I got Alpha Bots: A Feminist Dystopian Novel as a free ARC from Netgalley. Oh, Netgalley! I sing your praises, even as I remain woefully behind on my backlog of your bounty. Originally, I grabbed it because it was supposed to be a Fight Club/Stepford Wives mashup by way of The Feminine Mystique. That was always going to be a problematic mix, but done right, it could have been good. Alas, it didn’t meet its potential, and I was dissatisfied.
Plot summary time! If you came here for this, then voila, I live to serve. The main character, Cookie, is an experimental android wife living in the town of New Stepford with other advanced female AI slaves. Their husbands go to work at the “gold mine” during the day and come home in the evening to…be husbands. In fact, these dubiously fortunate gentlemen are alpha testers for the beings I would prefer to call Automatrons. (Their actual designation is “womanoids,” which sounds too much like the incel pejorative “femoids” to my ears. I won’t be using it.) They engage their vastly underused potential by making and taking psychedelics. When corrupt AI policewoman Maggie and tall, dark, and handsome mystery man Wayne appear on the scene, they teach Cookie and her friends to “wake up” by fighting with each other. (“I want you to hit me” etc comes up several times.) However, Maggie is a leering power-tripper with a complicated love-hate relationship to Cookie that starts at the jump and is eventually explained by (SPOILER ALERT) man drama. ANOTHER SPOILER: this whole book comes down to man drama. It’s not actually that feminist at its core, and I suspect that the writer may have some inaccurate ideas about what feminism is. At very least, they need to read more. The concept was interesting, but even a piece of fiction requires a foundation of research.
Although I normally wouldn’t worry about reviewing this tepid book, it did embody many of the pitfalls of half-baked pseudo-feminist sci-fi window dressing that I’ve long disliked. This, I think, is a valuable opportunity to discuss what was problematic here and why. So pull up your e-reader and shuffle along, because we’re going to review! This! Book!
Starting with the end.
Ending with the man
I always look skeptically about any book that both claims to be feminist and rejects female friendship. In this case, there can be no friends for Cookie. Every woman she’s close to who doesn’t turn against her dies a lonely and grotesque death. Her only equal is her foil Maggie, who is basically Evil Cookie (Fight Club homage all the way) and steals her man and turns New Stepford into a death cult.
The book seems to have no conception of the possibility that Cookie would make new friends in the army of rebels. The other women are just a big, faceless, collective blur of people who stick together and dislike Cookie – robots in every way. Wayne, on the other hand, proves himself a mensch in the end. Wayne loves Cookie because he made her for himself. Wayne is a…
Wait. Rewind. Pause. Wayne made Cookie for himself. Not for her to be free. Not for her to ever reject him or defy him or decide she wanted something else. For him. This is yet another Pygmalion situation, with none of the rewarding self-awareness of a work like Ex Machina. She’s his creature from the beginning and never wavers from that throughout the book, even when Wayne is a dick with poor character consistency. If this book is about Cookie’s progression toward true autonomy, then it fails by basically passing her to another guy for whom she must essentially be a thing – a thing he made because he wanted it.
What I’d really like from the next book in this series – which I may or may not read, depending on how I feel when I’m done with this review – is for Cookie to realize that Wayne is her Pygmalion and she’s the nameless statue.
Gail Simone defined the concept of fridging after a Green Lantern arc wherein a villain butchers Kyle Raynor’s girlfriend and stuffs her into the household refrigerator. This provides Kyle with the motivation to rise to the challenge of becoming a Green Lantern – because after all, a woman’s death is a small price to pay for a man’s achievement. In any case where a female character is killed, tortured, maimed, or otherwise critically damaged to motivate the hero, that character can be said to have been fridged.
Rita is an excellent example of a fridged woman. She’s nominally a friend of Cookie’s, but it’s hard to be friends with a cardboard cutout. Rita is a completely flat character with one trait: an overwhelming desire to be thin. Because she is a robot, she cannot possibly lose weight by starving herself, so this becomes a source of much pathos. As soon as Rita gains control over her body, she carves off the “excess” in a pitiable and ultimately futile attempt to woo her cruel husband. Rita broadcasts this tragic autophagology to the rest of the network, which becomes the tipping point for the other Automatrons (I’m making it happen) to join Maggie’s army of rebels. Ta da! A fridge case! And a super gross one too! (I’ll talk more about Rita in the next section because I find her disproportionately fascinating.)
The book fridges Paula as well. She’s probably Cookie’s only real buddy in the entire book and her own suspicious death motivates Cookie’s rebellion against the rebellion. Nobody else cares about that death, of course, because Paula is meant to motivate only Cookie. After all, Paula loved all the same things that Cookie did – drugs, sci-fi. That’s…pretty much all there is about Paula. Other than the programming that makes all the Automatrons want to serve men, we have little idea about her personality or hopes or likes or anything. Oh, to be a two-dimensional character whose entire purpose is to die.
Most writers who flirt with the fridge try to overcome it by making their doomed character robust and interesting so that their death is as meaningful to the reader as it is to the protagonist. It doesn’t always work, but you get a couple points for effort there. Alpha Bots could have accomplished this by making the book a multiple-perspective story, for example. This would have made the Fight Club homage trickier, but not impossible, and I’m a big fan of tossing a cute gimmick in favor of better writing.
More About Rita
I don’t think Rita gets enough attention, so I’m going to talk about her a little more. Specifically, I want to talk about why I think she’s actually the most valuable character in this book on account of her capacity for suffering.
Other than her existence as a commodity, Rita’s life is not valuable except in its relative usefulness to others. She exists to be an anorexic stereotype and, ultimately, a throwaway bid at a shallow and generally uninspected statement on how men perpetuate body anxiety. In fact, because her husband enjoys torturing her over her appearance, much of her value beyond her resale value is in her pain. It isn’t her image that her husband despises – he admits that he purposely requested a fat android because he likes fat women – but instead her discomfort. Maybe he, like many men who appreciate larger women, even finds torturing her an antidote to his own shame over having a thing for curvy girls. In that case, she fulfills for him a psychological function that objectifies her in a darker and more complicated way than the book’s treatment of her anorexia suggests.
Ultimately, Rita’s husband asked for her because he valued her ability to suffer for him. And suffer she does, starving herself and enduring his abuse even as she damages herself beyond repair. A woman’s ability to martyrously endure and sometimes die – to submit – has long been considered an honorable feminine trait. All you ex-Catholics out there know what I’m talking about. If not, Consider Saint Maria Goretti, who was canonized after she allegedly died forgiving her attempted rapist and actual murderer on her deathbed. She was twelve, BTW, and she was killed in 1902.
Rita submits to hubby Dan’s wishes with saintly martyrousness that would doubtless earn her a place with the angels if she hadn’t also been a suicide. I do like that she ultimately digests herself. It’s interesting, different, and possible to interpret from several different points of view. I like the complex interplay between Rita’s choice to suffer for her husband, her programming that forces her to suffer for her husband, and her husband’s role in invoking that programming. Really, this book shouldn’t have been about Cookie. It should have been about Rita. As it was, I respect what the author was trying to do here, I just think it would have worked better if Rita had, I don’t know, dreams of becoming an expert on Renaissance painters or something. Anything to round her out a little more. (Actually, she would have been a perfect Catholic.)
Who was that sexy gender rebel? Only a mirage
Personally, because I am a Sapphic sister and because I notice these things, I always take it badly when a book dangles lesbianism as a titillation factor. Cookie’s attraction to Maggie falls squarely into this category, a sexual thrill that never comes to anything, affects the plot, assists in character development, or has any other discernible purpose in this book. Fine, says I, with a mighty eyeroll. Lesbian exploitation. Super feminist. Tres cool. I see it so much that I’m willing to gloss over it once. Not twice, though; it happened again when two ladybots kissed, a device whose purpose was to make Cookie jealous for a minute. My buzz was terminally harshed. I can’t completely describe how irritating I find it when LGBTQ representation exists in sci-fi just to serve straight people – and this piece of work was supposed to be feminist, so it loses extra points. How hard would it have been to have one lousy actual real lesbian relationship in this book? Using dykes as props is lazy, and it indicates a lack of sincerity on the part of the author. Clearly, they weren’t interested in actual representation so much as a convenient and fetishy tool. (Consider that Cookie would have been no less jealous if Paula and Crissy had been having an obviously good time baking together. Every time you see lesbianism represented in fiction, grade it by mentally subbing in a good baking session and seeing if that would have served the plot just as well.)
Things get worse when the author tries to tackle asexuality and non-binary gender representation. In one case, a pack of gender-neutral monster kittens bodily consume a doctor. Not that he doesn’t deserve it, but this is still a problematic use of non-binary people as more things than people, and as freaks to boot. Later, an Automatron transforms into a genderless asexual form to deal with sexual trauma. Do I really need to go into why this is bad? The myth that people reject gender because a man hurt them is as old as balls. I’ve heard it said about lesbians and non-binary AFAB people alike, and I think the root of the idea is that women (and AFAB people) are incapable of acting without the motivation of a man. Aside from being a dumb idea, this doesn’t pass the smell test. Plenty of women get assaulted every year, but there are only a handful of NBs and asexuals out there. If trauma caused people to affect non-binary presentation and reject sex, you’d think there would be more genderless individuals wandering around talking about how great it is to not be in bed with someone.
Once again, I’d be OK with the presence of a damaged person abandoning sexual activity, but that’s not asexuality. The author could have avoided this mess by including actual asexuals and NBs in this book just being normal folks. Then they could function as a control group, a true representation of a group that occurs naturally and without tragic injury.
Once again, the author needed to do way more research before putting pen to paper. Whether they intended to or not, they appear to be making a statement about LGBTQIA identity and gender presentation that is not flattering to them intellectually. Hiring a sensitivity reader might have been a good idea, too. (Why doesn’t everyone just do this from now on?)
You can’t talk about feminism without talking about queerness, and we know this because people have tried and it didn’t work. Without queer inclusivity, the feminist conversation can’t proceed. This is not a queer inclusive conversation. It’s a couple of side remarks by a straight person about what they think queerness is, and those remarks are clearly being made for color. Aside from reinforcing irritating straight assumptions, this treatment is nowhere near as nuanced or as interesting as it could be. Anyone who doesn’t think that a well-rounded queerio is more interesting than a two-dimensional chop job has no queer friends. (Or they’re just lazy. Considering how little work went into this book, I do wonder if perhaps the author just didn’t bother.)
What did we learn?
Do your frickin’ homework. People notice.
Also, a poorly delivered message can make or break an otherwise mediocre book. With the right nuance, this could have been more than a decent read. Unfortunately, it was significant mainly for its missed marks, and that knocked it down to a two-star book at best. I will remember it for embodying some of the tropes that make me sigh the deepest, but I probably won’t read that sequel.
Reviewing Dhalgren is going to be a thing. When I say a thing, I mean that it’s going to take several posts to cover this baby. It may be the most significant and problematic piece of science fiction I’ve ever read. I’m going to address it in chunks based on its many themes. If you’re here for a graduate-level thesis on this graduate-level book, you’re in the wrong place. I am but a humble librarian/writer/book person, and these thoughts are the best that my humble librarian/writer/book person brain can produce. That said, if you are at my level, this might be useful to you. If nothing else, we can console each other now that this monster book has ripped out our egos.
A few notes first.
- I will not be using racial slurs. Dhalgren uses the N-word very liberally and actually expanded my vocabulary somewhat as far as other racist language goes. I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, it’s good that I know. On the other, I feel uncomfortable with that knowledge. I didn’t like hearing the N-word so much and I think that was the reason that the author made that choice. I will attempt to discuss race in the context of this book, and I will do so to the best of my Italian-Irish-Plain-White-Bread-American abilites, but I won’t be using those words.
- Speaking of, I’m going to screw up the conversation about race. How could I not? I’ve never lived a Black life and while I can do my best to understand, I’m positive that there are things about Blackness and the Black experience that will remain beyond me no matter how much Ta-Nahesi Coates I read. That goes triple for this particular title, which was written 50 years ago by a Black man. I’m going to do my best because ignoring race in this book would be a disservice to it; as in broader American society, race in Bellona is inextricable from all of its other issues. If you feel like calling me out when I screw up, I encourage you to do so. If you’d rather not educate me, but still want to read my review, race will have its own subheading so you’ll have a heads-up to handle that section however you consider appropriate.
- I am not going to get this “right.” If you have opinions about DHALGREN that differ from mine, great. There’s a comments section. Have at it! But unless you’re Samuel R. Delaney, know that I don’t believe you’re going to get it “right” either. I don’t think correctness applies to this particular work. If you are Samuel R. Delaney, then I’m truly sorry for the mess I’m about to make of your incredible book.
If you haven’t read the book yet, there are also a few things you’re going to need to know about before we delve in.
- An orchid is a type of handheld weapon unique to Bellona. Think of a flower made of metal that you wear like a mitten. Failing that, think of a cage around your hand with sharp points poking out.
- Bellona is one of the twelve largest cities in the U.S. and is probably located somewhere in Kansas.
- Many people in Bellona acquire and wear optical chains, which are long lengths of brass chain set with mirrors and pieces of glass. The experience of acquiring them is usually traumatic. They cannot be bought or taken by force, but can be removed from a dead body.
- The Scorpions are a loose gang. They’re intimidating and sometimes dangerous.
That’s nowhere near all the background that you need to know, but it’s the best I can do without turning this piece into a listicle. Let’s forge ahead anyway. To Bellona!
I was originally going to call this section Mental Health, but that doesn’t begin to encompass the subject. In Bellona, the division between mind and reality is perilously blurry and it is not at all clear which one affects the other more.
The Kid has a history of mental health problems, and nothing frightens him more than the possibility of a relapse. Of all the places in the world that he could have ended up, this city of shifting realities is probably the worst. And the best, maybe. There seem to be holes in time in Bellona, and when we first discover this, they’re presented as holes in the Kid’s memory. This kicks off Kid’s self-perpetuating anxiety about whether or not he is crazy or will return to a state where he has no awareness of what he’s doing.
But Kid’s mental health problems predate Bellona, so we know that they don’t proceed from there. His loss of his real name and habit of wearing one shoe are both artifacts from the wider world – the one he fit into so poorly. In Bellona, he receives validation from his girlfriend, Lanya, that he’s lost considerable chunks of time. But has he? Lanya later admits that there are hours of her own for which she can’t account. Fires that should consume the city in days continue unabated for weeks, and certain food stores appear to restock themselves as though trapped in a loop. Couple that with the episodic nature of DHALGREN and you have the makings of a place that’s profoundly unmoored in time. It begs the question of how people narrate their lives when reality itself isn’t certain.
It also suggests that nothing happening in Bellona is real. But there are things that happen there, like the appearance of the Kid’s debut poetry collection, BRASS ORCHIDS, that must have some relationship to the wider world. People come in, too, so someone must be reporting across the bridge. Bellona is tethered to reality, at least, and throughout the book, the Kid’s biggest concerns seem to revolve around maintaining that tether in at least an operative sense. He gets a job even though nobody uses money. He joins a gang even though he doesn’t need protection. He publishes a book of poetry even though he’s not sure he wants to be a poet. He can’t just be. If he resorted to that, he’d have no continuity at all and no way to mark either time or his own significance in it. He’d have no way of knowing if he really were crazy or not. Sanity is the perception of purpose, a self-delusion that’s necessary for measuring, and therefore adequately observing, life.
The way you look at something really can affect its state. Consider subatomic particles that must be waves and particles…until they’re observed. These little specks are unknowable, mutable as Bellona itself. To perceive them is to fix them in a definable space, but only as long as you are actively watching. Bellona is the same way, and to a great extent, so are the people who live there.
And you thought this wasn’t real science fiction!
Whether the Kid’s existence itself matters depends on how he agrees to perceive reality. Whether in poetry or in action, he’s always got to move. Moreover, he’s got to move in the perceptions of others or he seems to disappear, or at least move to a state where he has no self-awareness or control over his actions. His biggest, most frightening loss of time happens when he’s sleeping in the open with Lanya and not doing much. She leaves, and when she comes back, he’s gone. For the Kid’s part, he perceives himself waking up and immediately heading to a Scorpion raid, after which he’s increasingly in the company of a large crowd of fellow gang members. Their observation of him seems to prevent more large lapses, but prior to that, when he loses Lanya, she reports that he’s been active for days outside of her perception.
The critical point here is that the Kid can’t observe himself reliably, even to the extent that he can remain self-aware. He needs to see himself being observed by others, and through their eyes, know he is real. His book’s popularity in particular appears to ground him, despite his ambivalence about being a poet.
Everything in Bellona seems to be a charm against lack of perception. Otherwise pointless baubles like the optical chains and the light shields exist to alter and enhance the wearer’s presentation to the world. The Scorpions maintain their fearsome reputation by smashing stuff up, but there are no rival gangs to intimidate and they rarely accomplish anything notable. Nevertheless, Calkin’s paper (which prints a different random date every day) reports on them. It makes them famous, just as Calkin makes the Kid famous by printing his book.
We almost never see Calkin. Isn’t that interesting? Everyone is highly aware of him because of the paper, his mansion, his parties, his power. He is the man with all the words and the power to control what others know about their local luminaries. All Bellona seems to know what the Kid is up to all the time, presumably because they’re reading it in the paper, but the Kid himself is increasingly flummoxed by that effect as the book progresses. His self-perception comes through Lanya, Denny, the Scorpions. It’s unclear how the perception of others affects the Kid’s state of awareness. With Calkin’s publication and very wide distribution of the Kid’s book, not to mention his control of the narrative of Kid’s publicity, it would stand to reason that Calkin gains a measure of control over the Kid’s identity too. People certainly treat the Kid with more respect once he becomes a news item and artiste, even though most of them only read his poems to see if he wrote anything about them.
Like the Kid, the other Bellonans need to be perceived to be real. But not all of them are perceived. Even Lanya seems to fall into existential holes now and then.
This effect doesn’t just extend to people. Things that everyone agrees upon seem to have the strongest presence as reality. Effects like the double moon and the enormous sun are observed in concert, their details becoming hazy when reported on an individual level. The fear and wonder that they inspire may be the fuel that keeps Bellona aware. Once the second moon appears, everyone shares the experience of checking for it, naming it after George, discussing it. The giant sun inspires the universally shared experience of terror and fatalism. These are critical pins of the Bellona experience. Without them, who’s to say that the city itself would remain a distinct entity? If Bellona were a person, these would be its performances, its attempts to cling to reality by remaining remarkable.
Calkin immolates his own power when he enters the monastery near the end of the book. Immediately, Bellona experiences a spike in unpredictability. People get separated, fires worsen, and formerly powerful interpersonal ties break. Is this what happens when the person narrating the barely-real city stops holding it together with his words? Very possibly. This, too, is the moment when the Kid and some of his friends flee the city in an unplanned escape from the worsening fires and chaos.
And then, of course, the prose loops. The Kid’s exit parrots the exact dialogue from his entrance, only when he leaves, he himself takes on the role of the departing Bellonans. Makes you wonder if there will be another Calkins for the newcomer. How specific to the Kid was his experience? How much of Bellona did he personally observe into existence? His departure could be read in several different ways now, depending on how relatively unstable we think reality is in the city.
If the Kid’s perception influenced Bellona even a little, then his departure could be read as a state of mind, but even this leaves us with questions. Did Bellona become untenable when the Kid stopped perceiving it as a tolerable place to live, or did he finally lose sight of himself as an entity who made sense in Bellona’s context? His flight of self-preservation might have been more than an escape from fire. Without something to do in Bellona – something to be in Bellona – the Kid could very well be lost to literal obscurity. Did he lose the ability to control his awareness of the city with his art and actions? Conversely, did the city’s chaos naturally strip meaning from whatever agency the Kid ever had to alter his life with its greater shenanigans and vapidity of purpose? If our lives take on the meaning that we choose for them, then a place with yawning holes in time and physical properties that defy the laws of space and time would tend to defy our attempts to put our personal entropy in order. It’s hard to imagine anyone thriving that way for long.
Personally, I think the answer to the puzzle of perception and Bellona is intricately tied up with how Bellona’s residents relate to creativity. But it’s been 2200 words and I’m out of Dhalgren-related graphics for today. Tune in tomorrow for our next section: ART.