I have always enjoyed reading the blogs of fiber artists who combine their current project(s) or fiber interests with literature. While I am a well-read person, these days I generally don’t read novels. Thus I believed that were I to talk about what I was reading (generally business or political-economics), bloggers would think I’m rather boring. 🙂
But I recently read a newly-released novel I wanted to share: Skinjob by Bruce McCabe. (Here’s the book’s official website.) Advertised as a “techno-thriller,” I found it vastly more intellectually provoking than thrillers generally are. After I read Skinjob, I read the brief review of the book in The Australian. (The author is Australian.)
Skinjob is much more thought-nuanced and thought-provoking than a “techno thriller,” but I have not thought of a single term to describe the book. After reading Skinjob, I pulled out, dusted off and reread Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1972), George Orwell’s classic 1984 (1949), and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) by Phillip Dick. The 1982 film Blade Runner was based on Dick’s book. The Stepford Wives was made into a noir film in 1975 and then remade into a sappy, Disneyesque film in 2004.
The Stepford Wives and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep sit firmly in the science fiction genre. However, given the technological advancements and socio-political-economic shifts that have occurred since the books were published, might it not be time to consider putting them in a different genre? This leads me to another question: If the picture Orwell paints in 1984 could actually occur, is it a dystopian novel? Three other dystopian novels I’ve read are feminist dystopian novels: Gerd Brantenberg’s Egalias døtre (1977) or, in English, Egalia’s Daughters; The Sultana’s Dream (1905), by Roquia Sakhawat Hussain; and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Her Land (1915). These authors do not describe a world that could one day occur and so, comparatively, are more science fiction than dystopian.
Certainly Skinjob can be considered a techno-thriller – but only superficially, or at least at first glance. To do so ignores its subtleties and potential for triggering significant discussions.
Set in the not-to-near future in San Francisco, California, Skinjob follows the “plotter” – an FBI agent trained and authorized to use a gizmo that instantly determines whether a suspect is telling the truth. It simultaneously analyzes voice stress, skin flushing, eye movement, pulse, and pheromones. (It can also test for narcotics and explosives.) As a law-abiding social scientist, I found that fascinating! Imagine – a way to ensure the information a law enforcement officer is acting on is the truth, that the person arrested is really guilty! Imagine the financial and time savings – not to mention no more conviction and imprisonment of innocents.
But I also imagined the constitutional issues that would trigger. Will/would our society be willing to give up some constitutionally protected rights to ensure this sort of justice? I will stop before I launch into a mini lecture of the pre-political society described by Hobbes in Leviathan and how individuals have to give up a certain amount of natural freedom to have an ordered society. Skipping ahead to my next question: If this sort of technology could exist, how much do we want a well-ordered society, and what are we willing to trade for it?
But I digress.
The agent is trying to track down the person(s) or group(s) behind the bombing of a “dollhouse.” A dollhouse is a brothel inhabited only by humanoid “skinjobs” – “the next logical innovation in an adult entertainment society.” Those who have seen Blade Runner may recall that “skinjob” was the term pejoratively applied to the “replicants” in Blade Runner (though no more than 3 or 4 times). In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, they were called ”andys” (aka androids).
Now the creation and use of skinjobs trigger another fascinating line of thought. In Skinjob, they are made only for use in adult, ummm, recreation, and cannot be privately owned. They are available for, ummm, rent, only in a dollhouse. Legal only in two forms – adult male and adult female – the skinjobs not only appear real (e.g., they have a pulse, heartbeat, warm skin, etc.) and display human emotion (e.g, fear, pleasure, etc.), but they exist only to pleasure humans.
This instantly brought to mind Levin’s The Stepford Wives. In Levin’s book, the community of Stepford was for men who wanted traditional (think June Cleaver) wives who were also beautiful and, ummm, enthusiastic partners in the bedroom. So the men replaced their human wives with mechanical wives. Need I say more?
When we get to the point where amazing advances in technology allow the creation of life-like humanoids, is that the first place we would want to use them? In Dick’s post-apocalyptic world of 1992, the andys were designed for use only in off-world colonies. Yet they were also used for sex and traded sex for favors – such as not being “retired” (killed). In Blade Runner, the replicants were used for heavy or dangerous labor, battles and sex.
McCabe describes two key groups that, generally unlikely to join forces, virulently oppose skinjobs and dollhouses: churches and women’s rights advocates. Both these groups see skinjobs as just a modern form of prostitution. The plotter interviews the founder of the women’s opposition group, the Coalition of Feminists Against Dollhouses. An older woman (predictably she is a survivor of sexual assault and battery at the hands of her ex-husband – would the alternative be to make her a lesbian or a women’s studies grad student?), who eloquently explains to the plotter that skinjobs “redefine what is natural. … Sex industries … condition men to reduce women to objects. … They poison ordinary relationships in ordinary American households. They create violence.”
This part of the book brought to mind some interesting discussions I had in academia. Do pornography and prostitution trigger violence against women? Hmmm, many students (generally female), immediately jump up at this question, using terms such as commodification, subjugation and domination but who quickly sit down when I ask why, then, countries such as Denmark and the Netherland with far less restrictive policies and attitudes about prostitution and pornography report lower rates of violence against women. Interesting discussions.
Could dollhouses provide a safe outlet for sexual frustration, alienation or absence? Would it provide a safe way to for novices to experience sex? What about the potential for decrease in sexually transmitted diseases? (In the book, the skinjobs go through a thorough cleaning and sterilization after each, ummm, visit.) Is it a betrayal of your partner if you are not with a human? Does it dehumanize an essential human experience?
One of the two main opponents to the dollhouses is The New Christian Organization (“NeChristo”), an organization (founded by an ex-management consultant), boasting of 23 million members in the US and more than 100 million around the globe. Members of NeChristo each wear a symbol (a cross) of their membership and a tiny earpiece called, interestingly enough, “G-rings.” A hierarchical organization, there is no dissent allowed in NeChristo and certainly no straying from what is, frankly, a script for its pastors and members. Given the instant connection NeChristo’s leaders have with their members, NeChristo instantly can rally its members to whatever cause it wants.
Are you wondering where Orwell fits in this? Remember, please, that while Skinjob is a gripping thriller, it has keen elements of other genres. Orwell’s 1984 is not just a dystopian novel; it is also considered political fiction. Orwell’s work changed the English language as well. The term “Orwellian” refers to acts, conditions, trends, etc., that destroy or endanger political and social freedom and liberty.
McCabe not only describes a plausible evolution in technology and its uses. He also describes a not-too-distant world where the U.S. Congress has passed acts that clearly would end in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately McCabe paints a picture – not that it should be new to anyone – where corporations and money are the ultimate arbiters of political decisions affecting technology uses, and technology is the onus of social change. It is that that I find bothersome; it is that that I would call Orwellian.
I strongly recommend Skinjob and urge you to read beyond the excellent techno-thriller that it is. It is an clear window to thinking about and prompting discussion on the future of technological possibilities and their impact on the commonweal.