Candas Jane Dorsey’s “(Learning About) Machine Sex”

Candas Jane Dorsey’s “(Learning About) Machine Sex” is a feminist cyberpunk story about a female programmer who deconstructs the orgasm into feedback binary data. It was first published in 1988 in the author’s collection, Machine Sex and Other Stories.

The story begins:

A naked woman working at a computer. Which attracts you most? It was a measure of Whitman that, as he entered the room, his eyes went first to the unfolded machine gleaming small and awkward in the light of the long-armed desk lamp; he’d seen the woman before.

Angel was the woman. Thin and pale-skinned, with dark nipples and black pubic hair, and her face hidden by a dark unkempt mane of long hair as the leaned over her work.

[…] So she has a new board, thought Whitman, and felt his guts stir the way they stirred when he first contemplated taking her to bed.

On one level, the story is about the buying and selling of intellectual property. However, this is problematized when it involves an individual, Angel, who is the sole person developing sought after technology and the fruits of her work (Greek mythology–creation/birth as an eruption from the head) are tied to the company she helped develop. Unfortunately, the company was owned by a man, Whitman, who tells her that he sold it, including her, to a competitor, and he does this after having sex with her. To a misogynist like Whitman, Angel is a commodity to be bought and sold–an object to possess and control through the politics of sexual relationships. He styles himself into her pimp who uses as well as abuses her.

When Angel escapes to her hidden homestead in the secluded Rocky Mountain House, she invites a cowboy over (who’s never named in the story) for drinks. They begin talking, and after showing him her new program, Machine Sex, they debate whether it would sell or not. She believes that it will, because from her experience and point of view, people are empty and incapable of love. The cowboy, who happens to be gay (Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” was first published nine years after Dorsey’s story), defends love and decries Machine Sex.

Their debate gets interesting when Angel talks about the vacancy of love based on her real life experiences, but the cowboy dismisses her troubles with love and people like Whitman as “politics.” But the thing is that sex and sexual power is a political power struggle. The politics of sex and gender relations is not something that should be dismissed. In fact, Angel appropriates the male dominated sexual political framework by creating Machine Sex, which will undermine the system through short circuiting the orgasmic feedback loop.

This is recommended reading. I found it in The Norton Book of Science Fiction.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.