Adventures of the Artificial Woman

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Berger, Thomas. Adventures of the Artificial Woman. New York City: Simon & Schuster, 2004.[1]

Reviewed by Ritch Calvin, SFRA Review #274 (Oct., Nov., Dec. 2005): 22-23, our source for this entry.

Calvin identifies Ellery Pierce, the protagonist, as "an insufferable animatronics designer": i.e., ignoring for a moment the "insufferable," a designer of what the Wikipedia entry identifies as "mechatronic puppets. They are a modern variant of the automaton and are often used for the portrayal of characters in films and in theme park attractions"[2] — most famously at the time, we will add, at Disneyland. There's been progress in the design and manufacture of such devices, and Calvin can call Pierce "a designer of robots," and note that for this insufferable man in, among other things, satiric science fiction, "it only makes sense for him to build the perfect woman." This is Phyllis (no last name), who "quickly becomes the perfect companion," for a stereotypical male sexist.

Pierce's "initial tests of her performance convince him that she can pass for a human being," which she does: leaving him for a film career in Hollywood, as things turn out, after a series of jobs in the sex industry, with a transition with the role of Lady Macbeth, "in the nude for a local theater." (Film-history note: in Roman Polanski's notable 1971 MACBETH, Lady Macbeth performed her sleep-walking scene in the nude.)

There are two other animatronic characters: a male "boy toy" belonging to Janet, one of Pierce's female neighbors, and a male "partner" of Ray, a male "acquaintance from the gym" — for completion of what we will call neutrally if figuratively the "modal phenotypes" of gender relations with a dominance component, or apparently no dominance component.

Calvin argues plausibly that what is most instructive about this novel as SF is what Berger leaves out, which we will get to in a moment. What he leaves in, though, is a (satirized) Hollywood career, followed by Phyllis's declining a VP spot on the ticket of a contemptible incumbent and running on her own for U.S. president, aided by Pierce. And winning. "Now that she holds the most powerful position in the country, she plans on running the country by logic alone, threatening to kill anyone who stand in her way," and dismissing Pierce (who thinks he can deactivate her). So cf. and contrast more earnest works on "Technics out of control" on the one hand, and the possibilities of beneficent robot rule, of sorts, in works like "Good News from the Vatican" on the other (Calvin p. 22).[3] Note also the theme of pernicious "mechanical" (our term) logic, as with, arguably, the giant computer Colossus in Colossus and with Vulcans in the classic Star Trek episode "Amok Time."[4]

Significantly missing elements include Berger's not deeply in questioning the human/robot relationship and the technology behind it: "For both Janet and Pierce, the artificial human beings are largely human substitutes, though preferable to humans in that they are, theoretically, more controllable. Similarly, when faced with machines passing as humans, science fiction stories often interrogate the very nature of what it means to be human. One need look no further than the stories and novels of Phil Dick," e.g., we will note, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. "This however does not seem to be Berger's concern either" (p. 23).

Calvin concludes that "[...] if this had been a science fiction novel, Berger might have dealt more with the logistics of building the animatron [sic]. Perhaps he might have problematized the dangers of technology run amok. Perhaps if this had been a feminist novel, he might have examined the gender roles in domestic relations, in the entertainment industry, and in language usage more critically" — etc. including core political issues (p. 23). These silences might be compared and contrasted usefully with the development of such themes, or similar failure to develop, in such works as, quite directly, "Helen O'Loy" and WEIRD SCIENCE, and also EVE OF DESTRUCTION, METROPOLIS, AUTÓMATA (film, 2014), and, perhaps preeminently in the 21st century, EX MACHINA; more titles listed at link-note here.[5]


RDE, finishing, 4Sep23