Alice Sheldon’s Unveiling of Humanity

side by side series of the cover of The Girl Who Was Plugged In

The 1973 novellete “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” by Alice Sheldon, was introduced to me by a book I’ve been translating from Hebrew. The characters in author Shimon Adaf’s novel discuss the story without reference to its author, but as soon as I looked it up, Sheldon became an instant hero of mine. Not only was she a groundbreaking and award-winning science fiction writer who published under the pen name James Tiptree Jr. (among others), but she was also an artist and an art critic, an air force major, a CIA agent, a doctor of experimental psychology, and openly bisexual at a time when many women didn’t even dare try to be just one of those things. Using pseudonyms to establish her separate careers while avoiding scrutiny, she was the kind of woman who refused to keep house, wrote a story about a planet without men (spoiler alert: the women make do just fine), and insisted on the precedence of accuracy over prudery even when it was considered indecorous (in art school, for instance, she recreated the blurred genitals of anatomical male images with a pencil).

In “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” a futuristic society has found a loophole in a law forbidding commercial advertisements—the use of “gods,” young, beautiful, pre-programmed, and mechanically-engineered celebrities whose lives are a series of opportunities for product placement. The similarity to today’s influencers is undeniable, but there is one critical difference: the creators and operators of these walking thirst traps have made them more flawless, more enviable, and more compliant than any Instagram idol ever could be.

But someone must do the dirty work of providing these young gods with a source of movement and expression. Who better to operate brand new goddess Delphi—“eighty-nine pounds of tender girl flesh and blood with a few metallic components, stepping out into the sunlight to be taken to her new life. A girl with everything going for her including a meditech escort”—than P. Burke, a depressed, unhealthy, disabled, lonely young languages major who lives for god sightings? The unnamed narrator has no qualms when he states that no one could possibly miss Burke or even notice her absence as she spends the rest of her days locked in an underground cell near Carbondale, Pennsylvania, connected to electrodes she uses to operate Delphi. If ever there was a mirror held up to human nature, Alice Sheldon was holding it when she unapologetically pointed out just how beauty-obsessed and ableist society is. In a world where perfection has been manufactured, the flawed are easily swept under the rug, removed from public view, and used for parts.

Out in the world, Delphi lives a fully staged and scripted life, whose storyline revolves around marketing and advertising whatever products, lifestyles, or travel destinations her employers at the Global Transmissions Corporation wish to unofficially hype up. Occasionally, Delphi takes her job a little more seriously than her boss would like, criticizing the products, believing the advertisers truly care about whether or not she authentically likes them. But otherwise, she is a very successful god, feeding the public’s desire for beauty and keeping it hungry for consumer goods. As the narrator puts it: “What do gods do? Well, everything beautiful. But (. . .) the main point is Things. Ever see a god empty-handed? You can’t be a god without at least a magic girdle or an eight-legged horse. But in the old days some stone tablets or winged sandals or a chariot drawn by virgins would do a god for life. No more! Gods make it on novelty now. By Delphi’s time the hunt for new god-gear is turning the earth and seas inside-out and sending antic fingers to the stars. And what gods have, mortals desire.”

P. Burke works a tight schedule operating Delphi, with occasional breaks for sustenance and sleep. Over time, Burke becomes so invested in the job that she forgets the vast distance between her physical body and her gorgeous apparition. She must be forced by her handler and nurse to eat, sleep, even move around, so lost is she in her act, so reluctant to occasionally step back into the real world, which for her is made up to such a great extent of pain and discomfort. Now that she’s had a taste of what life looks like for a beautiful, healthy creature, Burke can’t help but buy into the fantasy that she herself is selling through Delphi. How much easier and painless it is to live not only as a gorgeous, fawned-over specimen but as one who is not prone to the suffering of humans.

The boundaries blur further when Delphi begins to date Paul, a human man, who discovers that she is being controlled by the ruling corporation and insists on storming headquarters and setting her free. Paul thinks he understands: his beloved is a beautiful, naïve young woman who is being used for her selling power. But his masculine bravado prevents him from seeing the extent of his true predicament: the person he is in love with is not a person at all. As soon as he breaks into the bunker and sets eyes on the real P. Burke, it becomes clear where his true loyalty lies, and the end is quite dire for everyone involved. To the very end, Paul refuses to acknowledge that there is no Delphi without Burke. To him, the Placental Decanter that is Delphi is more human and deserving of love than the human shell that is Burke. And in a way, he is right, because while unplugging the two women kills them both, Delphi can get rebooted and start over, but “you don’t get two P. Burkes in a row—for which GTX is truly grateful.”

In an episode of Ozark that I recently watched, a teenage girl says science fiction isn’t really her thing. A teenage boy’s response is, “Says everyone who’s never read real sci-fi.” These were my exact thoughts as I—who have hardly read much sci-fi before—breathlessly read through “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.” To this reader, the advanced technology and futuristic jargon were a way of stripping reality of its decorum to reveal the heartless economy of image and branding and the complete erasure of anyone deemed less than perfect. I can imagine that when it was published in the early 1970s it was viewed as a grim, fantastical forecast of what humanity might have to look forward to, but reading it in 2020, the details are all too familiar. Tune down the engineering methods that created Delphi just a touch and you’ve got celebrities advertising a highly photoshopped body as a natural one. Zero in on the gods’ followers and you’ve got our present-day “stans” blindly retweeting everything their cultural heroes say and buying every brand they collaborate with. Take a close look at the dissolution of the Paul-Delphi-Burke love triangle and you’ll see the patriarchal merit-based perceptions of beauty, weight, and health we all unwittingly live by.

About her pen name, James Tiptree Jr., Alice Sheldon has said, “A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.” Though her list of life achievements certainly justifies this statement, I dare to venture there was another reason for her selection. The arguments about Tiptree’s true identity and gender among male authors and critics (some of whom argued vehemently that Tiptree couldn’t possibly be a woman, that “his” stories were far too masculine, even going so far as rating his manliness as greater than Ernest Hemingway’s) served as a real-life example of what much of her writing attempted to do: expose our ridiculous adherence to gender norms and our mindless misperceptions of gender identity, a puritanism and condescension rooted in misogyny and a fear of nature. In a way, Sheldon herself chose to be the girl hidden in the underground cell—not because she didn’t think anyone would want to see her, but because by operating characters designed to exemplify everything that was wrong and thoughtless about how our society works, by doing it in disguise, she was able to be better heard.

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