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Sex In The System: Stories Of Erotic Futures, Technological Stimulation, And The Sensual Life Of Machines
edited by Cecilia Tan
Thunder's Mouth paperback $15.95

review by Steve Sneyd

One general point first needs to be made about this anthology, as about erotic and would-be erotic fiction generally, that what turns people on inevitably varies enormously between individuals, with myriad enough varieties of personalised sexual fantasies to fill dictionaries. So the fact that this reviewer found only a couple of the 14 stories (and one poem) here passed what The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw has called the spectacle steaming test, doesn't necessarily mean that others won't find more that are genuinely stimulating to them.

Nor does the low arousal strike rate, to my taste, mean a lack of interesting ideas and intriguing character interactions, although if your science fiction choice is for work exploring the middle or far future, or for sensawunda-breeding transfigurations and mind-blowing concepts, again this isn't really the book for you. Most of the work here has very near future settings. Indeed, with society's and technology's present change-rate, only just beyond tomorrow's state of the art, if not already today's early adopters' show-off fodder (or concealed private toys). So, although some stories do give evidence of the truism that sex comes second only to war as a stimulus to technological innovation, and come to that market for breakthrough products, genuine eye-opening to extraordinary possibility isn't on offer here, not even for your average redtop scanner, let alone the hardened (excuse pun) SF reader.

However, as mentioned, there are tales of intriguing character interactions, the most effective of which, for me, is Scott Westerfield's That Which Does Not Kill Us, a powerfully individual story of ambiguous responses. A currency manager, Paul, is both attracted and at some level repelled by a detached fellow worker, Eurisa. When her current relationship breaks up, he offers a listening ear: she opens up, including the odd datum that she is most disturbed by the way her ex-partner's dog hated her, and how that had served as a turn-on. A date follows, with Paul, in some very funny scenes, attempting at once to impress her, and awe his fellow workers that he is getting somewhere with Ms Unapproachable. And then things start going badly wrong. The extra dimension to what would otherwise be merely a dark comedy of modern manners and inter-gender misunderstandings is added by what is special about Eurisa - that she'd clinically died and been brought back to life (I'm not being a plot spoiler here, as we learn this fairly early on), adding a fear-inducing frisson to the challenge of her forbidding personality. It's a story that lives in the memory.

Another also memorable because of believable character-drawing is Remembrance by Beth Bernobich, a quietly moving account of a relationship first strained by distance, then shattered by death, its implied metaphor the natural cycle of seasons' turning, one of a lesbian partnership, Kate, taking refuge in gardening when Jessica takes a five-year security officer contract on space station Gamma (by now the unending war on terror has been fully privatised). An intriguing dilemma posed is that the separated couple can only maintain 'physical' contact via brain plug-in sensation messages, and by doing so must pay a daunting price, loss of all privacy in their love, as Jessica's employers insist on keeping full recorder access.

The biggest SF name here, Joe Haldeman, is represented by two pieces, the anthology's only poem, The Future Of Sex: A Garden Of Unearthly Delights - three pages rather tediously rhyming the efficiency benefits of direct brain stimulation - and an all-action story, More Than The Sum of His Parts: a scientist, much damaged by a high orbit station accident, is rebuilt at a lunar medical base, with new face (immovable, Botox-style!), high-powered limbs, and inexhaustible penis. His diary recounts his rapid coming to terms with his new powers, including frenzied sexual activity, swiftly followed by criminality, then all-out confrontation with his society. The (melo)drama I felt was undermined by the way his high-speed - mere weeks - conversion from conventional lab jockey to wannabe superman/ machiavellian manipulator strained suspension of disbelief, lacking personality backstory to plausibilise it.

The Show by M. Christian is the story of situationist-type urban guerrillas, who tap into the giant Times Square electronic screen so's to transmit vastly enlarged pictures of themselves engaged real-time in sexual acts. Given the vast availability of porn on the net these days, the characters might seem pretty naive to imagine this would be enough to rouse the crowds to rebel and disrupt American society, although, recalling the mega fuss over a minor nipple-showing "wardrobe malfunction" on prime time TV there a year or so back, perhaps not totally so?

Hot, Like Water by Lynne Jamneck is unusual as a story of female blue-collar manual workers, a rare subject in SF. The protagonist finds her diet of casual lesbian relationships has staled compared to the fetish appeal of the water rushing through the treatment station where she works. Then an enigmatic new workmate arrives, and proves to be a throw-out from a genetic manipulation experiment aimed at enabling humans to live underwater. Seeing her dreams offered fleshly reality, can it be long before a forbidden relationship begins?

The longest story, Pinnochia by Paul Di Filippo, moves swiftly once past a data dumping start. Remember those 18th century picaresque tales of loss of innocence, like Moll Flanders? Here it's updated into a near future of gene-manipulated chimeras and mindless sex androids. One such 'RealDoll', though, gives loner Tom Geppi a shock when she arrives: a drug hungover programmer has accidentally imbued her with free will and curiosity. Overhearing him call the supplier to demand she be reprogrammed back to obedience, she escapes in quest of true humanity, en route enjoying and/ or enduring encounters with a colourful cast of kindly outlaw metal termites, humanised animal whores and their greedy pimp, over-endowed human/ mule hybrids, and the studly bi mer-being known as the Blue Fairy. Oh yes, and she also learns what part of her body swells pleasingly when she tells lies!

Softly, With A Big Stick by Gavin J. Grant depicts a society where noise is banned; even to blanding diet to prevent burps and farts. When dull wage-slave Jones learns of outlaw sexual thrills via uninhibited noise, he throws caution to the winds. But can he evade the noise police? Steve Berman's Caught By Skin focuses on gays achieving group solidarity by 'cloneise'-ing members with ultra-expensive identical faces. But what if your face goes out of fashion, and you can't afford the replacement look? A sociology student (and perhaps time traveller) arrives to investigate - but his face becomes the next must-have. Faced (pun irresistible!) with identicals, how do you know it's sex with who you really want? Recalls the old dilemma of lending money for plastic surgery: how to find the borrower afterwards?

In The Program by G. Bonhommne, the eponymous system, a combination of hot sex therapy and full-on brainwashing, is all the buzz. Trying to pick up alluring Jill in the street, the protagonist is promised a relationship, but only if he'll first undergo the Program, which leaves him addicted to giving Jill extreme pleasure, while receiving only pain himself from their combative sex. Crossed legs time! Poppet by Elspeth Potter features the creator of brain chip-controlled protean plastic mini-humanoids, hospitalised by a fire. His project looks doomed, till a stimulating - excuse pun - sickbed visit brings a light bulb moment.

John Bowker's Love Will Tear Us Apart Again connects two students, Jimmy, arousable only by monster B-movies, and the psych major his fetish fascinates, Lindsay. Years later, a business success, she tracks him down at a horror all-nighter - but does she bring a cure, or temptation to extremer deviancy? In Sarah Micklem's The Book Collector, Col(umbine), leading virtual personality creator, gets her dream assignment - a free hand from a money-no-object client. Naturally she decides to create her own perfect male. Tudor gentleman-scholar Philip de Graynefield (convincingly equipped with perfect recall of facts but not their sources! I also enjoyed the humour in the name Col gave Philip's landlord, Randolph of Twyckenham). He interacts with her perfectly, including virtual sex (as also with the male colleague who sneaks into her PC). But then the client demands delivery, leaving her grieving, having been too honest to build in her own secret continued access. However, that's not quite the end of the story. Can cyber entities develop free will, or dreams reopen gates?

Finally, in Jennifer Stevenson's Value For O a woman tries to cure orgasm inability via obsessive mathematics, she and her partner, in stiltedly unnatural dialogue, equation-devising their way to her fulfilment, while The Proof by Shariann Lewitt un-inspiringly depicts graduate student Sarah, smitten with dishy professor Andrew, but fearful that, in the alternative universe of her research's Copenhagen Hypothesis, sex with him is already a thing of the past, not the future.
Sex In The System

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