Review: Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine by E. Paul Zehr

Robert September 18, 2011 1
Review: Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine by E. Paul Zehr

One of the most prevalent themes of speculative fiction is the examination of the idea of improving a human through the use of technology.  There are a myriad of versions, whether it be through bionic implants, cyborgs, or full up androids housing human minds, but the most successful execution of the idea is likely the story of Iron Man.  Iron Man was created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, and Jack Kirby of Marvel Comics, in 1963.  He’s appeared in more than a 1000 comic books, several animated series, and two feature films.

To have such success and longevity, a character has to maintain their humanity so that the audience can identify with them.  Iron Man is able to do this better than other characters for two reasons – first, because the human, Tony Stark, can easily be separated from the machine and second, because Tony Stark is a very human character – a mesh of exaggerated flaws and charm.

When the audience attempts to identify with the character they inevitably ask themselves, could I do that?  Could I (assuming I was a genius billionaire) become Iron Man?  In the new book Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine, E.Paul Zehr attempts to answer that question from the perspective of someone that is both a professor of neuroscience and kinesiology and a comic book geek.

This is the second time Dr. Zehr has examined, via a book, such a question.  A few years ago he wrote a book called Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero.  It too, incidentally, is a great book (see my review, here).

Imagine, for a moment, the challenges of creating and being Iron Man.  What are the questions you would ask?  This is how Zehr attacks the problem.  Can a machine emulate the actions of a human?  Can a human interface with such a machine?  Can a human inhabit such a machine?  How would using it impact the body?  How long could one be Iron Man?

This is a book written for the curious.  Don’t expect short simple yes or no answers.  This is a book that leaves the path to explore tangents that bring a greater understanding of the variables involved.  Zehr draws on his own expertise but also brings in experts in diverse areas that serve as parallels to the idea of Iron Man.  The Iron Man costume would have to provide the life support of a NASA EVA spacesuit, the protection of an army bomb disposal team’s protective suit, the flying capabilities of Yves Rossy’s Jet-man wing, and the dexterous control of NASA’s Robonaut.  It would also have to interface with the brain like the medical prosthetics used to help paralyzed persons.

The curious person, like Zehr, can’t just stop there with the technical possibilities, but has to look at the human perspective.  How much training would it take to control the suit?  How much concentration to operate it?  What would happen to the body as it experienced the stresses that Iron Man endures every day.  A theme shared with the Becoming Batman book is that the reality of being a hero would be a short effective career – it would require years of training and then the wear and tear would take its toil.

To maintain a connection between the reality that is being examined and the original source character in the comic books and films, scattered throughout the book are quotations and illustrations from the comics to explain how the comics have addressed the same questions.  Sixty-one different comics are cited throughout the book.

I’m an engineer and an instructor, so I look at any technical discussion from two perspectives: Is it technically correct? and is it being described in a way that is understandable to the audience?  Inventing Iron Man succeeds on both counts.  Dr. Zehr tells his story not in a stilted academic manner, but in a conversational tone that involves both the author and reader in the dialogue.  It is a fast and fascinating read.  I read the 180 page book in a single sitting.

Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine is published by the prestigious Johns Hopkins University Press.  The list price is $24.95.  On, the hardback is $15.85 and the Kindle edition is $9.99.

To learn more about the book, visit the official website,

One Comment »

  1. nutterbutter8 September 20, 2011 at 11:49 pm - Reply

    Wow, I hadn’t heard about this book. I really liked the first one. Thanks for the review, I’m off to buy the Kindle version.

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