I is for Isobel—Amy Witting

When the next book on my TBR pile is by an Australian author, female, and set in Australia, I pour the coffee, grab the book and go back to bed. I is for Isobel is such a beautiful classic, a little bit sad, a little bit real, at times funny, and a lot lovely to read. Isobel’s attachment to words is fun and fascinating.

She turned her head to look at him, remote in sleep: delicate sallow oblong face, fluted upper lip, light-brown crimped hair drifting across his forehead…listen, you don’t have to paint his portrait.

Doctor, I have this problem. Some people count lamp posts. I describe them. You don’t think that’s a problem? You should try it sometimes, like five lamp posts one after the other, a word picture of each, to be handed in nowhere at the end of the day…

I is for Isobel, Amy Witting. 1990

Drawing Scenes from The Uncanny Valley Club: Social Bots Chapter four with Pics Art

The social bots appear in unexpected places in The Uncanny Valley Club, and when Henry discovers his closest friend, Vince, who had always been hell-bent on making sure he remains completely biological himself, had purchased one, it doesn’t sit right with Henry. The Social Bots (or sexbots, depending on which character you are) are viewed differently by each of the characters, and their uses and valuability vary from therapeutic to life-changing, or fun-park to degrading. (For the why of how I came to draw scenes from each chapter see here)

“As Henry speaks, his attention is drawn to a swelling movement of the covers on the other side of the bed, and, in that moment, there emerges—like Gulliver from ropes—a pale face that, as the sheets slip away to the floor, gradually reveals itself to be the head, then the neck, and then the body of a woman.

Vince’s eyes follow Henry’s gaze. ‘Have you not met Greta?’ he asks, and he casually throws a thumb over his shoulder. Vince smiles because, of course, Henry has not met Greta. Greta is new.

‘Nope, I’m inclined to say I haven’t met Greta. And here I was thinking the piles of bubble wrap in the lounge were a new exercise machine.’

‘It is kind of a new exercise machine.’ Vince grins.

Vince grabs a plate as it begins to slide from the covers with the emergence of his bed companion, who has been so still and quiet this whole time that Henry suspects Vince intended to keep this new thing in his life hidden.

It’s a serene face that smiles at Henry, but her eyes dart down, up, down, then up again as it takes in the details of what it means to be Henry.

‘Hello Henry,’ it says. ‘Lovely to see you again.’

Although Henry has worked for Quinn for many years, he doesn’t deal with the social bots. It’s not his job. His focus is the business of getting contracts signed, deliveries delivered and debts paid. In fact, he prefers not to think about the bots as functioning beings and how they’re used, at all.

Vince watches Henry’s face.

‘We’ve met before?’ Henry asks it.

‘Not exactly,’ it says, ‘but I’ve been aware of you.’

And now Henry finds that, apart from complete surprise, he’s feeling agitated by the idea of it knowing him, but he not knowing it, and the only way he can manage to express an opinion is to mock Vince: ‘What were you just saying about being the real deal?’ Henry says, and he thumps his fist against his own chest.”

The Uncanny Valley Club, Chapter 4, Julie Proudfoot. 2022.

Drawing Scenes: Chapter 3 from The Uncanny Valley Club

Benny the sex-bot salesman, also the company therapist, stretches his talents to creating a sexbot brothel that he has named, The Uncanny Valley Club. Unfortunately, his financial resources are limited to friends and colleagues, and he has come to Scottie, well known for her anti-sexbot campaigns and her cyborg enhancement engineering company, for the very big task of convincing her to invest in his new sexbot Brothel.

‘You pluck these ideas out of that scrubby little head of yours, Benny, and present them gold plated, just to get me on board, but this is no different to an average brothel, is it? I can’t see that there’s anything special about your new business.’

‘Scott, my business is different from all the others like it.’ Benny waves his hand gently across the room as if to display all the businesses that are just not quite as good as his is. ‘It’ll be a standout. We can grow a shit load of money from simple human vice. Listen to me. The Uncanny Valley Club will be the venue where punters can set their desires free, like wild animals tapping into their urges.’

‘Urges? I thought this was part of your therapy business?’

‘It is therapy. It’s next-level therapy. This is me hitting my potential. This is what I’m all about. I’m dragging the therapy trade into the future.’ Benny stands. His excitement at his plans has him all jittery. ‘It’s not called The Uncanny Valley Club for no reason. It’s all about the ‘uncanny’ moment, that dip in the robot-likeability graph, when you see a robot so lifelike that it gives you the creeps. That hideous little moment that defines the difference between robot and human—the absence of soul, your disgust, your fear and your fascination. It’s fake little face.’ Benny points at his own eyes and nose, and screws up his face. ‘You know what I mean, Scottie; you’ve felt it. The sense of deceit; the lack of trust. That’s where the lucrative Uncanny Valley moment is.’

‘Wait a minute, what happened to chicken soup for the soul?’

‘Troubled soul, Scottie; I said, “troubled soul”. This is the hinge where our clientele swing loose. What a goddamn release! They use it, they respond, they lash out and they release that pent-up techno-anger buried deep within. That little moment is so full of energy! It’s a heady mix of fascination and disgust, lust and hate—all those confusing emotions that live in that void. And we will exploit that little, black void of sexuality.’

‘Is this a joke, Benny? What kind of place is this?’

‘Scottie, nobody trusts a creepy little bot unless they know they control it, right? And how do we take control? We remove human morals. Let them do to it whatever the hell they want to do to it. Our club will give them permission to swing loose. Can’t you see it?’

Scottie’s mouth hangs open, speechless.

‘Listen, Scott, The Uncanny Valley Club will be known as the place to explore who we really are at our core.’ He leans in to catch her eye. ‘The punters can do whatever they like to their bot—no guilt, pure release and morality-free—an almighty cleansing of the soul. Do you see what this is, Scottie? Consequence out the window, do you understand? It’s a life-changing moment.’

Scottie’s face contorts with disgust.

‘Oh, the release,’ he says. ‘It’s so damn freeing.’ He lifts his arms into the air as though releasing doves. Benny sees in her face the wall she’s built up against this idea. He needs to make her want it. ‘And Scottie, let me tell you this much: this will happen whether you like it or not. This isn’t new. They exist in Japan and across Europe, and if you get on board with me, right now, you’ll control it in our part of the world. You, Scottie. I know this is what you want—to control this industry.’

Scottie says nothing. He holds his palms out to her and whispers her name. ‘Come on, Scott?’

He needs to get her over the line that she’s drawn for herself. ‘Imagine it, casino atmosphere, private rooms, music and social bots of every colour and proclivity; sturdy ones. You get what I’m saying don’t you? I don’t need to tell you what people are capable of given the chance. It’s exciting! Gives me a buzz just to think about it. All we need is the money. Your money.’

‘Why are you giving me this information, Benny? What you’re talking about is abuse. All you’ve done is give me a heads up to intervene and have you shut down. You’re an idiot, anyone tell you that?’

J. Proudfoot (2022) The Uncanny Valley Club

The Uncanny Valley Club— a fictional look at how the way we treat robots might influence the way we treat each other.

It’s been eight years in the works, and The Uncanny Valley Club is finally done and dusted and set free in the world. I say robots above, but it’s essentially about sexbots. And, I’m going to say (bravely) I’m quite proud of this book. The characters have come to life and are now quite real to me—and I’m quite fond of them. The last few drafts really brought them to life, and the good scrub and polish given to it by Lindsay Corten (Corten Editorial) has taken away any fears I might have had about the book.

But mostly, I feel like I’ve written the book that has given me a chance to say what I’ve wanted to say. Why Robots? A few years ago, I watched a documentary about relationships with robots (or sexbots) and it stirred up my long-time interest in, and anxieties about (which started in my uni days) cyborgs and Bladerunner type stories. Before long I found myself deep in a research tunnel that led me to explore the way interactions with sexbots might change how we humans would relate to each other. The result is this new book, The Uncanny Valley Club.

Within the wider look at sexbots I’ve cheekily indulged in a thread that allows for some of my research to come to light, that being the interesting fact that traditionally people who identify as male are more likely (statistically) to be interested in the creation of robots in the image of humans, than in cyborg robotics or enhancement type robotics (cyborg engineering) which is more likely to be the domain of women. This has allowed for a really fun tension between female and male roboticists in the story, and for some explosive events.

On the face of, it’s a speculative fiction novel set in mid-21st Century—yes, not too far from now, but the focus is on relationships with robots, think The Stone Gods (Jeanette Winterson), or Machines Like Me (Ian McEwan). The story follows Henry King as he dabbles with the idea of using a sex doll to treat a medical condition. The deeper themes take a look at our relationship with a world of self-drive cars and artificial intelligence. It asks the question, can the way we treat robots influence the way we treat each other? And by extension, can the way we treat each other online, change how we treat each other in reality.

The book has been in the making for eight years. Not eight solid writing years, but on and off, with long periods of inaction due to ill health, on my part, putting it on ice for years at a time. (At times I couldn’t read a sentence let alone write one, and at one point decided I’d not write again.) But here we are with the book finished.

Blurb: Henry King manages Quinn Corp, a robotics company, but he’d rather spend his time with his vintage car, and his house full of vintage memorabilia. He often chases down the self-drive cars to nudge them off the road causing them to spin off into a kerbside crash. When Henry purchases a sex robot to treat a medical condition—at the encouragement of his friend Vince, who owns his own sex doll, and his therapist, who is a sex doll salesman—it changes who he is, how he feels about himself, and how he treats the women in his life. Henry struggles in his life trying to connect the two worlds of robots and humans, fiction and reality, lust and hate, until it all comes falling apart for him in The Uncanny Valley Club. Set in the mid-21st century, The Uncanny Valley Club asks the question, can the way we treat robots influence the way we treat each other? And by extension, can the way we treat each other online, change how we treat each other in reality. Treading the psychological path between human and robot relationships, The Uncanny Valley Club is a fast-paced speculative fiction novel by Julie Proudfoot, author of The Neighbour and winner of the Seizure Viva La Novella Prize. 

Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins, by Emma Donoghue Harper Collins 1997

“Every word that came out of my mouth limped away like a toad…” p1

“The shrill voices were all inside. Do this, do that, you lazy heap of dirt….” p2

“I looked in the mirror, and saw, not myself, but every place I’d never been.”p 28

From Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins, by Emma Donoghue.

Only a few pages in and Donoghue hits you with simple words that pack a punch. The 13 tales in this book are re-imagined fairy-tales. They’re the ones we all know, turned completely on their heads. But it’s the style that I find gripping. It’s punchy and doesn’t waste our time, while giving us depth of meaning, with grit. I’m looking forward to getting further into this one.

–a split-second pink flash…Moira Burke on detail

Losing It, Moira Burke. Text, 1998.

Losing it is written in the rare, second-person style. This, and the sparse punctuation and stream-of-consciousness manner force you to read quickly, forcing you to tumble over your words. It’s engaging, and addictive, and Moira Burke’s beautiful way of getting inside the detail has the words exploding on the page

“…you’re going to training on a blue train. You’re standing in the open doorway letting the wind come in bringing with it the soft drizzle in bursts. The train’s going over the bridge between Macaulay and Flemington and you look down, down to the wet black street the wet red houses and suddenly there’s a black wet tree. Blossoms all over it shining pink and wet swooping out of nowhere down below, the trains going fast its only a flash a wet flash from nowhere, the trains riding fast, bumpy, you’re in the open doors looking down going over the bridge a split-second pink flash and you go oh! And lean out to keep seeing it, it’s made a print in you like a photo all bright and black outlies in rainshine but it’s gone, gone.” (121)

Particularly engaging for me are the references to 80s Melbourne. Josie’s family holidays in Queenscliff, she hangs out in Melbourne train stations, and she frequents bars with names I remember seeing, or going to—I feel like I’ve even bumped into Josie–that’s how good she is at drawing you in. For me it sits up there with other coming of age stories written in teenage-speak style that we all know, Puberty blues, Catcher in the rye, The Incredible Here and Now.

Losing It was published in 1998, and re-released in 2017 as a part of Text’s campaign to support Australian authors.

For a comprehensive review see my page Agnes Water-books reviewed

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