Sunday, August 07, 2011

Whitten, Life and Death of a Sex Doll (2011)

Zoe E. Whitten, The Life and Death of a Sex Doll. Belfire Press. 2011. Pp. 178. ISBN 978-1-926912-37-0. $11.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

The time: the future; the place: not so different from our own. Zoe Whitten’s vision in The Life and Death of a Sex Doll contains very recognisable social features including malls, blocks of flats, grumbles and gossip at work—but with very much cooler gadgets (an embedded telepathic communications device from Apple is naturally named the iPath, and sophisticated android home helps, sexual partners and pets are widespread). Here we plunge into Whitten’s highly allegorical tale about family, sex, gender and self, when lonely Kelly buys and modifies a sex doll to become her companion.

A slight deviation is worthy of note here, because the title itself is an interesting confabulation. Constantly, Ashley (Kelly’s model) and her fellow androids are described as ‘sex dolls.’ From the get-go, we are invited to think of them as toys and tools subservient to human fetishes and desires; talkative vibrators, as it were. But the formalised depiction ‘the life and death of’ gives one pause. There is a solemnity about this old-fashioned phrasing, almost giving a promise of something unexpected in its juxtaposition of trashy with classic.

For the book’s pedigree, Belfire Press is a small independent publisher mostly involved in e-book production, and sets a defiant ballpark of quirky. It holds as its core value the potential within the questions “can we do it, should we do it?” alongside promoting the primary oeuvre as one of ‘cross-genre’ writing. We are not disencouraged from assuming that this champions the development of authentic novelty, with just a slight whiff of dangerous originality. No great surprises here; these are the well-voiced raisons d’être of multiple independents out there.

There is some irreverence playing around behind the announcement on the title page that these novellas are part of Belfire Press’s ‘duel’ line of paired stories. Now, a duel is normally the meeting point of opposing forces; the convergence of a thesis with antithesis with the outcome synthesising a new proposition. But in this instance, while the first novella sets up the setting and themes, the second continues with same. There is no robust convergence of oppositional ideas here, but instead it presents as a calm, not entirely unconventional, and quite comfortable read. This isn’t angry, ‘my point of view’, obtuse or obscure writing. Running throughout are a strong series of dialectics, but the style of delivery is human and approachable. I began to suspect that Belfire was setting up a tad too much hyperbole for the direction of this double book.

So, after running the background checks, we plunge into the most important thing; the story. From chapter one, we are introduced to Kelly through her excitement to get home from work to finish her project. That project is a modified sex doll model of android. Alright, so is this a tale about one woman’s blooming sexuality? Is being gay still a little taboo in this future world; prudish shame and personal disgust? Not profoundly, no; homosexuality does not feature as a huge issue in this tale. There don’t seem to be very many gay people picked out as any different, and Whitten’s emphasis obliterates the need to get antsy over sexuality: it’s the personalities that count here, not the sexual preferences. This is ironic given that we never allowed to forget that Ashley is a sex doll (it takes a long time for her to develop enough coding of her own to overcome the needfulness of her sex drive; her core programming module) and Kelly has her own sexual difficulties. This future is one where sexuality is less shameful in the public forum. Kelly’s co-workers are keen to set her up romantically—and the thrill of the chase and of romance seems more important to them than to know she was simply getting laid. The prevalence of sex dolls as part of daily life suggests that the physical relieving of oneself seems a given. There’s a hint that it’s a little shady if it’s with a ‘doll’, but still acceptable.

Instead, we find out Kelly is desperately lonely, hugely socially awkward, and wants her ‘fantasy’ (the name given to the role playing performed with a doll) to be that of mother and daughter. We learn she is estranged from her family and beloved nieces, and craves contact. While this makes her something of a pathetic case, the plot thickens. Not only has the doll’s purpose been modified, but so has Kelly: she used to be a he. The main thrust of Whitten’s tale is an allegory of acceptance and personal development, especially of the self; questioning what makes us our self. While Ashley is set to be a learning doll, whose innocent yet wise narrative voice charts her progress from bedroom fixture to complete person, Kelly also has a journey to make in learning not to fear who she is and take pride in her accomplishments. Bouncing off each other, the two characters travel these roads together. Whitten is not going to say for certain whether nature or nurture makes a person; she is implying both.

Reminders that Ashley is legally considered as property, despite how far we come with her, come as a nasty surprise to both the characters and the reader. While an android is a perfect instrument for the traditional narrative Other; the outsider looking into humanity in order to be the tool of an author’s examination of same; Ashley’s position in particular becomes blurred as, her logical, sweetly positive thoughts and actions draws her closer and closer to ‘Us.’ Whitten’s switching between third and first person, between plot and characters means that we are not left identifying only with Ashley’s inner dialogue. While ad-hoc human thinking is messy, novels can give the reader the luxury of sequential thought and reasoning. As Ashley picks up on life lessons with speed and enthusiasm, they are presented as a delightful sequence of logic circuits and programming cascades. As a result I was often thinking “oh, yeah, it is like that”—relating valuable hindsights I have learned to those Ashley is discovering anew. This is no alien mind; cold, mechanical and otherworldly, but a real personality that it is hard not to like, and I frequently forgot that Ashley was not a human; she is more of ‘Us’ than ‘Other.’ It’s a neat trick; having the narrative entirely from Ashley’s point of view would mean missing on comparative data from Kelly, and the story is finely balanced between these two who share a slightly pariah position; Ashley by dint of not being a human, Kelly from her guilty self-exile.

Kelly’s revealed decision to change herself, cracking open that big old chestnut, gender; looms over the modifications she chose for Ashley before the doll was online and able to choose for herself. Kelly had to ‘break’ a little of Ashley’s programming so that she would have the facility to develop. Kelly, too, has to attempt to ‘break’ some of her programming (her guilt over the familial fallout from her transgender move), in order to move on. As Ashley points out, if Kelly was happy to modify Ashley and live with her, why can she not do the same for her own modifications? Despite the choices she made over herself in the past, and the relief of becoming female, Kelly is in pain, withdrawing from society within her new body and name. Adapting to Ashley’s occasional wide-eyed social gaffs and with the support of colleagues, Kelly learns to open up; to Ashley’s suggestions, to herself, and finally to accepting her own gender. The first novella is one of awakening; new experience and change.

The publisher’s website cites this as a book that “explores what it means to be a parent, even if one’s child isn’t real” and “the game becomes [Kelly’s] daily life.” And the book delivers precisely that. The allegory works beautifully with questions around family issues. Primarily, what makes a family? Parents bring forth a child. Kelly switched on Ashley. The parents guide the child through learning experiences, instilling them with rules and values. Kelly learns to appreciate her ‘child’ doll; ticking her off, encouraging her and setting boundaries and celebrating her successes. Certainly this is one of Whitten’s less subtle themes: the metaphor does rather beat one over the head with obviousness. What might seem unusual is that this is a very well-adjusted family. Ashley is something of a parental dream: a child with sophisticated cognitive and reasoning abilities. As mentioned above, I often forgot that Ashley was not a person in her own right, not quite, and vulnerable to removal by her parent company if they suspect foul play. Despite the natural introduction of ‘mum’ for Kelly and later on, in book two, ‘dad’ for Kelly’s partner, as well as the addition of three other doll ‘siblings’, the outside world’s response can jar and bring the reader up short. Outsiders’ best understand the situation when Kelly calls it her ‘fantasy’ of ‘playing house.’ This family may be happy, but it balances on a very fine definition of what it is allowed to be. Corporate Big Brother is watching them

The second novella, while featuring the advertised ‘death of a sex doll’ as a violent opener (a violent attack by an extremist luddite group that is as shocking as it is sudden) is, as mentioned above, a continuation on the theme. The deaths of her siblings promotes a crisis point for Ashley; a moment when she moves even further away from being ‘just’ a machine. It also provides the springboard for radical change that enables Ashley’s character to move from childhood into young adulthood; when the ‘safe’ family unit destructs, a new shape needs to emerge; a traumatic re-birthing event, almost. With an upgraded, older-looking body, her core sexuality remains strong (no doubt Freud would have had the field day at the ‘child model’ Ashley having a strong libido), but her maturation is evident in how she is no longer driven by it. Instead of being pushed by a child’s immediacy of need, she can defer pleasure and want.

Movingly, her distress at seeing her siblings destroyed is manifested in what in humans would be a form of severe emotional depression: total shut-down when she tries to remember. More life lessons follow; personal independence increases with a job and a romance with a young man at the mall she works in; Ashley is pushing the boundaries of what is ‘allowed’ by her status as machine. Both of these activities have to be justified and conducted with discretion. The looming presence of societal control is never far away, although some neat legal wrangling at the end of the book takes Ashley closer to emancipation.

The second story continues the path of learning to ‘be’; that very human quest, and along with the first it is a hopeful picture. The world Whitten writes about is not dire high drama. It might seem a little too happy-ending in places (the Waltons-esque close to both novellas; “peace in the dollhouse”, while reminding one of the fragility of the ‘fantasy’ played as reality, does verge on the sickly) but that very glow of satisfaction makes her allegorical subject matter more appealing. This is a courtly invite to share, which charms with its up-beat tempo. There is a great deal of humour, too; dropped-in details (such as the iPath) and a few non-sequiturs (the family dog—android—wins an evening of poker; attributed to the cigar it was smoking!). All in all, it makes a pleasant change from maudlin dystopian futures. Of the two novellas, the first is the most original. This is obviously due to it being the one that introduces Whitten’s subject, themes and style. The latter is more inclusive and generous; it ends where it should end. Any more, and these is a danger it might have become too syrupy! Whitten’s basically pragmatic voice and her unswerving application to embarrassing moments and difficult emotions help to provide overall balance.

I enjoyed the experience these two books presented a great deal and I would look forward to more writing in this suggested future state, although not necessarily within the same set of characters. Their story ended where it felt we should leave them. This is a remarkably forgiving society; perhaps one that could build towards decadent collapse in a few centuries, but it is not there yet. While sci-fi tends to take an extremist view of degenerate decay or apocalyptic nightmares, Whitten is proposing an amiable, not perfect, but recognisable society. It is a positive endorsement of humanity; a future I would want to live in.

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Zoe said...

This is an insightful, accurate review of my stories, and I am deeply humbled by so detailed a critique. Thank you so much.

Djibril said...

Updated links: no longer available in paperback, but both Kindle from Amazon and DRM-free EPUB from Kobo.