inventions and machinery that portray real developments invented at an earlier period. In many cases, the past is taken and warped to suggest an alternative history of events that have already occurred.

The Difference Engine, written in collaboration by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, is one such case. The novel takes place in a Victorian Britain in which technological and social change has occurred after entrepreneurial inventor Charles Babbage succeeds in creating his vision of a mechanical computer. Now mass-produced, the Babbage computers are able to emulate current-day innovations, such as data-processing of personal records and statistical standings of past years, much earlier than stated in historical timelines. Characters such as Lord Byron, his daughter and “The Enchantress of Numbers” Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace – also known as Ada Lovelace – Lawrence Oliphant, and “Texian” President Sam Houston are few of the reimaged political figures brought back to life and repositioned in their roles. Ada Lovelace, for example, is a historical figure, that though rumoured to have a love of drink, dice and scandal, is said to be the “first programmer,” creating a written description for Babbage’s incomplete device. The novel depicts her as half-crazed, absent-minded and promiscuous, though well-known and established as “the daughter of the Prime Minister [Lord Byron]. Lady Ada Byron, the Queen of Engines” (Gibson and Sterling 95). Her small role positions her in such as way that she acts as a mere pawn in the novel, with no significance aside from her pedestal as a figure-head. Her ten-page moment of fame with few half-crazed lines is a slight push in the plot’s deepening detective-adventure mystery, but she holds little in place. During this time frame for steampunk, and cyberpunk, many minor feminine roles are generally used as mere plot stimulants, or, should they play the leading lady, are placed on the opposite side of the spectrum as the “kick-ass” female protagonists who are overly aroused.

Nevertheless, even as the two concepts are foils of each other, both repelling and complementing, one is set in the distant future, the other in the fictional recreation of the past vision of the future. Both genres are also linked to science fiction, which is “…a part of a history that leads in its modern form through…the attempt to make and instantiate meaning as real” (Bourbon 191). Science fiction, itself a world of imagining, brings together the real and fantastic, the science and the art.

Science fiction as a genre was pushed by writers to go beyond existing literary boundaries of ideas about space and technology. At the same time, it changed the ebb and flow of society’s set ideas about gender. Few authors shared Donna Haraway’s vision of a re-gendered world and her manifesto “based on the merging (or blurring) of biology and technology” (Lawley). In Elizabeth Lane Lawley’s essay, “Computers and the Communication of Gender,” she describes how the use of technology has admitted to great value and purpose, yet much “discussion of it evades the larger issue of how technology can be used beyond the support of current activities to encourage a radical shift in the identities of the participants” (Lawley para 6).

Yet for all its advances in technology and gender, science fiction continues its anamorphous abilities to become something new. In the San Francisco Chronicle in 1987, journalist Michael Berry confirmed the birth of steampunk in his review for Jeter’s novel Infernal Devices:

Jeter, along with fellow novelists Tim Powers and James Blaylock, seems to be carving out a new sub-genre of science fiction with his new book [Infernal Devices]. Whereas such authors as William Gibson, Michael Swanwick and Walter Jon Williams have explored the futuristic commingling of human being and computer in their ‘cyberpunk’ novels and stories, Jeter and his compatriots, whom he half-jokingly has dubbed ‘steampunks,’ are having a grand time creating wacko historical fantasies (Berry para 6).

The “wacko historical fantasies” are adapted and grown from authors H. G. Wells and Jules Verne’s fictional worlds, which are used as prime examples of steampunk that many first generation steampunk writers follow. Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mary Shelley are other such authors that incorporated elements of influence, such as lone inventers, scientists, and the gothic-influenced anti-heroes and villains, over present day writers.

Proto-steampunk stories, such as Michael Craid’s Mysterious Island, engaged readers long before the concept evolved. They were at the time essentially cyberpunk tales set in the alternative past, using steam-era technology rather than the cybernetics of cyberpunk. The characters maintained, however, the distinctive punk attitudes towards figures of authority. Dystopian worlds, with noir and pulp themes developed in the genre, and as it grew, it adapted and broadened to include the Victorian scientific romantics.  Jess Nevins, the author of the World Fantasy Award-nominated Encyclopaedia of Fantastic Victoriana and several Victorian and pulp works noted that:

…steampunk as a fullfledged genre began in the late 1970s and early 1980s when science fiction took a recursive turn and began incorporating themes, motifs, and tropes from its own past to a much greater degree than previously. Cyberpunk emerged as a reaction to and conversation with many of the assumptions and biases of science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s, while space opera, heavily influenced by its pulp origins but altered to reflect the times, gained renewed populatirty in the 1980s. For its part, steampunk turned to the 19th century and the Victorians – and, consciously or unconsciously, the Edisonades (Nevins 7-8).

Where science fiction has been often compared to the detective story because the heart’s intellectual appeal is to solve the puzzle/mystery/problem, similarly, steampunk can be associated and compared with Edisonades (Clareson 25). Edisonades is “based on stories about lone travelers stranded on remote islands” and recaptures the idea of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Coined by John Clute, a Canadian born author and critic, Edisonades usually follows a young, poor or struggling (white) American male who invents a form of transportation before travelling to unknown origins in search of vengeance or Native American/foreign enemies (Nevins 3-4). Again, female characters at this point were usually meek, naïve or passive, and in many instances, incompetent when compared to their (white) male counterparts. Edisonades appeared in dime novels, serials or complete novels. “Few if any of the steampunk writers would have read the Edisonades…But, however unconsciously, first generation steampunk writers used steampunk to invert the ideologies of the Edisonades” (Nevins 8). Where Edisonades focused on the American frontier, steampunk was primarily set in a Victorian London, England. It was the lack of interest from a changing taste in audience that shifted Edisonades from the frontier to lost civilizations, adding a slice of science fiction into its core.

Along with the concept of Edisonades, steampunk quite often had the rudiments of Lovecraftian, occult and Gothic horror influences, and fantasy elements. Derived from Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s name, an American author of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, Lovecraftian refers to Lovecraft’s written style of cosmic horror; the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds and that the universe is fundamentally alien. His style worked to alter the perceptions of several prominent authors, especially his concepts of fate and destiny. Stephen Hunt’s The Court of Air dabbles in various concepts of altered DNA sequences, authoritative roles and bound positions, and characters stuck with unwanted destinies. Molly Templar, though an orphan, is birthed to a line whose genetics have a single mutation that allows her to work with the machines with knowledge unknown to her. “My hands knew what to do…I have always had an affinity to such things” (Hunt 105). This single mutation in the strand causes the fearful government to abolish every being with this mutation, leaving her the sole survivor. It is this alteration in her that results in her hosting a non-terrestrial being within her body, transforming her from human to unearthly.

Donna Haraway’s (Fe)male Cyborg

The pivotal moment that sparked a relation between technology and women is agreed by many feminist, and non-feminist, scholars to be Donna Haraway’s 1985 “A Cyborg Manifesto.” It brought to light an argument that featured not naturalism and essentialisms, but the idea of a cyborg as a social and feminist political movement. In the manifesto, Haraway argues that the cyborg – which she descries as a fusion of animal and machine – works to demolish the larger concepts between nature and culture, self and world. In essence, nothing is black and white. Boundaries are broken, while bridges crossed. The term cyborg in this paper is synonymous to Haraway’s description – a fusion of animal and machine. At the same time, it will encompass any alteration of the human body, mentally and physically.

For generations before technology started to evolve, women were seen by society and the working male class as passive creatures; “naturally” weak, submissive, overemotional and rather incapable of abstract thought. Women were seen to be mothers and homemakers, preferring seated table games to physical expenditures. As these characteristics were all natural to women, they were static. However, Haraway argues that women, and men, are not naturally constructed. She compares how, like a cyborg, if given the right tools, it can be reconstructed. From this, basic assumptions of social construction and cultural requirements are questioned: who will now wash the dishes?

As mentioned previously with Gibson and Sterling’s novel, it features few women, and even fewer with any significance aside from plot stimulation. Ada Lovelace pushes the well-stationed, white-male protagonist forward in placing a bet which in turn makes him wealthy, while Sybil Gerard comes up short in her role as a former Luddite’s political daughter-turned-“political courtesan” (read: prostitute)-turned-half-crazed exile by the end of the novel. Aside from the brief introductory chapters and a re-appearance near the end, Gerard remains relatively left out of any action. Though personified as a character holding a greater significance from her initial introduction, her male counterparts take sway of the novel’s plot.

Throughout cyberpunk and steampunk’s lengthy list of literature, a woman’s role is never solidly defined, either biologically or in terms of gender. A re-visitation by Haraway to her essay six years later produced the paper A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, part of her book Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991). Here, Haraway “maps the progress of the cyborg as a fictional being and social ideology that can emerge as a new subject without gender or ordinary reproduction” (Brigley 18). In an age of late capitalism, Haraway views ‘woman’ as being part of an ‘integrated circuit’ of production and power relations.

In 1992, the term cyberfeminism was said to originate from three locations worldwide. Though not a term used by Haraway, feminists seized upon the possibilities and its relative potential of the idea. In conjunction with technology, it becomes possible to re-construct your identity, your sexuality, even your gender. Who is to know but you behind the screen? Cyberfeminists form a wide bridge which any can cross, with multiple assertions of how a woman can be a technologist, such as an Australian art group’s VNS Matrix’s expression, that the clitoris is a tool for jacking into cyberspace. But Haraway follows a different path, where she proclaims she would rather be a cyborg, than a goddess. A term that goes beyond reconstructing just yourself, but finding multiple networks that allow one to breach various divides.

In an interview with Wired magazine, Haraway claims that “feminist concerns are inside of technology, not a rhetorical overlay. We’re talking about cohabitation: between different sciences and forms of culture, between organisms and machines. I think the issues that really matter – who lives, who dies, and at what price – these political questions are embodied in technoculture. They can’t be got at in any other way.” The concept of abstract, when compared to the infinitely open cyberspace, becomes moot.

Using Haraway’s manifesto as a basis, Lawley writes in her essay that these communication systems enable women to “escape boundaries and categories that have in the past constrained their activities and their identities” (Lawley para 8). By providing women with an opportunity to express their ideas in a way that transcends the biological body, this technology gives them the power to redefine themselves outside of the historical categories of “woman,” “other,” or “object” (Lawley para 13).

At the same time, these new systems blur the boundaries between sex as a biological category and sex as sexual interaction. It “retains the assumption that genders themselves remain unchanged in a virtual world – that biological females remain ‘women’ and biological males are still ‘men’” (Lawley para 13). The concept between biological sex and gendered sex can be seen through the male-dominated universes. Ruth Hubbard writes in her introduction to the collection of essays Machina Ex Dea: Feminist Perspectives on Technology, that:

Technology is part of our culture; and, of course, our culture, which is male dominated, has developed technologies that reinforce male supremacy. Can this be changed by women becoming more involved with technology–not only as its users, but as its inventors, makers, and repairers? [. . .] Only to the extent that we gain control of the design and fruits of our labor. But that is a revolutionary agenda, for today very few people – women or men – control our tools or our work (1983).

Tools, such as the cyborg, have made the question of gender identity a game of dice.  One is never certain what, or who, one is anymore. Concepts of the philosophical self are brought to the forefront of the debate. Is a cyborg built with a human conscious and empathy any less human than a human who has altered their body? In Hunt’s The Court of Air, for example, steamman are machines filled with the souls of deceased humans. Steammen are “scavenged, cannibalized from the parts of other steammen… mechomancers cannot build us…There are steammen souls trapped inside… blended” (Hunt 102). Onestack, one of the steammen to feature in the novel, is haunted by his “own ancestors inside me and every step I take is a dishonour to them, but I cannot bear to deactivate. Life is too full, even down here. So instead of dying I live down here…” (Hunt 102). Onestack is neither alive, nor dead, yet he cannot bear the thought of shutting down completely. With his past soul and those before him, he still holds onto humanity. When compared to ‘softbody’ Molly Templar, whose own body is transformed to host another soul later in the story, does Onestack’s metal and steam container make him anymore a cyborg than a living human with additional metal parts?

As human subjects are increasingly coupled with technology, feminist cybertheory sets to address and theorize the related interventions amongst technology and mankind. In Margaret Morse’s essay, “What do Cyborgs Eat? Oral Logic in an Information Society,” she questions the status of the cyborg in our culture and their existence: “However satisfying such an imaginary blend might be, the actual status of the cyborg is murky as to whether it is a metaphor, a dreamlike fantasy, and/or a literal being” (Hamilton 110). A cyborg has many identities, which makes the foundation of feminist cybertheory. It opens up productive ways of thinking “about subjectivity, gender and the materiality of a physical body” (Hamilton 112). The cyborg is both liberating and restrictive at the same time. It allows freedom of movement, yet brings up questions of identity and one’s purpose in life.

The Ambiguous Sexual Gender

The issue of homunculi creations, the hybrid of man and machine, results in a debate about identity.  However, with the fragmentation of identity, Haraway finds that “the cyborg emerges as a new subject to challenge the ‘integrated circuit’ and maternity is rejected along with gender” (Lawley para 12). Haraway’s concern is to create an identity that can challenge categories of class and gender, but still maintain a commitment to the materialist doctrine that demands identities in the flesh. She argues that as the cyborg progresses as a fictional being and social ideology, it can convert into a new subject without gender and reproductive indicators. Cyborgs are an ideal image to which women can aspire to become, as it escapes gender “…in a manner that cannot be lived in social reality, yet the cyborg is not only an ideal, but an ideology and a mode for being in the world” (Brigley 19). This is not the case for cyber- and steampunk.

Despite Haraway’s wish to create an identity outside of social indicators, critique and re-imaging of gender through characteristics in text causes a certain amount of gender ambiguity. Though gender ambiguity is not a new phenomenon in itself, it is the product of cultural postmodernism, where fixed meanings, like gender, are undermined and uncertain. The “…cyborg identity is predicated on transgressed boundaries. They fascinate us because they are not like us, and yet just like us. Formed through a radical disruption of other-ness, cyborg identity foregrounds the constructedness of otherness” (Gillis 10). From the feminist perspective, the relationship “between sex and gender is ideological: physical differences are used to exact a particular gender identity” (Smelik 35).  This relationship is by no means a fixed one, but one that is culturally and historically determined.

Masculinity and femininity are both characteristics determined by societal depictions. Pink is for girls, blue is for boys; yet that was not always so. During the 1920s, it was the reverse, where pink was for boys and blue for girls. This remained so until around the 1940s, when the colors flip-flopped as it is recognized today (Clark). In “Firefly/Serenity: Gendered Space and Gendered Bodies”, Christina Rowley comments that masculinity and femininity are one and the same in the steampunk television series Firefly and the movie Serenity. They are also “attributes that can be applied to concepts, policies and institutions just as readily as to bodies…they intersect with the dichotomies male/female and heterosexual/homosexual to form the basis for complex hierarchies of multiple gendered identities” (319). To quote French author and philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir: you may be born a woman (sex), but you are also made into a woman for the rest of your life (gender) (Moi 21). The cyborg causes the human who has altered their body, and the machine that has a human conscious, to question their identities. So what makes one item masculine, and another feminine?

Gender and identity are simultaneous to each other, but when female characters alter their bodies with technology their personalities are usually converted as well, taking on a more ‘masculine’ perspective and augmented physical prowess. “While popular culture texts enthusiastically explore boundary breakdowns between humans and computers, gender boundaries are treated less flexibly” (Hamilton 113). Gender role ‘reversals’ indicate occurring changes in characteristics; especially in the role of female characters in cyber- and steampunk novels.

Violence, for instance, is decidedly seen as a masculine trait, a trait usually not associated with women. Up until now, characters were distinct in their roles. Males would go off and be the hunter-protector, females would settle the base and mother away.

Violence is a gendered concept, associated with masculine characteristics and with male actors; that women are portrayed with as equally capable of and prone to using violence may be an egalitarian statement but it is a problematic representation because the concept itself remains unchanged (Hamilton 114).

Cyber- and steampunk break down stereotypes by merging classical dogmas to the other sex. Aneke Smelik argues in her essay “The Carousel of Genders,” that “making a formal distinction between sex and gender enables to ‘denaturalize’ gender identity; that is to say, to argue that femininity is not a natural category. The supposed inferiority of women is not a biological given, but a cultural construct” (para 8). She argues that it is impossible to determine a fixed meaning of femininity, and that ‘woman’ has many different categories. Recent feminist theories generally stress diversity and openness are a part of being a ‘woman,’ and this can be seen in how female characters become the sexualized, physical bodyguard, and the males the at-home computer geeks.

The (Post)Feminist femme fatale

Deadly is one word to describe her; irresistible, another. Witty, attractive, alluring and sexual, are several others. Oh, you know her; the one who dangles danger and disaster on her delicate, little pinky.  Think of the slink in her dress, coifed hair-do, and raised eyebrow. The one who has heads turn with the tilt of her head and low, guttural chuckle. You got it, the regular femme fatale.

Often at the centre of intrigue, the femme fatale is usually a predator who uses her sexuality, and sex, as a tool. French for “deadly”, the femme fatale is polarised sexually, and usually romantically, with the macho man. Take Rita Hayworth in “Gilda” (1946), a black-and-white film noir directed by Charles Vidor. Dress in a strapless black gown, Hayworth performed the legendary one-glove striptease as she sashayed her way across the stage, hair whipping too and fro.  Her three and a half minute performance made her into a cultural icon as the ultimate femme fatale. But what is the role of the femme fatale?

The femme fatale can be seen as female liberation; a part of women’s rights and the growing independence and intellect of a woman’s ability. Through the late 1960s “the sexual revolution changed life and fiction, creating many more options for women” (Czarniawska and Gustavzzon 666-7). It gave power to women and ignited the feminism movement to reconceptualise what is gendered in our world, what it means to be gendered and a gendered being.

Postfeminism suggests that women have progressed through the democratic world because of feminism, but that feminism has now become irrelevant and even undesirable. The most commonly cited example of postfeminism comes from Ann Brooks’ Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms. She argues that “postfeminism is feminism’s maturity into a confident body of theory and politics, representing pluralism and difference and reflecting on its position in relation to other philosophical and political movements similarly demanding change” (Brooks 1). This meaning is usually understood and discussed as women’s femininity and sexuality as a powerful example of female agency.

In this case, (post)feminism refers to “the complexities of studying this new area of feminist inquiry – indicating that feminism is at the heart of these models and that ‘post’ should not be used to mean either after or an engagement with feminism” (Gillis 9). This paper will discuss how (post)feminism refers to figures of women with “emotional, physical, social or financial agency [that] have been variously represented as lacking something… since the early 1980s” and how it implies that the cyborg women is overly sexualized and feminine. Sarah Projansky explains in her book Watching Rape: Film and Television in Posteminist Culture that “the (post) in our (post)feminist is enclosed in brackets in order to emphasize that it is ‘feminist’ which is central – that is, a feminist analysis of the (post)feminist subject” (Gillis 9). The typical ass-kicking techno-babes, for example, should be read as a (post)feminist subject.

Mercenary Molly Millions in Neuromancer is decidedly different from Sybil Gerard and Lady Ada in The Difference Engine, and both are equally different from Molly Templar in The Court of Air. Yet, for all their personal differences, they are ultimately the same in their functions. Millions is the epitome of gender role-reversals, with all her sensuality and overtly feminine appearance to her mercenary, kick-ass role, while Gerard and Ada merely puppet pieces used by men to further enhance their intellect or prestige. Templar figures to be singularly independent and, while bound to her fate, she does not allow men to rule her life. Regardless, each character within these three novels is sexualized to the point where their characters are forced to sell their bodies. So where in lies the role of the femme fatale in cyber- and steam punk dimensions? How is gender used to push forward societal and cultural relations? Or, more specifically, how are the characters defined by gender?

The notorious femme fatale in literary novels of all genres are poised to embody a sensual aura, with charmingly hypnotising abilities. Within the context of cyber- and steampunk, the femme fatale characters are cybortic and mechanized either through technology or genetic alterations. There lies a fine line between the works of cyberpunk and steampunk, as there is in the role of female characters and their positions as a protagonist in a masculine world.


Through this paper, I hope to examine and pursue the role of women in cyberpunk and steampunk novels. Examining its history to present day will determine if a consistent plot of cyber steaminess exists, to what extent and how much “cyber,” “steam” and “punk” is involved. By looking at the history of steampunk and going back into the arenas of cyberpunk and science fiction, and the origin of “steampunk”, it will lead to where it stands today.

I will be looking at the cyberpunk novel by William Gibson Neuromancer, steampunk’s catalyst Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, and Stephen Hunt’s The Court of Air. This thesis aims to reveal a correlation among women protagonists, their growing roles in typically male-dominated professions to their own masculine identity, and the overt sexualisation of their characters. In addition, this paper aims to highlight the differences between cyborg-infested females in cyberpunk to geared mechanical women in steampunk. Donna Haraway’s popular “A Cyborg Manifesto” will be key in identifying my definition of a cyborg, and discussions of gender and femme fatales will follow.


Cyberpunk is chrome. Steampunk is brass. One set in an alternate future, the other the distant past. Yet each focuses on the abilities of humans and current day societal dictations to create the makeshift universe. Both are not as dissimilar as parallel universes along the same tracks, occasionally merging at intersections of crossings. Its predecessor science fiction was on the periphery of blasphemous ideas, sidelining social thoughts and regulated notions. Cyber- and steampunk recycled science fiction and set it on a different plane, taking concepts of human and machine to a new level.

But how engrossed with technology have we become? Haraway once stated that “it’s hard to determine where [humans] end and machine begins” (Kunzru 5). What the homunculus cyborg offers is an opportunity for people, and society, to remove themselves from the stereotypical roles of gender and class distinctions. In the day-to-day lives of present times, cyborgs walk among the living without a second glance: artificial limbs, transplanted organs, surgical lifts and botox, have integrated to become the norm.

Within the context of cyber- and steampunk literature, the cyborg encompasses the alteration of one’s body. The human body metamorphosized can be adjusted through physical means, metal arms or retracting blades, or with the addition of another perennial entity. A cyborg is distinctive through its visibility in adjustments, though that is not always the case.

Molly Millions is the epitome of sexualized samurai women. With false-looking burgundy nails, she is described by her “…silver lenses [that] seemed to grow from smooth pale skin above her cheekbones, framed by dark hair cut in a rough shag….She wore tight black glove leather jeans and a bulky black jacket cut from some matte fabric that seemed to absorb light” (Gibson 36-7). Millions is revealed to have undergone changes to escape from poverty and the life of a “working girl” (Gibson 112). As a female cyborg, and one of significant intelligence, Millions has become a signature cult classic amongst iconic (fictional) women.

Featured female protagonists are ambitious and aggressive, unwillingly to wait for the shining, white knight to swoop in and save them. They are “physically tough women and girls who are in control of their urban environments” (Gillis 11). On one mission, as Millions attempts to sneak in to a room and Case watches via jacked into cyberspace, Millions stumbles across several bodyguards. In awe, Case can only vividly compare her ass-kicking abilities against the descriptions of prominent, male martial artists.

She missed it by a fraction. She nearly cut it, but not quite. She went in just right, Case thought. The right attitude; it was something he could sense, something he could have seen in the posture of another cowboy leaning into a deck, fingers flying across the board. She had it: the thing, the moves. And she’d pulled it all together for her entrance. Pulled it together around the pain in her leg and marched down 3Jane’s stairs like she owned the place, elbow of her gun arm at her hip, forearm up, wrist relaxed, swaying the muzzle of the fletcher with the studied nonchalance of a Regency duelist…For a few seconds, he knew, she was every bad-ass hero, Sony Mao in the old Shaw videos, Mickey Chiba, the whole lineage back to Lee and Eastwood. She was walking it the way she talked it (Gibson 213).

Case’s reverential confession of Millions abilities occurs as he observes from his console connected through their simstim link, a virtual link that connects their minds together. “He’d known that her reflexes were souped up, jazzed by the neurosurgeons for combat…The effect was like tape run at half speed, a slow deliberate dance choreographed to the killer instinct and years of training” (Gibson 214). Millions is masculinised through technology, but despite her aggressiveness and ambition, it remains threatened by her sexuality. The female cyborg is innovated and brilliant, but beyond all matters of the mind, the cyborg is still female. “These figures are always contained by the language of sexual representation, physically powerful yet always positioned as accountable for and through a sexualized femininity…” (Gillis 11) Such is the case with Molly Millions.

Intelligent, kick-ass and sexual, Millions is the perfect combination of femininity and sexuality, forming the notion of the femme fatale. As a part of her job, and arguably partially out of sexual desire, Millions fornicates with Case. Aware of her own sexuality, she is able to incite reactions from Case through their simstim link: “He heard the words and felt her form then. She slid a hand into her jacket, a fingertip circling a nipple under warm silk. The sensation made him catch his breath. She laughed. But the link was one-way. He had no way to reply” (Gibson 56). Millions is the deadly femme fatale, with burgundy nails served to sheathe a dangerous weapon.

In her essay “Automating Gender: Postmodern Feminism in the Age of the Intelligent Machine,” Judith Halberstam references Haraway’s cyborg-as-metaphor in a manner that positions the female cyborg and intelligence as a potentially liberating manner:

…it hints at the radical potential of a fusion of femininity and intelligence… A female cyborg would be artificial in both mind and flesh, as much woman as machine, as close to science as to nature. The resistance she represents to static conceptions of gender and technology pushes a feminist theory of power to a new arena…As a metaphor, she challenges the correspondences such as maternity and femininity or female and emotion. As a metaphor, she embodies the impossibility of distinguishing between gender and its representation (454).

I argue that while the cyborg offers the opportunity for female liberty, it also restricts their actions. By becoming a cyborg, the female is usually souped up and garners masculine traits, obscuring the unfixed lines of gender identity. It is easier to define a woman who has altered her body to become a cyborg, but more difficult to discern a cyborg who is built with an empathic, ‘womanly’ conscious. The cyborg, no matter how hard Haraway argues for its neutral nature, is depicted through wantonly sexual behaviour in cyberpunk novels. It is subjected to the feminine role, and usually enforces gender dynamics between characters. The male protagonist serves as a hacker, where as the female is the trusty, kick-ass enforcer. Sitting at his console while the female dirties her hands, the man is a voyeur, watching through the portal of cyberspace; it is akin to men watching pornography via television or computer, simply observing and doing nothing. Words such as ‘jacking,’ ‘tug,’ and ‘flipped’ are synonymously used between surfing the matrix and having sex. Thus, the female cyborg is merely an object to stay active on, similarly to cyberspace.

But where Molly Millions is actively antagonistic towards her enemies, Sybil Gerrard and Lady Ada of The Difference Engine are quiet, neither of which are cyborgs. Gibson and Sterling’s novel does not have any explicit signs of cyborgs. There are machines and ‘new’ technology galore in the Victorian setting, but of cyborgized humans, there is only one mention. But it is neither Gerrard nor Lady Ada in which the concept of the cyborg is the focus. When the male protagonist Edward “Leviathan” Mallory, explorer and palaeontologist, is hounded and beaten up, he turns to his friend and cohort, Laurence Oliphant, for help. At Oliphant’s house, Mallory meets several Japanese men and one woman. Caught by her “mask-like composure and a silky black wreath of hair. She was wrapped in some voluminous native garb, bright with swallows and maple-leaves” (Gibson 166), Mallory continues to watch as she remains kneeling by the table, but is confused by her lack of response, as:

…the woman had not moved so much of an inch…Mr. Matsuki fitted the little jug into her right hand with a sharp wooden click. He rose, and fetched a gilded crank-handle. He stuck the device into the small of her back and began to twist it, his face expressionless. A high-pitched coiling sound emerged from the woman’s innards…The automaton began pouring drinks. There was a hinge within her robed elbow, and a second in her wrist; she poured whiskey with a gentle slither of cables and a muted wooden-clicking (Gibson and Sterling 167-8).

The unnamed Japanese-created automaton is distinctly female and situated in her role as subservient and docile. She, as the male characters constantly refer to her, is contained to domestic chores, specifically the pouring of beverages. Wooden, immobile, and “each hair in her wig put in by hand” (Gibson and Sterling 168), she was created by men to fit her sedentary role, and is thusly objectified. As a gift to the British monarch, the female marionette exemplifies the societal views of women of upper class at this time.

While Neuromancer’s Molly Millions is a compelling cyborg with larger-than-life capabilities, female characters in The Difference Engine are relatively tame in comparison. In The Court of Air, Hunt’s Molly Templar goes from a regular orphan girl living in a poorhouse, to a nearly inhumane figure piece. By her side, there are the created steammen, whose metalled bodies are host to the souls of those long dead.

Molly Templar’s journey begins with the transferring of one job at a typical tannery to the next as a chimney cleaner. Unable to sustain a steady position, her handler is sent a proposition from a high-class, elegantly-dressed lady, Damson Fairborn. Templar discovers that her new employment will be at the bawdyhouse, and alongside her, the elegantly-dressed woman turns out to be the mistress of a well-known bordello, better known as the “Queen of Whores” (15).  Upon arriving at the bawdyhouse, Templar is re-educated about her role as a women and her position in society:

Your education here, Molly, is not just about facts and where on the table to locate the soupspoon. It’s about seeing the world as it really is. Lifting the veils of hypocrisy and the lies we tell ourselves to get through the day…you have been sold a tissue of lies designed to chain you, Molly. Keep you unquestioning in your place, a compliant female and an obedient worker. Your beauty, your raw attraction for men, is a weapon…The bargains we strike here are as much an economic transaction as any that occur at a society ball or in front of a Circlist alter (50-1).

As Damson Fairborn drops a bucket of cold water down Templar’s knowledge, she drops a kiss onto Templar’s lips. Love “is the greatest lie of all… A biological itch telling you it’s time you started churning out tiny copies of yourself…Love is like winter flu…It soon fades after the season” (51). Women in Hunt’s novel are strong and independent, quick-witted and intelligent. They are aware of their position in society, yet at the same time perceptive to their sexuality and the power they wield.

Templar’s acknowledgement of her newfound abilities and “education” allows her the ability to manipulate men with increasing ease. She “gave the (male) engineer her best dumb female smile and when his back was turned, she pushed and clicked the out-of-calibration drum into its offsteam mode” (153). Here, Templar plays on the stereotype that women are dim-witted when it comes to engineering and mechanics. Templar is not the typical femme fatale, with glorious locks and sensual body, but she does contain an air of intrigue around her. What is curious is that within the mystery about who is chasing her and wants her dead, and where her mechanical abilities come from, is the charming – if not naïve – innocence Templar maintains throughout the book.

Constantly on the run since leaving the bawdyhouse after discovering her first client, an aged, white male, is an assassin, she flees to the slums. Aided by cautiously friendly steammen, Templar’s underground journey into the kingdom below results in her being saved by a hard-hitting, Amazonian scientist, a drug-taking reporter, self-pitying ex-submariner and another steam-powered robot. With her new companions, Templar discovers that she has a rare blood condition that answers her unusual affinity to machinery. She also uncovers that everyone with this defect has been murdered, leaving her the last one standing.

It is when Templar attempts to save the world by finding Hexmachina, the feminine unearthly being with God-like powers, which she begins to change. Templar as a cyborg is different from Millions as a cyborg. Where Millions changed technologically, altering her body through surgery and procedures, Templar undergoes a transformation involving another entity. “I can feel you in my blood…the nearer we get to each other. I can feel my body changing. I can feel the earth’s heartbeat, the thoughts of the world” (447). Templar as a cyborg consists of a changing mentality, with two conscious’s rather than one, as the her body merges with Hexmachina’s. “…the very stuff of her blood fizzed with her increasing proximity to the Hexmachina, and the closer she got the more her body was changed…Molly was becoming a butterfly, but her body, her chrysalis, was still there to remind her of the urges of the race of man” (462).  Homunculized together with Hexmachina, Templar retains her moralistic and emphatic rights of man, yet is much more sensitive to the earth’s being. When they finally come together:

Molly pulled herself into the Hexmachina and the door reformed behind her. It was like floating in a sphere of water and she felt the surge of her blood as their two bodies merged, her senses extending in ways her mind could have never imagined, the taste of sounds, the colour of the throbbing veins of the earth, tiny details in the walls of the chamber opening up as if the stone had been placed under a microscope (518).

As Molly Millions senses are boosted and refined, as are Templar’s. Millions and Templar are cyborgs, changed through technological and spiritual alterations. The two females, though both blurring the boundaries of traditional femininity, support Haraway’s theory of liberation through the femme fatale. The framing of the two characters are fundamentally different and under comparison, one can conclude that Templar, instead of Millions is the better embodiment of the (post)feminist ideals.

Million, the epitome of cyberpunk femme fatales, relishes in her role as the objectified female. She utilizes words that are associated with sexual foreplay in her communication with Case and actively displays herself seductively. This sexual framing of power makes no direct association of power and femininity or sexuality, merely a dazzling trick to arouse the fantasies of the readers. Haraway argues that such open display of sexuality is liberation of the long repressed female sex. As discussed above, the similarity of this scene plays to soft-core pornography can, in actuality, be seen as a masculine voyeuristic framing of the femme fatale character. In the steampunk genre, the femme fatale, as exemplified in Templar, is framed in the more stringent Victorian era. Her character learns that sexuality, in association to informal social power gained through the use and the demand of the female sexuality, can completely and utterly overturn the traditional dogma of female sexuality. Thus, I argue, that Templar, instead of Millions is a more suitable example of Haraway’s idea of the liberating femme fatale.


What I first caught my eye in my pursuit of this paper was the sheer interwoven complexities of the genres. Cyberpunk and steampunk formed from the societal boundary-pushing science fiction, emerging with new concepts and theoretical ideas that encompassed notions of the present into a possible dystopic future or grungy past. In these new universes, the role of the female character has to be taken into consideration.

Through my research, I have found that female character can be put into two categories: the aggressive, ass-kicking cyborg, or are the passively, insignificant supporting character. Both, however, are sexualized in their manner and/or actions. The female cyborg is dominant in action, able to defeat multiple opponents and act as a hit-man. Gender identity is brought up as the female cyborg draws on masculine traits, and the male hacker become more sentimental. Gender is stimulated by public depictions of what is acceptable by the community, such as the case of the colours pink and blue. Nevertheless, for all the dangerous kung-fu action, the female cyborg’s body is used against her. The female character in cyber- and steampunk literature usually ends up in bed with the male (hacker) protagonist.

(Post)feminism within cyberpunk and steampunk continues to be a valid battle. The context in which I use (post)feminism brings female characters and the sexualized roles to the forefront. As the (post) is less important than the ‘feminism’ aspect, it draws on the importance of equal social standings, even amongst fictional characters. The female cyborg pushes the boundaries of societal desires, yes, but it is also subdued by the male protagonist. Post or not, feminism remains a structural construct that is an important aspect to present day.


Neuromancer, The Difference Engine and The Court of Air presents distinct female characters. Through much analysis of female (cyborg) characters within cyberpunk and steampunk novels, it can be determined that gender remains an ambiguous characteristic. A woman, through her role as a cyborg, is defined by her femininity and sexuality. Between cyberpunk and steampunk, female roles are the same. Cyber- and steampunk texts present accounts of the disembodied body, they are still narratives which as predicated upon an understanding of the ass-kicking (post)feminist bad girl as a subjective body to be acted upon. Man is ultimately a hacker in these narratives, though portrayed in roles less aggressive and behind the scenes, the man is the source of activity, and the woman is ultimately a cyborg, the site of activity.


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