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Flesh Versus Steel

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"Know that flesh cannot mark steel. Know that steel may mark flesh. In knowing this, Zerthimon became free."
Dak'kon, Planescape: Torment

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, thus invoking Emotions Versus Stoicism. 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: Harmony 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.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet: The gist of Human vs. Hideauze conflict. According to Chamber, the two forces represent fundamentally different survival strategies: the humans of the Galactic Alliance have formed a civilization capable of building advanced mechs to augment their weak bodies, while the formerly human Hideauze survive through the sheer toughness of their bodies and have no need for civilization.

    Card Games 
  • In Magic: The Gathering, the shards Esper and Naya in the 'Shards Of Alara' block represent steel and flesh (respectively).
    • The metal world Mirrodin, which is inhabited by people, is attacked by machines seeking to transform everyone into a weird Frankenstein robot. The Mirrans are normal people (who happen to have metal grow naturally in them). Their enemy is the Phyrexian virus, which gives the infected a religious (literally) urge to spread the virus. One of their tenets is that flesh is weakness and should be replaced by metal.

    Fan Works 
  • In certain specified and unique circumstances - flesh may indeed mark steel. In Discworld fic Whyand Were, Assassin Madame Emmanuelle les Deux-Epées holds her sword to the neck of Watchman Nobby Nobbs for good and pressing reasons. A few days later she discovers the metal has developed an unsightly and disfiguring stain. She tries everything to remove the discolouration and fails, until a friend, who knows any metal touching Nobby's skin will tarnish, suggest she tries hand-soap. note  The stain miraculously fades and dissappears.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Forms the Driving Question that underlines Conan The Barbarian: What is the answer to the "Riddle of Steel"? Throughout the movie, three different answers are given:
    • Conan's father takes a literal approach: "For no one - no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts. [Points to sword] This you can trust." This position winds up undone when Conan's father dies an undignified death, unable to even fight back while being torn apart by war dogs.
    • Thulsa Doom, the movie's Big Bad, however comes to the opposite conclusion, "What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?" This leads him to create a Religion of Evil to control people themselves, and is basically the main perspective Conan has to contend with.
    • Ultimately, Conan goes on to Take a Third Option, with the answer that both tools and physical strength are nothing compared to resolve, and relying on these things alone is foolish. Conan's inner strength in the end is what allows him to destroy his father's sword being used by The Dragon, and then fight off Doom's mind control before taking his head off.
  • 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.
  • Pacific Rim. The Precursors use organic tech to build huge, destructive Kaiju. Humans defend themselves with Humongous Mecha, all pimped out with modern technology (including nuclear reactors). Notably flips the usual message of a Kaiju movie, with human ingenuity overcoming destructive nature (assuming evil aliens count).

  • Star Wars: The New Jedi Order.
    • The Yuuzhan Vong are an extragalactic species who abhor inorganic technology to the point of considering it heresy. Their ships, armor, weapons, and communications are all taken by organic, specially crafted organisms. Their buildings are grown from a type of coral. Besides all that, they're wholly separated from the Force, unable to be detected or manipulated by its power.
  • 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: The villains of the series are the Inchoroi, a race of intergalactic sex fiends who have mastery over organic technology. Opposing them in the modern age are the Inrithi, a culture of humans who are known for using heavy metal armor and weaponry in warfare.
  • In Leviathan by Scott Westerfield, the alternate World War One is like this, fought between the Clankers (Central Powers), who use Walking Tanks, and the Darwinists (Allies), who combine and alter DNA to create living airships and such.
  • The Legends of 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.
  • While the two do not come into direct conflict, overall, these are the two possible extremes taken by those reduced to an Empty Shell in Midnight by Dean Koontz. One side transform into monstrous animalistic forms, in order to remove their higher thoughts and focus entirely on physical sensation. The other merge with technology and data, giving up their individual thought and so their desire to have emotions. The Big Bad dreams of blending the two extremes together, but the opportunity never presents itself.
  • The planet Pyrrus in Harry Harrison's Deathworld has its entire flora and fauna determined to kill the human colonists, more specifically, the so-called "junkmen" who live in Perimeter, the only city on the planet. The "grubbers", who live in villages in, more or less, harmony with the native life, don't participate in the fight. The "junkmen" use guns, flamethrowers, poisons, and explosives to keep the native life at bay, while the native life, thanks to a higher-than-normal radioactivity of the planet, mutates almost as fast as the "junkmen" figure out new ways to protect themselves. Of course, the native life is slowly but surely winning, but don't tell that to a city Pyrran if you value your life.
  • In This Is How You Lose The Time War the time war is being fought between two potential futures, one high-tech and populated by digitized human minds, and the other filled with sufficiently advanced Organic Technology.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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 The Assimilator 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. Species 8472 are well on their way towards genociding the entire Borg species when Voyager offers an alliance that ends up saving them.
  • In The Sarah Jane Adventures' story "Sky", a war between two alien groups called the "Fleshkind" (humanoid and biotech-using) and the "Metalkind" (robots) spills over onto Earth.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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. However, the Dark Eldar actually use more advanced technology than the Craftworld Eldar — the Craftworld Eldar purposely refrain from using a lot of the tech the Eldar Empire used at the height of their power to avoid temptation, while the Dark Eldar have no such qualms.
    • 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.
    • Strangely enough, the literal version happens comparatively rarely: Tyranids exist only to feed on biomatter, which Necron tomb worlds tend to be poor in, for obvious reasons. And while Necrons exist to destroy all life in the galaxy, they need to be woken up (say, by something invading their world and alerting the tomb's defense systems, which the Adeptus Mechanicus can't go five minutes without doing). It's becoming more frequent since one of the Necron Tomb Lords, the Silent King, considers the Tyranids to be a grave threat to his goal of giving the Necrons organic bodies again (if the Tyranids eat everything there won't be any biomass left to make new bodies).
    • The Iron Hands very, very strongly believe that metal is better, but ironically their primarch Ferrus Manus was on the flesh side, arguing that cybernetics (like his famed hands that also provided his legion with their name) made marines stronger but it also weakened their willpower.
    Already my Legion's warriors replace their shield hands with metal in my honour, and so they too are learning to doubt the natural strength of their bodies. They must be weaned off this practice before it becomes a mania for them. Hatred of what is natural, of what is human, is the first and greatest of the corruptions.
  • This is what happens when you combine WARMACHINE and HORDES.
  • In Hc Svnt Dracones Pulse, a Mega-Corp specializing in athletics equipment, performance-enhancing drugs, cosmetic surgery, and Bio-Augmentation; has a strong rivalry with the cybernetics giant Applied Sciences and Robotics. Though their rivalry is nothing compared to the almost literal crusades the other two biotech corporations, Progenitus and Transcendent Technologies Inc, launch at each other.
  • In Cyberpunk, there is often tension between the mostly organic people and the ones that use heavy cybernetics. Not helping matters is the issue of cyberpsychosis. The most extreme example of the steel end of the spectrum is Adam Smasher, who is a Full-Conversion Cyborg, and is only approximately 4% organic with just his brain and a bit of his face.

  • 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 
  • Part Dak'kon's teachings in 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.
  • 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?
  • The factions from Total Annihilation, CORE — who rely on robotics — and ARM — who use cloning.
  • World Of War Craft has its share of this trope with some of Order Versus Chaos thrown in the mix, as featured more extensively in the Ulduar instance, which showcases the ancient conflict between the Titans and the Old Gods. Lore-wise, shortly after the Titans had finished crafting Azeroth, they had intended it to be taken cared of by humanoids made of solid rock or metal (like the Earthen, which later became the dwarves) and Mechanical Lifeforms (like the Mechagnomes, which became the gnomes) to maintain order and stability. When the Old Gods appeared, they hexed Azeroth with the Curse of Flesh, which turned the Titans' seed races into fleshy, mortal creatures in order to facilitate assmiliation. The respective factions' Mooks thus follow this trope, with the stone-like Titanic Watchers vs. the viscous Faceless Ones (Some of the former were brainwashed by the boss of the Ulduar instance Yogg-Saron.)
  • Fracture is about a war between The Atlantic Alliance, which is devoted to advancing the technological prowess of humanity (cyborgs) and the Republic of Pacifica which is devoted to enhancing the human genome (bioengineering).
  • Warhammer 40000: Rites of War, an old RTS game based on the Warhammer 40,000 universe plays the above mentioned three-way version of this dynamic perfectly: the all-consuming Tyranids (Flesh), the technocratic Imperium of Man (Steel) and the highly psychic Craftworld Eldar (Energy).
  • Civilization: Beyond Earth has this dynamic going on with the technological affinities the various factions can adopt. Harmony (Flesh) believes that that their new planet is a paradise and strive to avoid repeating the same mistakes as humanity did on Earth; they want to integrate Humanity fully into the alien environment by turning their citizens into half-human, half-alien hybrids, their military also has infantry in biological armor, tanks built with Organic Technology and genetically engineered alien monsters within its ranks. Supremacy (Steel), meanwhile, believes mankind's technology is it savior and will allow them to live in any environment they choose. They turn their citizens into cyborgs, along with developing advanced artificial intelligence and robotics. Purity (the final affinity), rejects the rampant transhumanism of the other two affinities; though it does use gene-therapy to cure disease and tweak human performance. They also specialize in Powered Armor, heavy artillery and flying battleships so they kind of take up a place in the middle.
    • The Rising Tide expansion adds hybrid Affinities. The Supremacy / Harmony hybrid makes their military units into bizarre mergers of cybernetics and engineered flesh like the Nanohive (a walking tank that outputs swarms of nanomachines to grind away their enemies) and the Aquilon (an Airborne Aircraft Carrier described by the developers as a "meat zeppelin"). The other hybrid affinities focus on different aspects of this dichotomy. Supremacy / Purity focuses on humanity's nature as a tool-maker, sticking to minimal cybernetic alteration and banning AI or independent machines. Harmony / Purity uses extensive genetic modification not to integrate into the environment but to elevate humanity into something godlike.
  • Stellaris makes extensive use of this both in game mechanics and flavor text. Empires that lean Spiritualist are usually all about exalting the flesh, and the most extreme refuse to build robots at all (they're blasphemous, soulless creatures) and can learn Psychic Powers; Materialist empires exalt technology and robotics, engaging in Transhumanism (with shades of Cybernetics Eat Your Soul). Naturally, the robotic empires of Determined Exterminators and Driven Assimilators are also very anti-organic life. Even the endgame crises play this up, with one possible threat being a Horde of Alien Locusts and another being an ancient AI bent on wiping out all organic life.
  • In the Soul Series, Edge Master is closer to the Flesh side of things. His personal philosophy is that a strong soul is what makes a strong warrior, and that weapons are nothing more than tools. This is why in a series full of Named Weapons, all of his weapons are nameless.


    Web Original 
  • 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.
  • The SCP Foundation invokes this as the result of pitting Machine Worship against Eldritch Abominations in the form of a religious conflict between the Church Of The Broken God and the Sarkic Cults. The Church is usually portrayed as the "good guys" due to the "might makes right" ideology of most Sarkics although there are many exceptions. It can be argued that humanity comprises a third faction, represented by the Foundation, the GOC and other such organizations.

    Western Animation 
  • 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.
  • Generator Rex: The nanites turn most people into freakish, warped monstrosities, while Rex gets the ability to produce gleaming, futuristic machines to fight them.

Alternative Title(s): Flesh Vs Steel