The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
A SMATTERING OF SEXBOTS
From BlackGate.com, January 2, 2019
Sexbots are as ubiquitous today as Starbucks. My Google news feed overruns with stories on sexbot brothels. No modern genre, especially animated ones, can feel properly inclusive without a sexbot gumming up the moral works, which in some cases might not be a euphemism.
‘Twasn’t always so. Sexbots go back a surprisingly long way in the arts but were seldom allowed to explicitly ply their trade after a spectacular introduction. They appear for the first time, as far as I can discover, exactly where stereotypes suggest: in the France where ladies don’t wear pants, the underground world of Parisian pornography.
You’ve never heard of Alphonse Momas, and not merely because he wrote under a zillion pseudonyms, but during his free hours from his job at the Seine prefecture, he was the leading purveyor of pornography to fin de siècle France. Millenials didn’t invent sex and neither did the baby boomers. Momas’ titles are like a catalog from the modern explicit upwelling of anything goes 1970s porn: Mistress of His Son, The Notebooks of Miss Callypia, The Woman with Dogs, Bloody Buttock, Fetish Lovers, The Eater of Men, The Virgin Fall.
And in 1899 La Femme Endormie (The Sleeping Woman), which he credited to “Madame B***, attorney.”
A kindly soul had invented the dildo for women deprived of male contact; for the pleasures of our brave Captain Pamphile [an adventure hero from Alexandre Dumas], someone had brought forth the rubber woman; for our hero, a deft craftsman, an artist, would invent a miraculous Phrynée [a famously beautiful Greek courtesan] he would be able to manipulate at will – she would always be compliant and silent, no matter how lewd the act he chose to perform.
Much lewdness follows.
Momas is properly dealt with in my forthcoming book on robots, where a full chapter on sexbots is appended. No book can ever be complete. Here are three of my favorites I had to leave out.
When casting about for the utter antithesis of explicit French pornography, many possible candidates proffer their halos. One about as unlikely was the response to the bloody and sexy comics berated by politicians and puritanical elders, the first issue of Mad, the original Mad comic book of 1952. All the stories were written by Harvey Kurtzman, each a parody of a genre: crime, horror, western, and science fiction. (It didn’t sell. The parodies of individual characters started in Mad #2 with Tarzan and these would be far more successful.) The knowing science fiction spoof was titled “Blobs,” drawn by Wally Wood.
Both Kurtzman and Wood grew up with comic books, which in the 40s regularly offered heavy doses of science fiction and the other genres alongside the superheroes, and both would have been heavy readers of the science fiction pulps. “Blobs” is a loving recreation of a type of Gernsbackian futurism, extrapolation a trend to its logical (and often illogical) conclusion. In its future world of 1,000,000 A.D., all manual tasks have been superseded by machines; humans, their every need catered to, are so weak they can’t leave their motorized chairs. “Our muscles have shrunk! Our bodies have withered! We’re just a bundle of nerves! We are blobs, I tell you! Blobs of flesh!” [bolding in original] Wall*E stole from the plot of “Blobs” with both hands. Except for one tiny detail. Disposable dames.
Technological obsolescence was the heavyweight theme of deep thinkers in the 1950s. Mad #1 appeared almost exactly contemporaneously with Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, which also asked what worth humans had if they did nothing. Kurtzman couldn’t have known about the book, but he surely read E. M. Foster’s classic “The Machine Stops” because his hands were busy stealing from it. “Blobs” ends by asking “what if the machine that repairs the machine … breaks?” [italics in original] Answer: all humanity dies. Fun for everyone! Little wonder that Mad needed time and a different focus before its sales started zooming.
Kurtzman was a stellar parodist because he was steeped in white bread middle class American culture. His 1,000,000 A.D. future is 50s America with better gadgets but exactly similar social norms. (Exactly like 1950s print sf, admittedly.) That America was equally steeped in the norm that females were eye candy, housewives rather than doers, interchangeable and disposable, expressed only as cheesecake. Kurtzman’s sexbots are representative of the type, at first glance the ultimate expression of male fantasy, compliant and silent through unspeakable lewdness. That speaks only of humans. Robots themselves have no inherent sexuality. They are merely tools adaptable for the purpose at hand. A reimagining was inevitable and the rebellious 1960s the time. The place? You can guess the answer. France.
Jean-Claude Forest, born in 1930, was only six years younger than Kurtzman but lived in a different world. France imported only a small fraction of the vast numbers of comic books that were Kurtzman’s lifeblood and disdained those, producing a censorship law against comic book excesses years before the American crackdown. Forest moved into science fiction illustration, first for Fiction magazine, the French edition of The Magazine of Fiction and Science Fiction, and then cover art for Hachette’s science fiction imprint Le Rayon Fantastique.
The years of immersion in science fiction led almost inevitably to the comic strip that made Forest world-famous. Georges H. Gallet was editor not only of Le Rayon Fantastique but also the adult, male-oriented V-Magazine. He solicited a comic strip from Forest, “no holds barred.” The Spring 1962 issue featured the first serialized segment of “Barbarella.” The unearthly beautiful earthgirl is fearless and unconquerable, battling evil in all its guises, championing the downtrodden, and dethroning tyrants. No man can successfully oppose her, although some women are her equals. She is the emancipated woman ahead of her time, before Modesty Blaise and Emma Peel, free of spirit and of body. Michael O’Donoghue’s adventure spoof “The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist” was birthed by Barbarella when the editor of Evergreen Review asked for a strip in a similar vein. (Phoebe goes through a randomly episodic series of captures and tortures exactly like Barbarella’s except that she actually dies from them. Halfway through. Her dead body becomes the heroine of the second half. When people refer back to a Golden Age of “black humor” Phoebe Zeit-Geist is the darkest example. Dissertations could be written about what and who the focus of the satire is. and whether O’Donoghue is or isn’t as culpable as his evildoers, a discussion that needs to start with Forest.)
As with these other strong women, Barbarella’s beauty of face and body is constantly remarked upon and used for the male gaze, yet internally presented less for vanity than as a useful tool to seduce and infiltrate as well as provide herself pleasure. Compare her, though, to Harvey Kurtzman’s creation in late 1962, Playboy’s Little Annie Fannie. Kurtzman’s Annie is a naive airhead floating often naked and unaware through a technicolor wasteland of cultural satire; Forest’s Barbarella is brilliant and sophisticated in black and white, often lost on a hideously menacing alien world, but always quick to take command and turn the tables.
Consequently, she often requires rescue. A convenient air taxi swoops down to take her away from evil Queen Slupe. The pilot is Diktor, a robot, who reacts to Barbarella exactly like everybody else on the planet who is not trying to kill her.
What is Diktor able to do? “Everything, madame, everything… and with great care!” [italics in original]
It’s impossible to believe that the writers weren’t thinking of this scene when in season one of Star Trek: The Next Generation they wrote this scene between Data and Tasha Yar.
Tasha: You are fully functional, aren’t you?
Data: Of course, but-
Tasha: How fully…
Data: In every way, of course. I am programmed in multiple techniques. A broad variety of pleasuring…
Roger Vadim’s movie version of Barbarella is not as awful as it’s often described, but Jane Fonda’s Barberella is not Forest’s. Fonda was fated to play to role, though. Check this cover for Fiction #70, September 1959. I would swear that’s a portrait of Fonda, except that she was a total unknown at the time. (Yet she studied in Paris in 1957. A chance encounter on the street? A remembered face? Kismet.)
One more homage to old-time science fiction arrived in theaters in 1974, apparently FedExed from the Oort Cloud, since it was filmed in 1971. Flesh Gordon is even more of a cult classic film than Barbarella, a tribute to American tastes and humor. The parody of Flash Gordon serials started life as hard-core porn back in the days when filmmakers were under the delusion that they could make porn mainstream. The X rating got dialed back to R over time, leaving only the superb stop-motion animation (done on a minuscule budget, yet) as a lure. American sensibilities are immediately signaled by the names used. Dale Arden is Dale Ardor. The planet Mongo is planet Porno, ruled over by Wang instead of Ming. Best of the worst is what’s done to Dr. Hans Zarkov, who transmogrifies into the sensational Dr. Flexi Jerkoff.
Wang thinks with his, um, wang and his diabolical plots center around such. Evil sexbots are an innovation, although Barbarella gets encased in an orgasm machine designed to kill her with pleasure. Wang intends for Flesh and Dale to get literally screwed by Wang’s killer rapebots.
These robots are not the swiftest, though nobody in the movie is: Flesh attacks the metal monstrosities by punching one in its steel back. Mr. Fantastic has a brain that can instantly work the controls of an alien spacecraft, but Flesh has pure dumb luck working for him. He spins an unlabeled control wheel, which somehow sends the sexbots after Wang, who escapes.
The Golden Age of sexbots thus ended with, appropriately, an anticlimax.