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Machine Sex and Other Stories, Candas Jane Dorsey, Tesseract, 1988, 141 pp.

Dorsey is a tough, uncompromising writer. Her prose, seemingly plain and unornamented, resists narrative fiercely, and the reader is forced to construct meaning (if such is the goal of a work of art...) in different ways than the typical science fiction short story. Each story in Machine Sex is so independent-minded and robust that I found it near impossible to summarize tendencies in each kind of category. So instead, I will talk about the stories in Machine Sex separately.

Machine Sex opens with a story called "Sleeping in a Box," one of the shorter pieces in the collection. Here we have a frightening evocation of claustrophobia, the kind that can overtake an entire culture. The unnamed central character of the story lives on the Moon, and has an idea for a project for schoolchildren to discover the physical size of the Moon. But the physical aspect is irrelevant; as the character says in the concluding paragraph: "I have my own ideas about how big the Moon has become" (14).

"Johnny Appleseed on the New World" is another kind of evocation of claustrophobia, and represents another reaction on Dorsey's part against the typical myths of science fiction. Humans will go out into the galaxy like Johnny Appleseed, conquering and spreading seed. Oh, really? Dorsey gets all of the details right (such as the selection process for these kinds of pioneers, page 17), but any kind of hard sf tendency is subsumed into her bigger perspective. Dorsey takes the metaphor of the title, and twists it, rather savagely, into something new and a fitting way to close the story.

"Death and Morning" is a rhetorically intense story, in the tradition of Ellison. "This was a high-tech planet, my children," (21), the narrator says near the beginning of the story, but what follows might be a bit of an odd fable for children. The events reminded me a great deal of Lynch's version of the Harkonnens in Dune, set here in an ornate style with literary flourishes to describe the "high-tech" goings-on.

"The Prairie Warriors" is one of the longest stories in the book, and Dorsey doesn't let the larger canvas intimidate the humane elements that make up the story. A mountain village has prepared a girl as tribute to the prairie warriors, but in a neat inversion, the prairie warriors are not quite what they seem. The story switches back and forth from third person to first person (from the point of view of the mountain girl) with great assurance, enlarging the canvas of feeling yet further. And the setting is not what it seems either -- Dorsey transforms the story with one word, "spaceport."

"War and Rumours of War" is a direct sequel to "The Prairie Warriors," but doesn't concern the three women of that story as much as the milieu through which they move. A forger sees the three women ride into town, later in the season than usual, and decides to over-analyse -- "He has seen the reason clearly, and, incredibly, his part in it" (54) -- which sets in motion a humorous chain of events. War and the chance of war are quashed by wit.

"Black Dog" is a lovely meditative piece, concerning the people who choose not to leave the Earth in the time of space travel. The narrator says at one point: "Out among the stars, the people of Earth are travelling. Here in a small country made of our perceptions, we too are travelling among stars" (65).

"(Learning About) Machine Sex" is perhaps the most famous story in this collection. The heyday of cyberpunk was already winding down in 1988, and Dorsey's story spends as much time destroying the typical cyberpunk assumptions as employing them. Structurally, "(Learning About) Machine Sex" uses a few postmodern tricks, playing with the notion of the story itself and the author's role. Dorsey intersperses little bits of commentary in the text; here is the first of such manifestos: "It would be easier if this were a story about sex, or about machines. It is true that the subject is Angel, a woman who builds computers like they have never been built outside the human skull. Angel, like everyone else, comes from somewhere and goes somewhere else. She lives in that linear and binary universe. However, like everyone else, she lives concurrently in another universe less simple. Trivalent, quadrivalent, multivalent. World without end, with no amen. And so, on" (71). To me, this lovely passage captures the collisions of metaphors in this story: the two metaphors in the title itself -- machine, sex -- and also the (opposing) metaphors of life and art (with reference to how stories are told). Appropriately enough, the chronological construction of the story is complex and "multivalent," and the story concludes with Angel exiting abruptly, a scene that is more of a beginning than a conclusion.

"'You'll Remember Mercury'" is a funky experimental piece, switching rapidly through viewpoints and first through third person. Dorsey says a great deal about first contact in six short pages.

"Time is the School in Which We Learn, Time is the Fire in Which We Burn" is the kind of philosophical story that lets science fiction hold its collective head high. Very powerful.

The story "Columbus Hits the Shoreline Rag" is perhaps the most "experimental" or "literary" in this collection. I put those two words in quotation marks to indicate that those are somewhat useless generalities to begin with, and also to say that no one should be intimidated. Dorsey flexes her style here and the fun result shows just how unproductive the differentiation between mainstream literature and genre science fiction really is. This story was originally published in a collection edited by Rudy Wiebe (whose name is, incidentally, misspelled on the copyrights page), and Dorsey uses her science fiction sensibility, in combination with themes more typical of Canadian literature, to make this story, as a hybrid, quite distinct and quite strong.

The subtitle of "the white city" is the following: "(Report on the Expedition to Earth to Examine the After-effects of Armageddon on San Francisco)". Anyone expecting a dull report would be advised to look twice.

"By Their Taste Shall Ye Know Them" is a fun short-short, using the simple reversal typical to such stories.

The concluding story in Machine Sex, "Willows," is perhaps my favourite in the entire collection. A character study, in the typical sense of the phrase, but also in the way the story examines the concept of "culture" or "time period" as characters of their own. And again, Dorsey takes a very common hard science fiction theme -- the space traveller returning after relativistic travel -- and gives it a fresh, new perspective. None of the very human difficulties of the process, and none of the ways this human exists in a culture, are ignored. Dorsey also makes sure that the stylistic aspects are sharp and important. And, insofar as it is possible to generalize about the stories in this book, I would let my comments about "Willows" stand for the entire collection. Stylistically astute, innovative with regard to genre conventions, a joy to read and ponder.

Last modified: October 7, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (

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