Robot and Juliet

What makes us fall in love with technology? In those enchanting early days, new tech can seduce with expanded horizons, allowing us to travel faster and farther, or connect across longer distances; and we appreciate this ...

This is the 10th installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.


What makes us fall in love with technology? In those enchanting early days, new tech can seduce with expanded horizons, allowing us to travel faster and farther, or connect across longer distances; and we appreciate this—at least until we become overly familiar with the technology’s charms, and start to take it for granted. The bloom is off the electro-mechanical rose.

Perhaps to keep us from losing interest and swiping left, some technologies anticipate our needs and purr at us in deferential feminine voices. Siri and Alexa, even our GPS navigation guides who patiently “recalculate” routes we screw up—all this is tech that aims to please, to keep us enamored of what it offers. And while this might seem a particularly 21st-century concern, the subservient wife-bots of Stepford were created by novelist Ira Levin in 1972. Even the fast-learning robot HAL, who appeared both on film and in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel in 1968, began as a compliant helpmeet. The adaptive AI operating system in Her (2013), a disembodied but more intimate Stepford, accommodates itself to each user in Scarlett Johansson’s alto: who can blame Joaquin Phoenix for becoming, well, attached? Digital deference makes a delightful substitute for more complicated analog interactions.

Alissa Nutting’s novel Made for Love is a fun-house mirror’s reflection of our current tech fixations. Unfolding primarily in an unnamed setting that felt plausibly Floridian to this reader, Made for Love follows a cast of characters that includes a surfer-gigolo who develops a romantic attraction to dolphins and a retiree entering a “honeymoon phase” with his recently purchased sex doll. Among them too is our hero Hazel, running away from her marriage to a tech mogul, whose first name, Byron, evokes Romantic love, and whose last name, Gogol, manages to conjure both a ubiquitous search engine and the Russian writer known for being darkly grotesque. While Gogol has built an empire that bears his name on several intimacy-enhancing technologies, Nutting portrays him as decidedly unlovable.

Nutting shows us how our relationships suffer when we rely on technology to do the work for us.

“His wealth and power,” she tells us, “were a terrifying glimpse of the infinite.” He favors a uniform of “sensual and androgynous” gray clothing, while his employees “had a clean sleekness that made them seem more recently showered than everyone else.” They wear clothing from “an in-house catalog … to meet hypoallergenic, anti-bacterial office standards plus effortlessly avoid lint, wrinkling, and odor.” Swoon-worthy tech, with just a whisper of the unsettling.

Nutting turns the whisper into a warning bell. Byron’s “haircut creeped [Hazel] out the way freshly hedged lawns sometimes did, making her feel like life was already over and she’d arrived on the planet too late: people had tamed everything wild, which was the same as destroying the wildness.” Long before we learn it on page 134, readers will have surmised that Byron must have been an early adopter of a Soylent-like food substitute: “Eating grossed him out,” Nutting writes. “He felt it was antiquated and menial.”

And he’s a little in love with his product line; “Byron treated his electronics like lesser wives.” Hazel senses that her husband longs to perform a Weird Science experiment on her. “That’s probably his greatest fantasy,” she speculates, “me as part computer, part vagina, part breasts.” Yet his interest is inorganic and un-sensual. “Instead of telling me what you like,” he says, “let me monitor your arousal levels via digital-pulse read-out.”

In the face of this odd tech-flavored simulation of intimacy, Hazel seeks out passionate wildness, including an illicit fling with a tattooed off-the-grid hermit. He “had a lot of smells that seemed automotive,” Hazel notes, his unrefined “old tech” more authentic than Byron’s digital, hypoallergenic odorlessness. The self-aware hermit is funny, too: “Mainly [women] use me to help them reach bottom. I’m like a brick they grab onto midair.”


Last Offices

By Leah Price

In her quest for messy human contact, Nutting’s Hazel recalls Sloane Jacobsen, the heroine of Courtney Maum’s 2017 novel Touch. Sloane works as a consultant for a tech firm focused on “human-machine integration technology,” and her own creepily pompous partner wears a “seamless bodysuit” that makes him appear “dipped in liquid pewter.” This layer of Lycra, which prevents skin-to-skin contact, “presents the body as an anonymous thing that can be contemplated, but never truly accessed.”

In Made for Love, Byron’s fantasy—or at least his latest beta test—is full access: to hybridize his tech and his wife Hazel, with an implanted chip, “like a file-share thing.” “We would meld,” he says. “The first neural-networked couple in history.” This is certainly a male fantasy: the chip in Hazel’s brain that means her husband can, literally, read her mind. It’s a commonplace that heterosexual men can’t possibly guess what women are thinking, what women want. Now Byron Gogol can, and his wife unsurprisingly experiences this not as an enhancement of his empathy but as a violation. Curiously, Byron is undeterred by Hazel’s displeasure, perhaps believing she’ll be persuaded by the technology’s transformative effects, or perhaps just being a creep. He cajoles her: “What is love if not progress? What is love? What is love?

Nutting shows us—vividly, with acid humor—how our relationships suffer when we rely on this kind of technology to do the work for us. Byron’s intimacy is data and readouts, not a human connection built on trust and developed through conversation. We allow our technological “connections” to forestall more genuine ones when we assume Facebook and Instagram have told us all we need to know. When we see a friend, ask how they’ve been, and respond to the first bit of news with “Oh right, I saw your post,” we are shutting down further discovery about what that experience meant to them, weakening instead of strengthening our bond. Once Byron’s chip enables him to literally read Hazel’s thoughts, via “download,” she feels “spied on” and edits herself, wanting to preserve her privacy. “One of the only things Hazel knew herself to be great at was concealing her true feelings.”

The heroine of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle dealt with similar incursions from a technocult leader espousing “privacy as theft” and “secrets are lies” dogma. But Eggers’s Mae shows us how seductive oversharing can be, the endorphin rush of likes and internet “Zings,” while Nutting’s Hazel never falls for it.

The novel ultimately can’t commit to a rejection of technology, or an insistence on protecting organic love from its influence.

It weakens both the premise of this tech, and the novel itself, that Byron is never sympathetic; that his technocult is never appealing; that there’s never a moment where Hazel can see the appeal of being knowable to her partner. If even Google Glass managed to charm a few consumers, surely Nutting could’ve credibly shown us the allure of Byron’s prototypes. Hazel’s aversion feels a little odd in this age in which we overshare of our own volition.

It’s interesting that Nutting’s lead characters, though they live in a plausible near future, don’t seem to coexist with the feed-based social media that has become commonplace. Hazel is uninterested in most of Byron’s innovations, indifferent to her cell phone, nearly without an online identity. And the dolphin-philic former gigolo has avoided creating a searchable online presence, enabling him to disappear from his victims’ lives once he’s seduced them out of their savings.

Hazel moves from an artificial toward a more authentic connection. When she first meets Byron, she’s pretending to be someone else; soon, she’s pretending to be interested in him. “Was he good looking? Would she like to have his fingers perform an adhesive walk down her leg? She couldn’t decide. But she loved how happy she was making him just by appearing to have a great time.” She comes to realize that “her enthusiasm was like one of those faux snow machines at a ski resort. For most of her life it had been churning out synthetic delight.” It’s a twisted kind of resolution to this arc to have her fall into a kind of love with a man who’s pretending himself, aided by a technological intervention.

The novel ultimately can’t commit to a rejection of technology, or an insistence on protecting organic love from its influence: the dolphin-loving man is offered liberation and even salvation by a bit of neurosurgical wizardry not that far removed from Byron’s chip implant. If technological intervention in romantic matters is inherently inauthentic, then this deus ex silica ought not to resolve his story so comfortably.

Nutting’s dialogue is, frankly, hilarious, full of sardonic observations and unexpected turns of phrase. Each character in her universe possesses the same erudite, slightly misanthropic cynicism, and this reader remains undecided about whether it was unconvincing, or refreshing, that the novel’s small-town diner waitress was exactly as smart and funny as our heroine Hazel herself.


Love in a Broken World

By Jordan Larson

A few weeks after Made for Love was published, a company in Wisconsin proposed implanting microchips in its employees. Two weeks later, the New York Times Style section led with a piece on Silicon Valley’s new favorite shoe, an eco-friendly knit wool loafer. It’s a tough time to write fiction that attempts to imagine the far-out, the outlandish; these days, real life satirizes itself. Indeed, Nutting’s novel suffers from insufficient payoff—this reader wanted it to go further.

In Manuel Gonzales’s imaginative tour de force The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, a character and her mechanical arm are so mutually fond of each other that they undergo a gradual, reciprocal transformation via nanotechnology, until other characters are unable to discern whether she is a steely, well-tuned human or an uncannily human robot. The woman and her technology have undergone Byron Gogol’s aspirational “meld”—and they are delighted. She feels “no pain” due to her transfiguration, once it’s underway: “This was a thing she was grateful for but also she couldn’t be sure how grateful she was or should have been. She didn’t like pain … But without the pain, what then?”

This seems to be the central question behind all these books in which technology is deployed to simplify human life, to ease our way in the world, to reduce the effort required to maintain friendships and romance. It’s the pain, the mess, the mystery, that make us human. These novels remind us to rank the sensory and corporeal above the virtual, the organic over the technological. We’ve been reminding ourselves of this for more than a century. In 1910’s Howards End, E. M. Forster described characters increasingly alienated by “progress,” and exhorted readers to “only connect.” Connecting, it seems, we’ve got covered. What the world needs now may be the wildness we and our machines have tried so hard to tame. icon

Featured image: Cyborg Woman (2014). Photograph by Carlos M Gonzalez Villares / Flickr