Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Mundane... Sex?

Posted by Trent Walters at 6:13 AM
Maureen McHugh's "Coney Island of the Mind" traces one's abilities within the limits of virtual reality as the narrative follows a naïve man indoctrinated into the ways of virtual love. The way McHugh handles her conceit without giving it superpowers but showing what can be done with the conceit under such contraints is Mundane.

Although Pat Cadigan's cyberpunk classic "Rock On" isn't exactly about sex, it treats, as rape, the way people manipulate the character's futuristic ability to "sin" or synthesize the musical minds of otherwise unmusical strangers into a definite Billboard Top 40 recording of rock music. This felt realistically possible or Mundane to me as since it doesn't make grandiose claims of finding all memories, buried memories, or memories of the dead. Someone else might reasonably disagree with this possibility.


I originally listed Candace Jane Dorsey's "(Learning about) Machine Sex" on the sidebar as an example of Mundane SF, but I'm unsure whether the narrative problems are minor enough to justify inclusion since it both negates the need for the scientific conceit and for the conceit as metaphor. It is, however, an interesting test case for determining the boundaries. Others may feel it belongs as I originally did.

The story deals with Angel, a young girl who develops varieties of A.I.s only to learn that men will take advantage of her. Her take-home lesson is that all men--unless they're dead or homosexual, and maybe even then--will treat partners as if they were programmed machines. Wives will get dowdy or bored with the husbands and away the men will go--even if they're told that the lover is fourteen. So based on sex being a mechanical response process, Angel develops, with the proper equipment, an A.I. called Machine Sex. A man tries to argue with Angel that her product will fail because at some level sex is about love. But, in fact, it excites two developers.

The problem comes with the A.I. conceit: If sex is more or less a mechanical response--which imaginative auto-responses to hands or blow-up dolls as lovers can attest to--then why would you need an intelligence as a lover? Also, the metaphor requires that the lover be a programmed machine, not an intelligence, so isn't using A.I. failing to prove that it's all about machine sex? Despite these problems, the story's theme comes across powerfully enough to ruin anyone's romantic notions of, at least, heterosexual love. If your notions are ruined for longer than 24 hours, read Gwyneth Jones' somber but not as sobering "Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland" as a palliative--where the troubles of romance might still exist in virtual reality but at least it isn't a doomed endeavor.

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