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The Botplot

Kevin Power
Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, 306 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1787331662 Lester del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” was first published in the December 1938 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It’s a short story – a science fiction classic – about two cohabiting bachelors named Dave and Phil. Dave is a robotics engineer who tinkers with “mechs” in his spare time. Phil is a doctor who specialises in endocrinology. Dave’s dream is to create a mech capable of experiencing human emotion. Phil doubts that this is possible. Between them, they splash out on a “utility model” mech with “a full range of memory coils” and “all the works in a girl-modelled case”. Pooling their skills, they create Helen of Alloy (or Helen O’Loy): “all the good points of a mech and a woman combined”. Left alone in the house on her first day of sentience, Helen watches romantic serials on the “stereovisor”, soap operas that she mistakes for an accurate model of human behaviour. When Dave returns from work, she announces that she is in love with him. Dave is disgusted, and goes on a bender. It falls to Phil to engineer a reconciliation: he persuades Dave to accept that his initial disgust masks his true feelings, and that he is in love with Helen O’Loy. Dave and Helen live out their lives together in a remote farmhouse. Decades later, Helen chooses to end her own life when Dave dies. Only at the end of the story does Phil reveal that he loved Helen too. “But there was only one Helen O’Loy.” “Helen O’Loy” is the first appearance in fiction of a familiar figure: the sexbot. (If we discount, that is, the barely masked eroticism in the monster’s threat to Frankenstein: “I will be with you on your wedding night.”) In approaching sexual matters, Del Rey was constrained by the Victorian prudery of the American pulps. But there is never any doubt that Helen has been designed for sex. When Dave and Phil have finished assembling her, Dave says, “I’m as eager to try her as you are,” and, later, Helen herself says, “I’m made to imitate a woman … in all ways. I couldn’t give him sons, but in every other way …” Ellipses sic. The attraction of the sexbot – who is almost always female – lies more or less explicitly in her appeal to a dream of male sexual…



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