By Jean Roberta
M. Christian’s latest collection of nine erotic sci-fi stories is a worthy sequel to his earlier book, The Bachelor Machine. While both collections show how technology can enhance sexual experience, Skin Effect actually seems more focused on the fluid nature of identity than on sex as a physical experience. This is not to say that the sex has shrunk in importance in the imaginary future; if anything, sex is shown to be the one thing that breaks down human isolation and self-delusion.
In the playful “Pret-a-Porter” (French for ready to wear), an introverted young woman buys a substance called “smartfabric” from a persuasive salesman, and no longer needs any other clothes. The substance forms itself into various garments in response to the wearer’s desire – and it knows her better than she consciously knows herself. Her visit to a nightclub named Hell could have led to a gruesome ending, but in this story, her new appearance in a new milieu is liberating.
“The Bell House Invitation” is a dizzying story, originally published in an anthology of gender-bending erotic fantasy.* Several house-mates of all genders and sexual orientations form a “pocket collective” based on a shared consciousness, and they collectively interview Sarah, a woman they hope will enhance their group relationship. This story fleshes out the theory that everyone is at least potentially pansexual, and that if we all had access to each other’s consciousness (as every reader can see the world through the eyes of different characters), we could be intimate on levels that once seemed impossible. It’s a noble premise, but this reviewer found the multiple perspectives distracting in a short story. A novel might have given the collective a more spacious “house.”
“Happy Birthday” shows multiple identities over time rather than coexisting in the present. An individual consciousness has explored different eras and environments, and has acquired enormous knowledge as a result.
Two stories in Skin Effect were reprinted from The Mammoth Book of Erotic Romance and Domination, one of editor Maxim Jakubowski’s “mammoth” erotic anthologies. “[Title Forgotten]” is about the general human desire to erase painful memories, and the parallel desire to recover them in order to understand their influence on the present. The other story, “The Subsequent State,” is the most moving story in the collection (in this reviewer’s opinion), and it brilliantly captures both the visceral effects of growing up in a culture of religious intolerance and the relief of escape into a “green” culture which is not damned but salvational.
The nine stories in this collection are bracketed by an introduction by Ernest Hogan, “Dirty Minds Across Space, Time and Beyond,” and the author’s afterword: “It’s NOT the End of the World as We Know It – And I Feel Fine.” M. Christian’s rejection of dystopian endings explains the upbeat tone of most of these stories as well as his belief that the real world is not necessarily doomed. This afterword serves as a better introduction to the stories than the opening piece by another writer. M. Christian explains his optimism:
“Pretty soon the world is not going to split into have-nots and haves but rather the smart and the dumb. Sure, the superrich will buy their way out like they always have but just look at the world right now: you have folks who are repairing, making do, making things last, buying affordable and durable, and actually having the gall to enjoy their simpler lives.” He goes on to say: “Nuclear war and/or biological attack? Pish . . As I told my hysterical friends on September 11th, the terrorists showed anything but brains in their attacks.”
In these stories, human ingenuity combined with the human desire to connect with other humans is shown to have the power to outlast whatever seems to threaten human survival. It’s an exhilarating message.
*Up for Grabs 2: Exploring More Worlds of Gender, edited by Lauren Burka (Circlet Press, 2011).