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Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep? Critical Perspectives on Sexuality and Pornography in Science and Social Fiction
edited by Johannes Grenzfurthner, Günther Friesinger, Daniel Fabry and Thomas Ballhausen
RE/Search Publications, ~260 pages

Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep? Critical Perspectives on Sexuality and Pornography in Science and Social Fiction
monochrom is an international art-technology-philosophy group, founded in 1993, located at Museumsquartier/Vienna. The group's members are: Johannes Grenzfurthner, Evelyn Fürlinger, Harald List, Anika Kronberger, Franz Ablinger, Frank Apunkt Schneider, Daniel Fabry, Günther Friesinger. In November 2005 Roland Gratzer joined as PR content manager, and in December 2006 Jacob Appelbaum became official monochrom ambassador.

The group works with different media and art formats and publishes the German book and zine/magazine series Monochrom.

In December 2005 Monochrom bought the Lord Jim Lodge, an art brand founded by Jörg Schlick, Martin Kippenberger, Wolfgang Bauer und Albert Oehlen. Since 2007, Monochrom is European correspondent for Boing Boing TV.

Wikipedia: Monochrom

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Graham Raven

In the closing essay of this curate's egg of an anthology, researcher Rose White points out the risks of discussing sexual topics in academia. "If you talk about pornography, and you use your real name, you are marked," she says [pp 241]. It's maybe only slightly overstating the case to say that the same has been true, at least until very recently, of talking about science fiction in academia, and who knows what patina of tarnish my own reputation (such as it is) might acquire by reviewing a book that purports to map the intersection of the two... but vague parallels aside, the convergence of these two fields of study is populated by wild ideas, weird machines and transgressive behaviours, if the essays and creative pieces contained within Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep? are anything to go by.

Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep? is subtitled "monochrom's Arse Elektronika Anthology," a name taken from a conference held in 2008 by self-styled "art-tech-philosophy collective" monchrom, and I can assume with confidence the vast majority of the material within it was generated or presented at said event (although the book is devoid of any explanation of its origins, as if inviting the reader to work it out for themselves). While a lot of Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep? is very much NSFW in subject matter, it's not particularly titillatory (unless you have a sexual fetish for academic language and/or science fictional speculation, perhaps, which isn't completely implausible). Aside from a few slightly-bigger-than-a-thumbnail screengrabs from some machine-on-girl video footage (which, admittedly, leave little to the imagination, despite their size), even the few illustrations tend more toward conceptual art than consensual sex; if you're wanting actual sci-fi porn, this isn't the place to look for it, though it most certainly exists for those willing to seek it out. So I've been told, anyway. Ahem.

There's a whole raft of other stuff, though: snippets of fiction from noted sf authors such as Rudy Rucker and Cory Doctorow; weird cut-up word-collage psychodramas courtesy of one Jason Brown (rather like the wisecracking ghost of Bill Burroughs bumming cigarettes in the lobby, and equally as gnomic, to be honest); Marxist and post-Theory essays on the social economics of "fucking machines" [sic] and teledildonic pornography; interview and discussion panel transcripts from the titular conference; a paper describing the Continuous Coast collaborative "shared world," a fiction project that branched out in to many other media; repurposed blog posts; and impassioned defences (and psychoanalyses) of fan-fiction. It's less a mixed bag than it is a car-keys-in-the-fruit-bowl-party.

The upside is that there's bound to be something that flicks your switches... though I wouldn't recommend anyone drop thirty bucks on Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep? just for the fiction contained within it. For the science fiction writer (and perhaps those genre readers who find their sf-nal interests leaking out beyond their fiction shelves), there's lots of speculation and discussion of the behind-closed-doors aspects of the internet sex business, of teledildonics and mutable identity, of pornography's portrayal in popular media, and the ethics of robotic prostitution. In the absence of anything to tell me otherwise, I suspect the book is predominantly aimed at media studies students as a sourcebook for discussion, essay topics and who knows what else. If I'd taken media studies (or, indeed, anything more interesting than electronic engineering) I'd probably have a much better idea.

I'd probably also be able to decode some of the more hardcore academic essays, too; those of Isaac Leung in particular. These burgeon with fascinating words and references for which I know the basic outlines, but of which I lack the depth of understanding and synthesis required to parse them fully in context. In other words, it's all a bit baffling -- something like hearing a mechanic telling you what's happened to your overhead carburetor manifold flange when all you really want to know is how you broke your car and when you'll be able to drive it again. To be abundantly clear, this fault lies within me as reader, not the writers of the papers in question... though seeing such writing side by side with the prose of accomplished novelists does rather emphasise academia's notorious slant toward dense and impenetrable language. Has no one ever thought of making this stuff as fun to read as it is potentially interesting? Or is that what science fiction is, perhaps? Discuss in 500 words or more before next week's lecture, please...

Certain themes romp their way across the larger picture, though. The link between sex and creative energy is explored from numerous angles, though it takes lovable hippie professor Rudy Rucker to make the point that sex and love are closely linked, and that they both connect to human creative energy [pp 11]. As manufactured a distinction as it may be, gender plays an important part in mediating the expression of that energy: the design and creation of "fucking machines" and teledildonic pornography services appears to be an predominantly male preserve (albeit a curiously innocent one in some respects), while the deployment of sexual machines to achieve a guilt-free state of physical sexual ecstasy skews strongly toward the female... though there's no doubt that the boys are still way out in front of the girls as far as passive consumption of "regular" pornography is concerned. File under "extremely dubious honours," perhaps.

Creative energy manifests itself as art, of course, and alongside the fiction contributions (a full Rucker short story and some snippets, a small component excised from Cory Doctorow's new novel Makers, shorts from Richard Kadrey and Thomas S. Roche and a genre classic from James Tiptree, Jr.) we find fan-fiction justified as a mediated expression of the teenager's desire to achieve mastery and control over and/or within the fictional narratives that permeate their lives through games, television and other media. We also find suggestions for the format of the nascent 21st century novel (or perhaps what is destined to succeed it) which include shared-world hypertexts, digitally encoded spoken word performances, free-to-read serialised stories and mixed-media tie-in material, from music to YouTube videos and back again. It's never been easier for young people to get their hands on the tools to not just create forms of self-expression but to make them available to the world at large. The slow awakening of a million cultural niches can be explained as the result of the interstitial medium that links those forms together -- our friend, the internet -- enabling these formerly-lonely practitioners to follow the most resonant (and arguably the most relevant) command of the late Timothy Leary: "find the others." Who knows for how long young writers have been recreating much-loved characters or settings for their own enjoyment -- sexual or otherwise -- before having the opportunity to share that obsession with people who feel the same? And no looking down your nose, purists: writers who use their own fictional settings a second time (or more) are, by definition, fan-ficcers themselves, at least according to novelist Steven Brust [as quoted by Brown & O'Connell, pp 56]. So perhaps to write about a pre-existing character or world is, in a way, to engage in an act of performative love with it? Professional writers of secondary-world science-fantasy trilogies, please update your iShrink firmware at your soonest convenience.

But why be ashamed -- of writing fan fiction, engaging in obscure techno-mediated sexual practices, or of anything else? Richard Kadrey goes so far as to describe fan-fic as "charmingly radical" [pp 84], and some of it as (to paraphrase) the most genuinely science fictional science fiction that gets made today. The internet has legitimised many heretofore marginal activities by the back door, simply by allowing the practitioners to know that they are not alone, and allowing them channels of communication beyond the easy control of the hegemony. Consider with that even something as simple (or, as is more often the case, eye-searingly garish) as a MySpace page opens up ways for a person to project an identity substantively different to the one that they wear publicly in meatspace... now, which of those two self-chosen and self-built identities is the "truer," the original, the real person? [Mae Saslaw, pp 207-210] Does one require more protection than the other, by its owners or by the law? How many identities should one be permitted to maintain, and how would such strictures be policed?

Reinvention of the self is a core pillar of the posthumanist project, too, albeit with more of an emphasis on the biological than the psychological. So perhaps we can look at the use of "fucking machines" as a crude posthuman prosthesis, another step toward the post-feminist dream of women (and men, should they wish it) reclaiming their bodies from hetero-normative sexual restrictions and censure, another crack in the veneer of society's mythical construction of gender as a binary opposition rather than a spectrum of possibilities [Isaac Leung pp 16-33]? As Richard Kadrey remarks in his interview, the fear of any form of threatening ideology is the perfect (and usual) excuse for the construction of a police state [pp 81]... and most of us in the developed world have been indoctrinated into just such a state, playing informant on every sort of perversion, trying to keep one another in line. But communications networks are corrosive to conformity, as China's government grimly reminds itself each morning. The internet's early days offered a wild and largely sheriff-free frontier for pornographers, who are sometimes (very plausibly) credited with providing the economic impetus and incentives to allow money to be invested in developing reliable secure e-commerce systems. Small wonder, then, that it provides some routes to sexual liberation. As Saslaw states, "[t]he big deal about sexuality on the internet [] is that we don't need bodies for it" [pp 207].

But, to quote Cory Doctorow (albeit from beyond the covers of this title), "the internet giveth, the internet taketh away." Sexual liberation is no certainty, and exploitation and exposure are also enabled by new technologies... Susan Mernit and the pseudonymous Viviane remind us of the "Emily Gould Effect," named for the popular female sex blogger dethroned from her pedestal of popularity when her public turned on her [pp 133-6]. And maybe it behooves us -- as sexual beings, but also as science fiction readers! -- to consider the omega point of a completely liberated society. When all the taboos are gone, banished by technology's trampling of the physical risks attendant on them, will we feel obliged to engage in them simply because it is possible? When scatology or sado-masochism come without the consequences of lasting damage or illness, will we have lost a part of what makes us human [Bonni Rambatan, pp 175-80]? A familiar refrain from small-c conservative critics of our "permissive society," perhaps, but still worth considering. Not to mention a fascinating avenue for fiction to explore, one that -- to my admittedly limited knowledge -- has yet to be properly probed in any substantial and readable work of science fiction beyond the notorious atrocity exhibitions of J.G. Ballard. Pornotopia... a subgenre is born, perhaps, and waits twitching on the laboratory bench for the writer or writers brave enough to electrify its flesh.

But what if David Levy (name-checked a few times in this book, though not featured substantially) is right, and we're mere decades from a world where entering into sexual and loving relationships with artificial persons, be they hardware or software or something in between, is commonplace and socially acceptable? Even in a world of ubiquitous and willing sexual machines, there will surely be new taboos, new moral dilemmas, new peccadilloes -- for instance, if you have a robot "wife" (or "husband"), what happens to it when you die? Is it chattel in your will, or is it a potential benefactor thereof? As io9's Annalee Newitz suggests in her brief essay [pp 145-6], you might be able to have consensual intercourse with a robot: "Unless you aren't bothered by having sex with a slave or brainwashed victim, having relationships with robots will probably be just as complicated as having them with humans."

(As a side note, anyone interested in a magnificent science fictional exploration of robotic prostitution would be well advised to read The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett -- a book I have been evangelising about since long before Chris became a client of mine.)

Like good science fiction, the material collected in Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep? leaves us with more questions than we arrived with; if you can stomach the subject matter (which shouldn't really appall anyone but the most prudish and conservative, to be honest, though my perceptions may be somewhat skewed), this is prime fuel for your imaginatory engines. The focal character of James Tiptree, Jr.'s story "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" suggests that, as humans, "we're built to dream outwards" [pp 239], to project our desire onto "the other", whoever or whatever it may happen to be. It's an insight that makes more sense each time you read it, and serves to underline the basic commonality between sex and science fiction, or indeed art in general -- they are both ways in which we try to subsume ourselves into (or control and dominate over) that which we are not.

Love makes us do strange things, after all.

Copyright © 2010 Paul Graham Raven

Paul Graham Raven does a ridiculous number of things, including publishing the near-future SF webzine Futurismic, developing and managing websites for various authors and agents in the genre field, and online public relations for the UK's foremost boutique genre publishing house, PS Publishing. He also answers tedious and easily-Googled questions about Naval history at his day-job in a museum library, reviews SF novels and music by hirsute tattooed lunatics, and spews the contents of his brain and browser bookmarks onto the web at the Velcro City Tourist Board .

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