In the 1980s, I read an article about some noted visionaries of the bold future of virtual reality. The visionaries uniformly denied that virtual sex would be a factor in this brave new technology. Apparently the visionaries hadn't noticed that several existing technologies were significantly subsidized by sex, among them the phone companies (by 900 numbers), Big Pharma (by The Pill), and the new videotape industry (by X-rated sales and rentals). Here in the Twenty-First Century, though we're still waiting for VR, phone companies enjoy the additional subsidy of surfers seeking X-rated websites, penile implants and Viagra keep multinational medical companies big in the stock market, and video stores add X-rated DVDs.
SF authors are bolder, or maybe just less blind, than the VR visionaries; they routinely incorporate varieties of cybersex in their fiction. But SF authors rarely center plot and theme on sex, and the professional and semiprofessional SF magazines rarely publish speculative sex stories. Yet the enormous sexual changes of the last few years, both trivial (porn spam) and profound (legalized gay/lesbian marriage in Canada), demand more SF exploration of the subject. Fortunately, on the small-press margins of SF, at the border shared with the erotica genre, a few writers are speculating intelligently and imaginatively about the future of sex. Among the best-known and best of the erotic-SF writers is M. Christian.
The stories in his new collection, The Bachelor Machine, pass the litmus tests of both the SF and erotica genres. Take out the tech and there's no story; take out the sex and there's no story. This description may lead those unfamiliar with SF erotica to suspect that every story is about getting off with the aid of futuristic technologies, and that's true as far as it goes. But that's not going nearly far enough.
The stories in The Bachelor Machine are not about sex, though they're stuffed with sexual acts; the stories are about what sex means. M. Christian is writing about the psychology of being human, and he often does so by exploring sexual possibilities and realities that are rarely discussed, even in private conversation. He not only thinks forbidden thoughts, he extrapolates them in the finest SF fashion.
The aptly named "Technophile" pushes technofetishism to the ultimate as it explicates an idea most authors (especially male authors) would never imagine, let alone write about. To put it bluntly, "Technophile" eroticizes castration. A character has his penis cut off and replaced with the top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art "Long Thrust." Another character wants to lose his virginity to the technological phallus, which he sees as hotter and better than the old-fashion flesh kind. But the cutting-edge implant needs a recharge and remains limp throughout the encounter, a bitter irony.
In the decaying post-industrial future of "Winged Memory", Dusk does something most people couldn't imagine, and would find horrifying if they did: he sells (and loses) his memory of losing his virginity. He does this to buy thirty minutes with a prostitute "walking the street, eyes available red." To have her again, Dusk keeps selling memories, until he doesn't know who he is, or who this woman is that he inexplicably wants.
The stories "Bluebelle" and "Skin-Effect" break taboo by making explicit the sexual undercurrents of the savagery and killing in nearly every Hollywood cop and military action flick.
In "Guernica", several individuals meet secretly in a basement to enjoy sex acts outlawed by a repressive Twenty-First-Century government. Their practices, costumes, and toys deliberately, ironically, terrifyingly recreate the uniforms, actions, and tools of the cops who would arrest and punish — and kill — them.
In "Butterflies", a hacker immersed in the full-sensory, Disney-perfect Glade of the Datasea finds herself assaulted — literally — by a flock of beautiful butterfly-sprites. I generally hate stories about rape/violation, yet Christian's skill, imagery, and insight kept me reading to the end... and I never felt violated by the story. It's an impressive achievement.
In "Hackwork", Rosselyn Moss works for ExpressTaxi as a body that cyber-riders hire to carry their consciousness around New Orleans. They dictate her actions and, inevitably, drive her body into sexual encounters. One night, she is distressed to find herself whipping a beautiful young stranger — and even more distressed to discover the stranger loves it.
Like Rosselyn, the narrator of "Switch" is a rent girl. She isn't a taxi, but she may have an even more troubling job, for she never remembers who her clients were, or what they did to her. M. Christian travels deep into taboo territory by demonstrating that, for some, being so thoroughly controlled, so completely owned as to remember nothing, is the ultimate turn-on.
In "Everything but the Smell of Lilies", Justine Moor is a whore with a deeply creepy specialty. She's been turned into "a hardwired dead girl, a chilling and stiffening hooker", dying over and over for money. If this bleeding-edge cyberpunk extrapolation isn't disturbing enough, Justine finds herself lying, a motionless but fully-conscious corpse, in an ambulance staffed by a necrophiliac. (In case it's not already abundantly clear, some stories in The Bachelor Machine are not intended to arouse.)
Many of M. Christian's grittily urban stories are cyberpunk; "Heartbreaker" pushes the form to a logical extreme. When an undercover cop sets up the bust of an outlaw biohacker, the two women don't just have sex, they withdraw very special interface cables from inside themselves and connect them: "Linked, each hardwired into the other's genitals, mixed and matched, they surged and merged."
In "Thin Dog", fans jack their minds into a full-sensory experience of what it's like to be superstar reactor-rock band Thin Dog. Members Johna, Paul, Georgina, and Jingo (ahem) play instruments that are nanotech implants woven through their bodies; playing includes on-"stage" couplings and quadruplings.
Some stories not only share 1980s-cyberpunk's fascination with Japanese culture, but show the influence of "anime" (Japanese animation).
In many ways, the woman and situation in "State" are ideal for anime. The prostitute Fields lives in Japan and earns her living by pretending to be an almost mythically superior Japanese-made sex android. Her masquerade must always achieve perfection — from biochemically lowered body temperature, to "incredibly durable bonding polymer" applied daily to every millimeter of flesh, to behavior in orgasm — because her clients must never suspect she's human.
Not every story is cyberpunk. "The New Motor" is an amusing steampunk entertainment set in Paul Di Filippo territory. Nineteenth-Century spiritualist John Murray Spear has a vision of "the Association of Electricizers... spirits with a mechanical turn of mind," and begins proselytizing for the creation of "the Physical Savior of the Race... the New Motor!" This charismatic messiah for "a new Age of Man Through Machine" leads his followers to transcendentalist New England, where they settle in the conservative town of Lynn, Massachusetts. Seducing and neglecting a particularly fervent follower proves seer Spear is dangerously blind to certain human truths.
The collection has some flaws. Some futures don't seem entirely plausible (a minor problem, and one hardly confined to the erotic-SF subgenre). A couple of stories are vague in their SFnal elements. I never quite figured out what "Bluebelle" was (a micro Death Star? a flying fembot? a round mecha?). It takes too long to learn what the futuristic technology is and does in "Eulogy". The endings of "Eulogy" and "Winged Memory" left me wondering just what was happening. And frustratingly, the book provides no copyright data, providing no information about if or when the stories were previously published.
M. Christian's prose is strong and supple and sometimes lyrical. If you don't like naughty language or graphic descriptions of sex, you'd better steer clear of his work. But if you like smart, taboo-breaking SF, then read The Bachelor Machine
- Cynthia Ward