The Off Switch

“What is that?” Sorroh said, pointing to an object on the professors’ shoulder. It looked like a switch. It was slightly buried, as if to prevent an accidental toggling, but it was otherwise exposed. Anyone with a finger could have toggled it.

“Don’t touch that!” he said, flinching. “That’s my off switch.”

“Your what?

“My off switch. Everyone has one. It’s built into every sentient being on Goanra when they’re manufactured.”

“You mean, anyone could just flip that switch and… turn you off?”

“Well, yes,” Professor Johna said. “It’s very important to Goanra civil society. If you know anyone could flip your switch at any moment, it encourages you to be polite, you know.”

“But it’s just… exposed,” Sorroh protested. “Aren’t there accidents?”

“Oh, of course. Children flip each other’s now and then. Or their parents. Tragic, really.” He paused, letting his manipulators sag. “Every once in a rare while, someone gets exposed to one of those old self-reinforcing memetic virus and their defenses fail them. When that happens, they go into a crowded, public space and start attacking people, flipping their switches as fast as possible. People flee, of course, and the then authorities surround him. Typically they end up flipping their own switch.”

“But…” Sorroh stared at him. Posthuman civilizations were supposed to be civilized. The idea that one world was full of people with their activation core exposed with a simply binary toggle, subject to the casual whim of others, shocked her. “In most of civilized space, nobody walks around with the notion that someone else could just casually reach over and turn her off, professor!”

“Maybe they should!” he snapped. “It might help them be polite!”

Sorroh immediately calibrated her response. She suddenly didn’t want him, or anyone on this Artilect-forsaken world, angry at her. “Other worlds manage to be polite along a range,” she said soothingly. “A range that permits dissent, disagreement. How do scholars on a world like Goanra achieve the principle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis if… if everyone is so terrified they’re polite about their disagreements?”

“That’s true,” he admitted, his signals surrounded with the emoji for frustration. “We aren’t as innovative as others. We like our past. We like not moving forward too quickly, my dear Sorroh.” He paused for a moment, the holograms of his internal state shifting down to an orangish-red color. “The ones who seem most subject to memetic failure are the ones most attached to the past as well. But this is beside the point. It a world without switches, surely these problems are just as commonplace? What’s to stop someone attacking you with a welder? Or a neutrino box?”

“Well,” Sorroh said. “Welders are hard to carry or conceal, and you’d have to get to someone’s core to do permanent damage. It’s a very slow means of murder, professor. And a neutrino box is very hard to come by. There aren’t many good reasons for someone to have one unless you’re a major repair facility or a starship. They’re very strongly regulated here, aren’t they?”

“But they can still do the same amount of damage, agreed?”

“Not at the same rate, professor, and not with the same ease.”

“Criminals will always find a way.”

“Is the politeness really worth the accidents, the deaths, and the ease of suicide?”

“Who said anything about suicide?”

Sorroh’s own holograms banked into dusk-blue. “Professor, if anyone can flip their own switch, suicide is a nightmarish problem. It prevents the kind of delay that might let someone seek help. Even I can see that.”

His joints whined in a sigh. “Yes, you’re right. It’s not a big deal. Suicides are defective anyway. It’s a net benefit. Only the cheerful ones remain, you see, and the defectives go to the recycler without spending too much time using up resources.”

Sorroh let her holograms roll forward without interference, keeping her reaction entirely internal. She had to get off this world. She shook her sensor platform. “Well, professor, this has been enlightening.” In the background she ordered a co-processor to start booking an elevator off this world, soon. A second processor began negotiating with a slowboat to the edge of the system. The sooner the better. Before they demanded she get an off-switch installed.

I ought to be a Sad Puppy.

No, I’m not a supporter of snot-nosed Vox Day’s ridiculous and stupid campaign to overwrite the will of Hugo voters. I’m not going to say that he and his ilk deserve anything othen than public opprobrium in the face of their self-serving and malign campaign to deprive the science fiction community of its next level up.

When it comes to what I like to read, well… I generally like what Baen has to offer. Sad, but true. I bounce off women writers more often than I do men, I like bad space opera and ridiculous tales of derring-do, and I cheer when the hero gets laid. One of my favorite writers is David Friggin Weber, which is about as silly as its sounds.

I’m a little more sensitive now that I was in my 20s. Admittedly, in my 20s I was living through the early Cyberpunk era and its post-New Wave backlash, which both embraced and attacked the mores and ethics of New Wave feminist SF 1970s. These days I wince if the story is too obviously written by a an old white guy who thinks a homogeneous, conservative version of Southern California in space!, where the men are men and the women are pliant bubble-breasted double-jointed vixens with no gag reflex, is paradise. But the truth is I’m an old white guy who likes reading stories written by other old white guys.

Which is why I really can’t stand the Sad Puppy / Rabid Puppy thing at all. Look, boys, we’re old. Like, really old. Kids these days are going to forge their own worlds, with their own stories, and there ain’t a damn thing we can do about it. You can poison some awards processes and wreck a fine time you could have otherwise enjoyed. The kids will have this world long after we’re gone, and the only thing we can do is try to hand off a world of faith, hope and caritas… or, in the case of the SP/RP crowd, a burning cinder, a hellscape fixed forever in a universe of pure hatred.

Nobody is stopping you from writing. No one is preventing you from buying John C. Wright’s books. (I wouldn’t encourage anyone to give Wright money, though; his hackneyed, ridiculous style would disqualify him long before we start discussing his manifest personal cruelty.)

Go ahead, write the swash and the buckle. Just remember that you’re outnumbered. Your niche rose to prominence because of the privileges we white, English-speaking guys had in the early 20th century. But in the age of the Internet, you are outnumbered, you are a minority, and you are an embarrassment if you continue to write with the kind of deft wit and narrative grace that brought Ken Robeson or Victor Appleton fame.

There is an ongoing kerfluffle over the (unsubtly hidden) Christian romance publish house “Clean Reads,” and its guidelines that it wants only “real stories” that don’t require sex, violence, or profanity. The guidelines are pretty strict; the characters shouldn’t even have premarital sex, or discuss having had premarital sex, unless “consequences” are outlined. Rick Reed’s post stirred up a bit of a nest, and he’s since closed down comments.

Clean Reads replied to the controversy by saying that you could have GLBTQA+ characters in your stories, just not as the main characters. They could be props, but any romantic arc to their characters was pretty much not allowed.

In academic queer studies, there’s an existing line of though that goes all the way back to Fear of a Queer Planet (1991), that straight people are “people who have sexual bodies,” while gay people are “sexual bodies that have people.” The default when listening to someone is to assume humanity first and be comfortable that their sexuality is probably conventional; when gayness is thrust upon the listener, suddenly what the speaker does in bed is likewise thrust to the forefront of the listener’s mind.

The gay body is, by default, a sexualized body first and a human being later. Clean Reads falls into this line of thinking almost by default. American Christianity is not interested in God’s children who can’t or won’t belong to the Church of No-Homo. “Jesus consorted with lepers, prostitutes, and the destitute, but he drew a line and shouted, ‘No Homo.'”

It’s unfair. And sadly it will be a few generations before it goes away. The best we can do is not give Clean Reads our money or manuscripts.

In a brave mixture of desperation, curiosity, and briefly having the money necessary to indulge, I went out and bought a couple of tentacle monster porn “books” from the Kindle/Nook self-publishing arm of the universe.  I picked books that were scored better than halfway (2.5 stars or more out of 5), and those that were explicitly tentacle monster sex books.

Sheila’s Tentacle Monster by Annabel Bastione was the first one, and probably the “best” one, which is saying a lot about how bad the others were.  Sheila and her husband, Stan, have a terrible relationship; they can’t stand each other, fight all the time, haven’t had sex in months.  When a crashing noise erupts in their back yard, he goes to investigate, and then she hears screaming.  She goes out to find Stan being held upside down and vigorously sodomized  by a poorly-described tentacle monster, who then proceeds to work its sexual desires on Sheila instead.  The action is literal and highly visual.  Sheila’s emotional output is all reserved for how much she hates Stan.  The “follow up” story is about how Sheila has adopted the monster and takes care of it, followed by her and Stan arguing over who has the “right” to the monster now that Stan has discovered his kink, followed by the monster doing them both, giving Sheila more time to think about how much she hates Stan.

It’s more like bad therapy for Ms. Bostione than porn.

My New Boyfriend The Tentacle Sex Beast by Odessa Piper was doing okay.  Our heroine finds a book of “sex spells” and decides to try one.  The tentacle monster that shows up is bewildered by the idea that Sophie doesn’t actually want anything for sex other than a really good lay.  She’ll take what the monster is offering, but it’s not the point.  The monster is also a little put out by the assertiveness of the modern woman, but he takes control soon enough.  For all that, I just couldn’t get past the monster’s bad, bad 50s-era greaser/brooklyn/badboy accent.  The writer makes the monster less a multi-millennial sexbeast and more a lousy lay from your teenage memories, the pervy boy in the leather jacket who couldn’t wait to get his hands on you.  I just couldn’t get past that.

Alien Tentacle Sex by Pen Penguin was the worst of the lot.  It starts with a telling-not-showing “We’re a bad bunch of space pirates” opening, then leads into a bloody murder scene on a space station, followed by, well, I didn’t even bother to find out.  Just bad, bad writing all around.

All of these “books” by the way, are barely stories; the longest was 30 pages, the shortest 18.  At $1.99 a pop, that’s not horrible, but we should demand more of our tentacle porn stories.

The last time I read decent tentacle monster porn, it was the opening fantasia of Purrfect Plunder, by Andrew J. Offut (1982).

I guess if I want good modern tentacle monster porn, I’ll have to write it myself.

In my long-running erotic space opera, The Journal Entries, there’s been an almost as long-running thread around sexbots. With few exceptions, the sexbot stories have always been about second-hand robots; ones whose previous owners for one reason or another have died or abandoned the robot, leaving her (it’s almost always a “her” robot) to figure out how to live life without someone who absolutely needs and requires her presence.

Part of the reason I have avoided “first owner” stories is that they don’t interest me; my own reasoning is that men would buy a completely deferent sexbot because they themselves are not very competent human beings, because actual relationships with real individuals are hard, and because they’re the sort of men who would take an easy route out rather than engage in any sort of self-examination.

It may show my lack of thought, but until today I hadn’t stopped to connect that thought with two other ideas running through the fabric of our society. On the one hand, the Men’s Rights Activist movement is eagerly awaiting the emergence of sexbots, woman-shaped substitutes that will provide them with the release valve they say they need.

On the other hand, there’s the idea that women are called upon to engage in “unpaid emotional labor.” Emotional labor is the requirement of a job to depict specific emotional states toward customers or clients: you must be cheerful, or optimistic, or attentive, all emotional states you must somehow pretend to have even when your own life is not any of those things. “Unpaid emotional labor” is the acknowledgement that, outside of work, men are allowed to be angry or grim, whereas a woman being any of those things in public is assailed with requests to “cheer up” and “stop being a downer debbie.”

Relationships require some emotional labor from all parties involved. But sexbots don’t require any emotional labor at all. The “good enough” AIs MRAs eagerly await will do all of the work, and need nothing in return.

Which brings us back to the main point I’ve been making about men and sex. I fully believe that upwards of one-third of all men really don’t like sex. They like orgasms and they like expressions of their potency, but the whole sex thing, its sticky, icky wetness, the need to study and learn its ins and outs, its requirement that one negotiate fairly with a partner and come to an agreement on getting everyone’s needs met, just isn’t their thing. It’s too much work.

So when MRAs breathlessly await the coming sexbot revolution, what they’re really saying is simple: MRAs are lousy men. They’re bad at being human beings. And they don’t want to learn. “Relationships are hard. Let’s go shopping.”

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