Why Are All the Androids So Pretty?

by Tochi

I. Tyger, Tyger! burning bright

If I were to build an android, I’d want it to have a face that I wouldn’t recognize.

The temptation is to give her the face of someone I know, make her and her face into a totem of remembrance, a gravemarker with cheekbones, a tombstone with spaces hollowed out for eyes. But she is not mine, or won’t be at least. I have to build her first.

The face problem, as present as it is, is really only a gateway into a bigger question. How will she move? Can I build that capacity for learning into her? This isn’t a child, or at least will not be. This is, as I imagine her on the operating table, a fully formed woman, aged approximately 32, of average American proportions, with no beginning but what I fabricate for her and no ending that can be seen even past the horizon of average life expectancy. She is not birthed, and she will not die. She is made and perhaps in her own way, she will be unmade. Replaced with new parts, lubricated by new oil, and more capable of interface until that barrier of fingertip between her and a touchscreen vanishes completely, and she is just information in the Internet.

A body, a corpus, even one manufactured synthetically, is history. It can be marked, and it can be molded. Where would God look to find his fingerprints had we not been given bodies? Sure, he can cast his gaze over mountain ranges, and he can lovingly eye the sea. He can even glance at each unique and uniquely coruscating star. But there exists a sweet spot (albeit only sweet from the perspective of a human being with a viewpoint limited by an average lifespan of 66 or 67 years) between longevity and brevity wherein mapped history is displayed and tracked over the course of a body, where new wrinkles pit a forehead or jaws lower and fill out or formerly compact, elfin figures elongate into full-feathered, long-legged beauties. But nowhere is my point better made than in tracking the progress of a life’s history in the face.

A photographer once accompanied a platoon of Dutch soldiers before their deployment to Afghanistan and created a triptych of pictures. Photos of their faces before, during, and after their deployment. It goes without saying that the changes can be subtle, profoundly so, that what we expect those faces to look like during and after whatever trauma we expect they’ve experienced there is itself superimposed on the seeing of those images. But the passage of time on those faces fascinated me the most. Men in peak physical condition. Watch the further bleaching of their hair from all that time spent beneath the sun. Watch the darkening of their skin, the emergence of benignly cancerous moles on their cheeks.

Maybe this is why I want to give her a face.

I want her to be recognized. More than that, I want her to recognize herself. What history I give her through the memories implanted into her cortex will be false, will be fabrications and will stink of fraudulence. If I could, I would spare her the indignity of walking about with false memories, with any memories except for the ones she would create for herself. But for this thought experiment to work, she needs them. And she needs a face that will fold in upon itself at the onset of tears when a particularly painful memory surprises her. She needs a face that can sustain itself tendu in horror upon waking from a horrible dream (for androids are not cell phones that die when you turn them off and reanimate when powered back on). And she will need a face that softens when she is nudged into smiling.

Experiences can mark her body and they will mark her face. That is the map she will stare at in the mirror and over whose tracks she will gauge her progress. She will not second-guess that history contorting her shape into its future form. Nor will she remain beholden to my fingerprints, those indents in her form that my thumbs and my fingers have made in molding her. If I were to build an android, I’d want her to be her own.

*

Science fiction is the literature of possibility, precisely because it enlists the imagination in ways that realist fiction and even Romantic literature before it did not, could not. The genre presents us not only with alternate futures and, in some cases, alternate pasts, but with alternate presents, as was mightily the case when Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam wrote L’Ève future (1886) (trans: Tomorrow’s Eve), a work which allegedly popularized the term “android” (l’Andréide). A corollary to the idea of science fiction as the literature of possibility is that samples from the genre tend to read as cautionary tales. Humans, present or future depictions, are overreaching, building metaphorical Towers of Babel, indulging in hubris resulting from scientific or mechanical innovation and, like Icarus, flying too close to the sun only to plunge right into the ocean’s depths.

These moments of recognition that constitute the climax, very often, in these works come towards the end where the protagonist has stepped to the verge of reaching their goal, of finding life on Mars or birthing artificial life or harnessing portable nuclear energy, in each case traversing, in almost transgressive naïveté, the boundary between Man’s capabilities and God’s.

In L’Ève future, these preoccupations are married with many others that fuel the genre’s exploration of hubris and human capability. For instance, in this novel, we see some of the genre’s first meaningful distinctions between a tool and a machine. The novel also presents, in problematic and prescient fashion, the idea of the woman in parts, the perfect woman who is built and not born. And linking these two preoccupations is the necessarily expansive problem of creation or, in this case, reproduction. Building Hadaly and molding her into an ideal companion for Lord Ewald is the masculine appropriation of the reproductive function and a voyage into third-order simulacra, and all of it fueled by a dissatisfaction with present reality that also captured Flaubert’s principal protagonist, Emma Bovary. But Emma and Edison/Ewald are prisoners in different prisons. Emma is constrained by her position in society and the mores of that society that restricts the movement of women whereas Edison and Ewald, as men, are free to do as they please, buttressed by a platform of technological imagination married to industrialization that allows them to make possible their ideal reality. Is this then the result of bovarysme as it occurs in men (the desire to know coupling with the desire to live), or, at least, these men? There’s certainly a libidinal link between the two sets of dissatisfactions. Is Edison what Emma would have looked like, had Flaubert made her a man with a scientific bent and a suitably active imagination?

*

One of Marilyn Monroe’s greatest gift, it was written, was being able to distill pain and suffering into a face and body meant to signify pleasure and nothing else.

It would be a hoary cliché to make this android some sort of physical ideal, all curves and perfect roundness, but were she to be created with an eye towards physical perfectibility (assuming, for the sake of this paragraph that such a vapid idea is valid), might her capacity for pain balance that out? A desire to learn or to be educated caged by the societal pressure that being beautiful and sexually advanced should mean you are no longer desirous of anything else. An ingeniously crafted body to house a core composed of thwarted dreams. It is almost Hellenistic in its tragedy, and her relationship with pain is the subject of another essay, but I know–I can see it in my mind’s eye, in fact–that she will have scars.

Not mental scars or the invisible markings of spiritual affliction, but physical stripings. God gave us stars for us to tell stories with. And in this way, I am giving her scars for her to tell her own stories with.

If I make her a physical ideal, she will be a blank canvas on which others, other men, will splash their wants and wishes. She will be made to bear the cost of those desires. And if she is perfect enough, I can easily imagine the entire country using her like this, holding her over its eyes to keep from acknowledging its own pain, its own faults. Holding her accountable for their past mistakes. For the desire she provokes. They will turn her into the very disease they meant her to cure.

But if she is already scarred, she cannot be this thing for them. She can only be for herself.

When I was younger, Mom would take us to the Six Flags in Agawam, Massachusetts, a portion of its grounds sectioned off as a waterpark. My siblings and I would go when our mother, one year, got us season passes and, every time we went (including during the week on school nights!) we would see, standing in line with us, the American enormity. Obese, implanted, augmented, steroidal. And each of them bore scars. Surgery scars from what could have been baby deliveries. Sinkholes documenting the passage of a bullet. Knife scars. Telltale liposuction lightning bolts puckering flesh. As much variety as powers the imagination of the tattoo artists who had worked on those same people.

But they would stand in line and compare scars as we sloughed inexorably forward towards those five, maybe eight, seconds of ecstasy on the waterslide.

As a child, I found wonder in the sheer variety of their markings. That such images, accidental or otherwise, could even be imagined. That astounded me. But now, where I find wonder is in the act of unity in the comparing of those scars, in the telling of those stories. The knife scar crenellation meeting the bullet sinkhole, the two linked like stars in a constellation by the story told from one scar’s bearer to another.

So that anyone who offers a definitive diagnosis of my android’s scarring will be wrong. It is the riddle without answer, the palimpsest without originating text. And she will understand that in marking her so, I have saved her from a much greater pain. And maybe given her the opportunity for a much greater joy than having never been marked.

II. Thy fearful symmetry

The 1880s were an economic lull in the wake of Industrial Revolution’s tsunami, but the major battles had not been fought across national borders. Rather, they were between tools and machines. What industrialization did was enable the proliferation of machines. While engineering can reconcile the existence of tools and machines, culture seems ill adapted to make room for both. Machines may be helpful the way tools are and were helpful, but machines rival us. They concretize a central fear in science fiction, which is that we will have manufactured our own obsolescence.

Tools facilitate work and, in the case of the phonograph, Edison’s magnum opus, communication. They do not threaten to replace our voices. In that respect, they are more like extensions of one’s arm or another appendage molded to one’s body, so that, in the ideal vision, the work flows directly from the laborer into the thing being made. Machines need only batteries and can be left to their own devices while tools are simply scraps of metal and wood without human hands to work them.

Donovan Hohn writes in Lapham’s Quarterly:

“At once democratic and utilitarian, individualistic and traditional, they resemble us. They are technological leaves of grass. Wrenches and planes are to American civilization what amphoras and urns were to the ancient Greeks, common artifacts the ubiquity and durability of which attest to their cultural importance and ensure that they will last. Like the Grecian urn in John Keats’ ode, they are the foster children of silence and slow time. Long after the mills crumble into the millponds and the cornfields sprout subdivisions, long after the sweatshops are condemned and the machines sold off as scrap, tools remain.”

The sacrilege of Hadaly’s creation emerges in part from the fact that Edison is using his role as inventor to play God but also in part because he is seeking to replicate natural functions. Human companionship, love, those intangibles that cannot (yet) be scientifically replicated, it is these that Edison seeks to govern and control in crafting Hadaly for Ewald’s purposes. At that point, a flesh and blood woman becomes irrelevant. The desire for children is not as important to Ewald as being in the company of the perfect companion, so it does not matter that the Alicia-copy is sterile. What matters is that she is in every other way perfect. That she cannot demand respect of her own personhood. That she have no proper personhood.

« Il lui prit la main : c’était la main d’Alicia ! Il respira le cou, le sein oppressé de la vision : c’était bien Alicia ! Il regarda les yeux… c’étaient bien les yeux… seulement le regard était sublime ! La toilette, l’allure…–et ce mouchoir dont elle essuyait, en silence, deux larmes sur ses joues liliales,–c’était bien elle encore…mais transfigurée ! devenue enfin, digne de sa beauté même : l’identité idéalisée. »[1]

It is that moment of acknowledgement wherein Ewald sees that Alicia has finally been given the thing she “lacked” all along: a soul. This isn’t a soul as traditionally defined (some ineffable essence that fills in the gaps between inborn intelligence and reaction to stimuli, generating personality), but more governed by a division between intelligence and esprit, between sottise and bêtise. She is too governed by Reason. “Miss Alicia, dans la vie quotidienne – c’est la déesse Raison.”[2] That seems hardly appropriate, in the eyes of Edison and Ewald for a figure resembling “Venus Victrix,” meaning that rather than lack a soul per se, Alicia’s deficiency is that her mind is not compatible with her body. She is too beautiful to be this smart. Or too smart to be this beautiful.

Her first act as a sentient creature is to cry.

III. Rancid Flesh, Incorruptible Soul

The skeletal structure will probably not be the most difficult to diagram, but if it does not come together correctly, the whole thing falls quite literally to pieces.

The aveolar processes will be quite standard in a woman of her age and in relatively good health. The mandible’s condyle, I imagine, smooth and rounded, hinging just so to allow her the full extent of a jaw pivoted in laughter. The ethmoid bone is among the easiest to craft as the ethnic specificity of her eye width and length is a question for the musculature. But the frontal tuberosity, producing those protrusions from which her eyebrows will grow, destroys that illusion of uniformity. And I remind myself, tracking the skull’s progress across the glabella, that area in the center of the forehead between the brows, that the privilege of uniqueness is hers too.

My pen stops when it reaches the lacrimal bone, and I wonder if perhaps it should be adjusted. There are other features in other layers of her manufacturing that would facilitate crying, but there is an opportunity here to nip this particular issue in the bud, so to speak. I could prevent her from exhibiting sadness in that stereotypical manner and, as a result, force her into other creatively ingenious modes of expression. Without an adequately built lacrimal bone, might her face, in the event of sorrow, assume a passive placidity? Would the muscles spread over her cheek and jaw crowd towards her zygomatic bones and processes in preparation of crying and so freeze themselves? Or would she bypass sadness altogether and lace it with other emotions whose expressions are more readily available? Sorrow does not exist in a vacuum. It is oft braided with anger, polka-dotted by joy, buttressed by longing.

Living in New York, one year, I observed a woman weeping. Soft, quiet sobs that shot through her shoulders. But the whole movement was contained by an admirable restraint. Like it was all happening in a vacuum chamber. Two thin streams slid down over her rounded cheeks and occasionally, she sniffled into the sleeve of her hoodie, but the rest of her face was almost slack. Normally, crying occupies all of a face’s faculties. It is a fully demanding effort for the muscles and nerves on call. All of these things working in concert with the neuroanatomy of the face to produce that expression.

She looked again at her phone, the thing that had initially prompted the crying fit, and through her tears, a smile broke across her face.

Anguish is the not the only prompt for tears. And tears are not the only manifestation of anguish.

What misogyny powers me that I hope to once again watch a woman cry? That, this time, I might take care to note what further unexpected constellations may be made of her facial parts?

*

“This idea of the meat-puppet as somehow different from and inferior to the mind, rather than the two being an integrated and seamless whole: it’s so pervasive in our culture that I think we forget to question it… but there are cultures that could not conceive of the mind without the body. Which is what I mean when I say that the singularity in its Rapture of the Geeks form is Augustinian… but then again, what if it’s not a case of the rancid flesh and the incorruptible soul? What if it’s a package deal?”[3]

Edison and Ewald traffic in a Cartesian notion of dualism, that the mind and body are separate and distinct and that it is only a matter of inserting the right mind into an Alicia-copy for her to be fully realized. By codifying the mind and body as separate items and identifying the notion that mentally experienced phenomena are substantively and qualitatively different from physically experienced phenomena, the Hadaly experiment becomes a viable possibility. It is the causal interaction of the mind and body that generates human experience.

The Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell, deriving its title from an Arthur Koestler book on the mind-body problem and the atavistic tendency, posits the dilemma in terms of ‘ghosts.’ In the world of the story, cybernetic prosthesis has been commoditized and humans can replace biological material with electronic and mechanical substitutes. A person can endure almost complete cyberization and remain “human” so long as they retain their “ghost.” Here, it is more than simply the mind as characterized by Descartes. It is, according to Masamune Shirow, the creator of the series, colloquial slang for consciousness.

A ghost is a phenomenon that appears in a system with a sufficient level of complexity. The brain is only a part of the neural network sustaining the ghost; it is tied to every other organ as well so that in mechanized bodies the stimulus of the replaced organ’s existence must be perfectly reproduced in the mechanical substitution; otherwise, the ghost will deteriorate and vanish.

This attacks Cartesian dualism and nuances it by drawing on Koestler’s notion of the mind as holon, as simultaneously a whole and a part. In human experience, an entire hierarchy of forces (ontological, habitual, etc.) operates in a continuum of independent feedback and feedforward streams of a body in the context of its larger environment. The result is the superposition of forces fed by life signals from every group member. Therefore, the “ghost” exists simply as the output of a sufficiently complex knowledge set. It is emergent.

In the film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii, the central conceit is a hacking program called the Puppet Master created to serve various illicit interests eventually gaining sentience, sentience here defined as ability to acknowledge one’s own existence. In attaining this new awareness, it has also attained agency and gone rogue.

Towards the climax of the film, it merges consciousnesses with the film’s protagonist (de-sexed, hyper-competent, highly-mechanized, and fan-service-ly designed supercop Mokoto Kusanagi) to form a third different entity that is neither the original program nor Kusanagi.

Initially, cyborg Alicia is only able to repeat information that has been “programmed” into her circuitry. So far, this is a traditional representation of the android. But by the novel’s end, she generates different patterns of speech and shows evidence of a “spark.” This is what happens to the Puppet Master program when it gains sentience. It spent so much time bathed in an Internet overflowing with information that the system gained enough complexity to propel a consciousness into existence. The true terminus of Edison’s creation is the moment when Alicia’s consciousness reaches a level of complexity sufficient to become emergent. A level of complexity sufficient simply to become.

Author Elizabeth Bear writes: “The machine shapes the ghost as surely–probably even more strongly, given current research into neuroplasticity–as the ghost shapes the machine. Meat hacks mind and mind hacks meat: they are codependent, and cannot exist without each other in any functional form.”

It is an echo of sorts of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. “We are all chimeras,” Haraway writes, “theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.”[4]

Therein lies the locus of the “life” Edison created. The voluminous descriptions of Hadaly’s inner workings are, textually, efforts to turn descriptions of sensations into actual intelligence. They illustrate the level of complexity necessary here to generate the kind of life Edison is after. Pars por toto, a part taken for a whole. Synechdoche. The same literary technique Flaubert used to describe Emma Bovary’s fateful carriage ride with Léon in Part Three, Chapter One, where la voiture is joined by le fiacre, so that masculine and feminine referents evoke Emma and Léon’s entanglement, where the carriage’s movement through the litany of districts and provinces evokes Emma’s leavetaking of decency and conjugal fidelity, where the torn letter is, in her reality ejaculate, and in the observable reality on the page, pieces of parchment.

IV. In what furnace was thy brain?

I read of a man once who suffered from a congenital nerve disease that robbed his face of function.

His original diagnosis, to which his wife at the time had clung religiously, was Bell’s Palsy, which, if attacked with the correct treatment, can correct itself completely over the course of several months. Bell’s Palsy is caused by damage to the facial nerve, resulting in a facial hemiparalysis. Sufferers are usually stricken with an overnight suddenness. And the horrific expression of their own horror is compounded in its dreadfulness by the fact that half of their face will refuse to acknowledge their own reaction to this hideous thing that has been done to them.

But the injustice is ultimately fixed, the wrong righted, and functional expression returned to the expresser.

Even rarer is what had afflicted this man about whom I’d read. A clinical abnormality had resulted in his lack of a functioning facial nerve. I thought at the time of his affliction that perhaps there had been trauma fracturing the temporal bone and that his facial nerve paralysis was acute. Perhaps an injection of guarded optimism. I imagine, if a friend had tried that explanation, that he would have raised his eyebrows, were he still able to, but would not have smiled and would not have frowned. Nor would he have shaken his head. He’d maybe say ‘I don’t think that’s it’ in a way that could have suggested irony or ribbing at my ineffectiveness as a diagnostician and friend. Or maybe that was simply his inability to express something more readily acknowledged as despair.

Doctors later discovered a tumor compressing the facial nerve along one of its convoluted and innumerable pathways. An acoustic neuroma would have resulted in hearing loss, and we realized he could hear us just find. It was only his lack of visible reaction that had fooled us. His ears bore no discharge, so a congenital cholesteatoma was stricken from the list. But his face, as the cancer worsened, grew more and more effortlessly still. Devoid of motion. His eyes lit with activity; we could all tell he was thinking. But it was more difficult to assume he was worrying. So we were left observing the paradox that as the cancer grew more active and his disease louder and more boisterous in its colonization of his brain and body, his face grew more and more…serene isn’t the word. It loosened perhaps. Softened. Lines were erased as quickly as they had arrived. His face grew slower. Like a stillborn babe’s.

I used to wear an old watch that had served a dual function as fashion accessory. It was less useful as a time-telling device (I had maybe a half dozen items on my person for that) than as an outlet for a nervous tic. The band was slightly loose on my wrist, as I hadn’t yet gained back the weight I’d lost in a hospital scare a few years back. A nervous tic developed: I was constantly flicking my wrist and, only after I was caught, checking for the time. I began to detest the habit. Some reptilian worry lizarding its way around the back of my brain could be enough to stir compulsive wrist-flicking, the clink of those links coming together a reprieve of white noise that soon became a mosquito’s buzz.

One day, the watch stopped ticking. I had been less than gentle with it and it likely needed only a quick trip to the local JCPenney outlet to be fixed, but I put it off and soon I found myself watchless.

Without noticing, my tic had vanished. My wrist, when nothing was asked of it, remained still.

Maybe nothing was being asked of this man’s face. True, he was undergoing a traumatic experience that would ultimately result in his burial. But maybe this is simply a different instrumentality of peace. Of serenity. When the thing is broken and cannot be fixed and you can’t get a new one, you adjust to the one you’re stuck with. The expressionary instrument.

Maybe his broken face gave him peace in his final moments. Eliminated the battle for him.

He never seemed to mind his lack of expressionistic capability. Maybe the writer of the piece never asked.

I hope when a doctor sees my creation’s malformed lacrimal ducts, the doctor will not suspect her of a defect. I hope the doctor will refrain from attempting to treat her. It is advised that doctors remove a benign tumor on the facial nerve in a way that preserves the nerve. However, regarding malignant tumors, it is recommended that the tumor be resected along with the surrounding tissue, including inevitably, the facial nerve. The heightened paralysis is usually temporary and can be corrected through hypoglossal-facial nerve anastomosis, end-to-end nerve repair, cross facial nerve grafting or muscle transposition techniques.

The man in the article did not want this. As far as I could tell, he did not need it.

I never replaced the watch after it broke.

*

“Reproduction is that which is, at least initially, unthinkable in the face of the woman-machine. Herself the product of a desire to reproduce, she blocks the very possibility of a future through her sterility. Motherhood acts as a limit to the conceptualization of femininity as a scientific construction of mechanical and electrical parts. And yet it is also that which infuses the machine with the breath of a human spirit. The maternal and the material/synthetic coexist in a relation that is a curious imbrication of dependence and antagonism.”[5]

The creation of Hadaly-Alicia is the emergent outcome of a number of impulses at play. Identified as an inventor, Edison is here characterized as a Maker of Things. His intellectual prowess is married to his imagination, but his workmanship is the true prized pony. The descriptions of Hadaly’s circuitry, while occasionally monotonous, are not without poetic intervals, and this harkens back to an older, pre-industrial notion of building where men were more explicitly wedded to the notion of validation captured in what one built, what one made with one’s hands. The advent of machines frustrates that primordial compulsion, and Edison is simultaneously a harbinger of that age’s end and a poster-boy for the workmanship or the love of one’s craft that fueled many a constructive enterprise in ages past. “Craftsmanship,” one character says in Dennis Lehane’s 2008 novel The Given Day, “is just a fancy word for when labor meets love.” It is this that Edison exemplifies and that is subsequently tortured by Ewald’s need into something macabre and sacrilegious.

Hadaly-Alicia is not in the end analysis something built; she is something created. As an inanimate body in parts and even as an inanimate whole, she was something built, the product of long and involved labor. But the infusion of an animating “spark of humanity” into that pile of circuitry is the transgressive act of creation. There is no tool that could have assembled that spark, no man-made implement that could have fabricated and calibrated it. It is a perversion of human birth. That Hadaly-Alicia arrives as the alleged paragon of female beauty is further evidence of the corruption of the birthing process. She is not a babe drenched in after-birth. She is a fully-formed, physically articulate reproduction of a human being, only “better.” She is the simulacrum that has grown more important and meaningful than the original. The map a man wants of the territory he scorned.

While Alicia the cyborg is freed from the 19th century reproductive obligation that might normally burden her, she is not de-sexed. While she may be materially extricated from the value economy of gender, she is still a result of the desires and impulses of the men who willed her into creation.

She does develop “sentience” before the novel’s end, but she is destroyed before the reader can divine any agency in her. We never see what her sentience looks like.

What makes Villiers’s novel a nuance of the bovarysme paradigm is that le désir du vivre and le désir du savoir are separated in the two male characters. Emma Bovary’s tragedy is that she let herself be governed by one at the expense of the other. With Edison and Ewald acting in unison, we see a marriage of the two impulses. The result, however, is the same: the destruction of the woman.

Emma’s destruction occurs at her own hand after having witnessed the wholesale collapse of the alternate reality she sought to construct out of her romantic inclinations. Hadaly-Alicia’s destruction is the result of an almost comical folly of logistics. Edison has built the perfect woman, but he cannot figure out how to move her and during a sea voyage, the ship sinks and she short-circuits. Ewald is in mourning, but Edison’s final state is less clear. Ewald was given the chance to actualize his dream-reality, if only for the brief duration of Hadaly-Alicia’s “life” and his mourning seems a more satisfying state than the dissatisfaction that saddled him in the beginning. But what is Edison thinking in the final moments of the novel?

He shivers. Is it with anger that his finest creation, the only one of its kind, has been destroyed? Or is it in recognition of the terrible act he committed in building her to begin with? Is it in contemplation of what further direction he might take his work in, or is he paralyzed with fear that whatever he invents from here on out will be tainted by the thing he has just done?

In glimpsing the magnificent cathedral his hands had crafted, was he frightened of what he discovered Man was capable of, and is this then the result of le bovarysme in the hands of those with the power to suitably alter their reality?

Another might look at Edison’s silence in those final moments and recall the builders of the Tower of Babel who, struck with visions of the grandeur of the thing they were building, had their language confounded so that they could no longer communicate and continue their blasphemous enterprise.

V. What immortal hand or eye

I can see her face on the screen before me. A three-dimensional representation diagramming the regions of her face and head innervated by the facial nerve. The regio orbitalis, regio frontalis, zygomatica, oralis, parietalis, mastoidea, the list goes on. And she is a wonder of isolated expression. When she cries, she cries. When she laughs, she laughs with many parts of her face. But most people I know laugh, when they laugh genuinely, with their whole self. Even their spleen is enlisted in the task of mirth.

When this android frowns, she frowns completely. And when she is confused, it is mightily evident.

I change the display to show her with shortened hair and I can even watch her neck muscles tense with each expression asked of her. And I’ve tried to get individual parts of her face programmed to contrast in those beautifully unexpected constellations like that of the smiling-weeping girl on the subway. Any effort to get my creation to laugh and cry at the same time is a Sisyphean confusion. Her brow furrows, her lips curl upward, but it is as though her face as a whole does not know what it is supposed to do, whereas the girl on the train expressed such surety!

The face doesn’t create these emotions, this confluence of emotions, but it is an instrumentality of their expression. So is the clenched fist. So is the flicked wrist. And so are the heaving shoulders.

I can imagine that a mother once would have seen that face as it had looked on a child. And maybe that mother would have seen that face, not just as her husband’s nose and her own forehead and their melded genetics in miniature, but the face itself, the image of it, in its entirety. A whole idea. A whole representation and maybe the child, seeing her mother’s face, would see the same. An idea. A thing that birthed an internal representation of the person who was to guard her life and nurture her and maybe one day take her ice-skating on the lake that freezes milky ever since that very rainy fall that loosened the mud on the bank. It is postulated that that is how mothers and their children saw each other’s faces, as distinct wholes, diminishing the possibility that a parent might abandon its offspring, lose her in the shuffle, pick up the wrong one and not realize until they brought her home. Parent-infant attraction. Quick, minimal effort to erase momentarily the parent’s temptation to see itself in the child’s features and the child’s temptation to look for itself in the landscape of its mother’s smile, and bind them nonetheless in silent homage to the divinity strung like an umbilical cord between them. Pars por toto.

*

An image: a vertical row of electrical outlets, three-pronged, and with different formations for the bottom hole. The center outlet appears to be laughing.

Pareidolia, that accidental miracle of evolution, suggests we are hard-wired to recognize faces. We see them where they don’t belong, the stimuli of the ventral fusiform cortex random and erroneous. A medical magnetoencephalography study found that incidental objects induced an activation at 165 ms in the ventral fusiform cortex and that images of real faces induced an activation that peaked at 130 ms.

Another image: the Libya Montes, the highland terrain on Mars created by the impact that created the Isidis basin to the north. A quite haunting face, the aquiline nose, the browless eyes sheltered under thick ridges, the pursed lower lip. When the sun tilted its light at the right angle, and the satellite perched at the right height, we all saw the same formation.

Beneath the mystery, our reactions are diverse. Some see a disillusioned daughter, others a disapproving mother, others still a spurned lover. Some see a sister or a girl they knew or someone they once played with. Others perhaps see a physical embodiment of that imagistic whole they’d first envisioned in a dream. Some see it as the realization of that dream, that prophecy.

The Libya Montes belongs to no one but God; we take her for our own anyway. We all see what we want to see in her and try as I might, I cannot see my creation’s smile without seeing how a loved one’s cheekbones had done the same thing once upon a time.

*

The foundation of the metaphorical cathedral represented in the creation of Hadaly-Alicia is of similar build to the spiritual malady that propelled Emma Bovary, a spiritual malady of near-identical complexion, molded of equal parts “l’amour-propre, la vanité, la suffisance, l’ambition, l’inquiétude, l’inconstance.” It is an engine of discontent emerging from the divorce between the is-ness and the ought-ness of the world. And Hadaly-Alicia is an attempt at bridging that gap. There are no societal prisons constraining the movement of these two men as there was for Emma, so they are allowed to stretch their wings as far out as they can, farther than they were ever supposed to.

Whether Hadaly-Alicia is a human or akin to one is irrelevant in the face of the fact that the object of Ewald’s quest for the perfect woman has been actualized and while she may lack agency, she is not herself simply a machine either. In her creation, the otherwise noble impellent to build that has been a solid facet of manhood and a validation of identity, despite the near wholesale mechanization of the Industrial Revolution, is perverted into a tortured birthing drive, a compulsion not to make, but to create.

This fouling of the line between synthesized and natural, between man and man-as-God is what allows Edison the attainment of his goal, but it is also what fills him with horror in recognition of that attainment.

The Edison at novel’s end is paralyzed. By anger, fear, speculation or any combination of the above is almost impossible to say, but the novel does not see him invent another thing for the rest of its pages.

*

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.[6]

The android, as it exists today and as it existed in its earliest incarnation, is male fantasy. Even when clothed in alleged feminism, the garments cannot hide the fact that the Male Gaze drafted its blueprint. And as a science-fictional conceit, it contains the male’s primordial fear. If the thing becomes its own, if it gains agency, maybe it will not want us anymore. A cage made to look how we want it to look, so that any time the thing tries to adjust its posture and be acknowledged, we get GamerGate. We get the Rabid Puppies. We get Harlan Ellison touching Connie Willis’s breast at the 2006 Hugo Awards ceremony. And any number of unreported instances of misogyny and violence against women.

L’Eve future arrived at the other end of a century that gave us Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. In the very first identifiable science fiction novel, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation is referred to by its author as “creature” and “abhorrent devil,” though the nameless homunculus, in one memorable instance, refers to himself as “the Adam of your labours” and demands a companion. If we’re going to play at being God, says the monster, ain’t no half-steppin’.

In Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina, beauty is an essential part of the android’s design. Her purpose is to escape. We are led to believe that said desire in Ava was self-generated, that any thing–animal, human or robot–would automatically, naturally, resist enclosure. But the very point of the experiment is to see what she will do to escape. She was designed, in fact, for the purpose of actualizing her desire to break free. It is not her goal, but her creator’s. In every way, she is made to mimic us. The film was released in 2015 to critical acclaim, almost a century and a half after the Symbolist novel that gave us our earliest usage of the term android.

When an android’s jaw is smashed in Ex Machina or, in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, when John Connor performs repairs on the Cameron android sent back in time to protect him, rapture thrills through a certain kind of viewer. The technological handiwork is exteriorized, the perfectly feminine façade penetrated, and we see the extensive inner landscape of exteriorized technological components married to a form presented as a corrective to the flaws of the living female.

In over one hundred years with all the changes that have attended (Western) literature in general and speculative fiction specifically, the android is still a pornographic entity. And the most ingenious thing we can think to do, the only way we seem to be able to reimagine the terror of engineering our own demise, is to remove a rib and build an Eve.

[1] Villiers, pg. 307.

[2] Villiers, pg. 92.

[3] Bear, Elizabeth. “I, Singularity” Blog: Charlie’s Diary, http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2011/09/i-singularity.html

[4] Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980’s.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader Ed. Gill Kirkup. London: Psychology Press, 2000. pg. 50-57.

[5] Doane, Mary Ann. “Technophilia: Technology, Representation, and the Feminine.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader Ed. Gill Kirkup (pg. 112)

[6] Attributed to Margaret Atwood

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