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 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.
I’ve been a fan of Bryson’s since I was literally in middle school. My sisters and I listened to audiobooks together as a kind of collective bonding activity, especially during the rare moments during the summers when everyone was home from school, camp, work, and wherever else we were all constantly detained. A Walk in the Woods was one of our favorites, and I think I probably listened to it about 3.423 times. Not four, mind you – in fact, I doubt I ever finished it completely because whenever an errant sister returned from wherever she’d gone off to, we had to go back to the last place we’d all heard. Then there were some parts that were just lame, like any part where Bryson wasn’t doing dumb stuff in nature, so we eventually learned where those were and skipped those tapes. We listened to the bits we liked over and over, and the bits we particularly liked were the parts about Katz being an ass and saying “fuck” and Bryson being terrible at hiking. (I should mention that we were a hiking and camping family, as in *primitive* camping and hiking *for weeks.* We lived in a world where a child of ten could be trusted, even expected, to safely start a fire by themselves.)
That was the thing about A Walk In The Woods. There was some good info, particularly about the EPA, but the best part was listening to the author’s misadventures in Appalachia. Recently he’s departed somewhat from the personal approach, but in my opinion, that’s still his best writing.
It’s also my main objection to The Body: A Guide for Occupants. Bryson’s done a fine job with his research, especially for someone with no medical background, but there’s no hilarious personal experience here. It’s just a layperson’s rundown, punctuated by things about the human body that are baffling and unknown. Why do we sleep? Baffling! What does the appendix do? Unknown! Why do we need chromium? Baffling again! It’s a skim. The most interesting mysteries are left unexamined, and there’s not even any personal misadventures to distract us from those burning, unanswered questions.
I should mention that I listened to this book as an ALC I got from Libro.fm, my new bestest buddy on Earth. Because I’m a librarian and a Book Rioter, they’re giving me free advanced listener copies now, and because my commute consumes two hours of every single god-lovin’ weekday, I have plenty of time for listening. So listen I do! This is the first ALC I’ve tried, and I really do like the service. In my personal hagiography of book reading apps, it’s effectively competing with Libby and has blown Librivox clear out of the water.
Also, it allowed me to finish this book. If I didn’t chug through The Body in the car at double speed, I’d have stopped reading fifty pages in. It’s not that Bryson’s a bad writer. He’s still got it. The subject matter is interesting enough too. But this book has got very little of the funny above the level of incidentals and wordplay. It’s well-researched and entertaining enough for someone who knows practically nothing about their own horrifying body (vis a vis moi.) Still, I can’t help but wish I’d grabbed a newish Mary Roach instead. Incidentally, Bryson cites Roach twice and depends very much on other popsci and popmed nonfic as references. My reference librarian heart goes eehhhhhehhhhhhh.
Bryson is 66 years old now. Many of the people he discusses in the book, both historical figures and people of medical interest, have died around that age. Even though medical science will likely keep him alive for a good while yet, discussing death, as he does, appropriately, at the end, is a look straight in the face of the fact that human beings don’t last forever. I wonder how it felt for Bryson to pen this book. I know for a fact that it’d wig me out, and I’m still in my thirties. Here’s a story I’d have liked to read from this author: the body’s many fallacies and superpowers as seen through the lens of a well-regarded writer’s yet-distant but cresting mortality.
I’m not sorry that I got it. It’s a nice little repository of body trivia and now I know that you can actually put a catheter through your vein and guide it to all the way to your heart and actually touch your beating heart with it and your heart will not explode. Now off to give it a try!