Thanks so much, Lisabet!
Normally, when I write a review, I treat the book as a stand-alone entity, without considering prequels, sequels or other books in a series. In reviewing Skin Effect, however, it’s almost impossible not to make some reference to The Bachelor Machine, M. Christian’s first collection of science fiction erotica, which I reviewed back in 2009. For one thing, there’s the subtitle, “More Erotic Science Fiction and Fantasy Erotica”, pointedly implying the existence of the previous volume. Then there’s the author’s Afterword, which explicitly compares the perspectives in the first book to those in this one. Even the title is a reference to the earlier book, the name of one of the stories therein (which is not included here). In any case, I couldn’t really read this collection without being reminded of the earlier volume. The stories are equally inventive, but extremely different in tone. To me, they suggested a more mature, subtle and balanced vision of the future.
The world of The Bachelor Machine is largely dystopic, a dark environment of crumbling infrastructure, poisoned nature, desperate individuals, oppressive and dehumanizing technology. The stories in Skin Effect reflect a greater degree of hope as well as the expected impact of more recent technological developments—constant data streams gathered by wearable sensors; software agents that relieve us of the need to learn or remember; the omnipresent social media-sphere, where every thought, action and emotion is immediately visible to one’s audience and one’s worth as a human being might be measured by the number of spectators one can muster. Like those in the earlier book, however, these tales ask difficult but intriguing questions about reality and human existence. What does it mean to talk about one’s life history, when memories can be implanted or erased at will? What happens to sex when changing gender is almost as easy as changing clothes and every possible sexual variation is available via simulation? Is there something special or unique about direct experience, unmediated by technology? Is that sort of genuine, first-hand, totally disconnected experience even possible anymore?
One of my favorite stories in the collection is the simple and elegant “Prêt-à-Porter”. A rather shy, serious young woman purchases a – garment – made of the ultimate intelligent fabric, fabric that transforms itself into whatever sort of clothing or costume its wearer desires—and which shapes its owner’s desires in the process.
It was ... warm, like a another person's skin. She knew it would be, but the comfort of it was still calming – making the release of that second breath slow and easy. It moved up her body like a splash from a shallow pool, the warmness of it making her relax even more.
As it flowed, it stayed black – but just as she noticed that, it changed: rolling through a rainbow of hues, shades, and saturations. As it flowed, it stayed glistening like colorful latex – but as she noticed that, as well, it changed: tumbling through an array of textures, contours, weaves, and shapes.
She couldn't help it: she laughed. It was like a puppy, fresh out of the box and eager to play. It didn't take her mind long to imagine the artificial, intelligent, endlessly chameleonic material as wagging a form of artificial, intelligent, endlessly chameleonic, tail.
“LMS”, the last story in the volume, is another high point. Set in a nearer term future than most of the tales (a future in which humans still design web sites!), this tale features an insecure, depressed protagonist who is pried out of his fugue of self-loathing by an encounter with a transsexual who sincerely admires his work. This is a sexy but surprisingly sweet love story, set in a world where your Facebook numbers can determine your personal fate.
“A Kiss Goodnight” presents the next stage in evolution, as an aging pioneer in the study of artificial intelligence is seduced by the “ghost in the machine”, the sentient, self-aware outcome of his own research. The language in this tale is utterly gorgeous, whether the author is describing the taste of a peach (a real peach, grown on an actual tree—something exceedingly rare) or the nature of the professor’s elusive partner.
Shimmering shoals of software; ripples of digital entities flashing in and out of existence – some on a scale of centuries, others faster than anything alive could ever blink, the on and offs of their own basic (in its own way primitive) DNA coding drifting, merging ... vast snowflakes of algorithms wheeling and spinning against an infinite spectrum of quantum uncertainty ... breaking, splintering, only to merge into new complexities, new potentialities. It was a flashing, flickering, fairy kingdom of brilliant streaks, pops, swirls, cascades of illuminated data coming and going, evolving and learning, growing and refining ... flowering unique forms for unique tasks while deep, immense structures, eternally pondering monoliths of infinite potentials and possibilities, thought their long computational thoughts ... knowing every permutation and branch of possibility and, within it all, a cool and perfect understanding of their original architects, the first programmers, far more than they could ever know themselves.
Despite this awe-inspiring vision of distributed intelligence, the physical coupling between the professor and his digital partner is compelling, even world-shattering, flesh and blood sex a kind of fundamental language that in some sense transcends species.
This is the message of “The Potter’s Wheel” as well, a fascinating tale in which a woman who supports herself by selling her experiences via social media is chosen to meet the Potter of Gujyo-hachiman, a Living Treasure renowned for his exquisite porcelain. Living off the ‘Net at his monastic retreat in rural Japan, more or less purely in the physical world, the Potter helps Peers reconnect with fleshly, unmediated desire.
Although a few are listed as previously published, all of the stories in Skin Effectwere new to me, with the exception of “The Bell House Invitation”, which I’d called out as one of the sexiest stories in The Bachelor Machine. I was delighted to have the chance to savor this unique ménage once again. Indeed, the story might be more consistent with the worldview spun by this volume than in its original home.
All in all, Skin Effect is a solid collection of speculative erotica. I have to be honest and admit that I found it less erotic, overall, than The Bachelor Machine. However, that may say as much about me (years older than I was when I read the first book, and far more jaded) than it does about the book. I think it’s fair to suggest that the sex in these stories is sweeter and more sincere, less about thrills and more about connections. That’s fine, as far as I’m concerned. I want more than heat in my reading; I want original ideas and graceful language. In this regard, there’s no question that M. Christian delivers.