I purchased this ebook on the strength of a short promotional excerpt. It was immediately intriguing – a dialogue between a woman and a state-of-the-art sex doll purchased not for sex, but for mother-daughter companionship. This sharp slice of sf had a bubbling sense of humour, but was infused with a gentle melancholy, and this turned out to be the flavour of the whole book.
It contains two novellas, the first being “Adopting a Sex Doll”. The story begins in 2028, and we meet Kelly Braun: a single professional incapable of bearing children. She buys a futuristic Sensu-Doll® named Ashley, and modifies its appearance into something more childlike. As the months go by, she gradually recodes the doll to allow the development of a willful personality, and encounters difficulties both technological and those universal to parenthood.
The book has a bit of a slow start, and some of the minor techno-clutter could’ve perhaps been lost, but the pace soon picks up with humour. A scene when Kelly and a fellow passenger are humiliated by a talking advertisement on a bus made me laugh out loud, and Ashley’s first trip out to a pharmacy is also a gem, invoving a very public and shameless discussion about lube. But although the doll’s core sexuality is initially played for laughs, the mood take a very dark turn when Ashley is used by somebody for her manufactured purpose. It’s a very sobering moment in the book and made me squirm, and yet also question why.
The novella builds nicely as Kelly becomes romantically involved with a work colleague. She’s a likeable lead: clever, sensible, yet wounded, and her struggle to balance being a parent and simply an owner is perfectly believable as what began as a bit of a game develops into something much deeper. I enjoyed the way the the author pounced upon every opportunity for entertainment in the practical elements of running such an unusual family unit, but as well as the laughs, the pathos is always there thanks to excellent dialogue and characterisation. Kelly also has legal issues to juggle. A moment of real pride comes when she stands her ground against some vile corporate blackmail. It’s been a while since I silently cheered somebody on in a book.
“When a Sex Doll Dies” is the second part, set four years later, and finds Kelly’s artificial family extended. I was just relaxing gently into the first chapter, drifting through the back story and wondering if this was going to be as good as the first tale, when it suddenly decided to punch me in the face. This novella shoots for the heart in a much less subtle manner than the opener, and I won’t ruin it with spoilers. Since the first story, Kelly and Ashley have become minor celebrities, and this story includes violence, a very clever and dramatic scene with the media, and and presents a discussion upon the value of artificial life. Although this latter topic has been tackled many times before, it’s elegantly handled here, and the fact that they’re sex dolls gives an unusual perspective.
I have a couple of buts. A few places needed a spit and polish, and one scene involved a couple of swift changes that had me lose track of location. And although the appearance of zombies doing manual jobs was entertaining enough, I thought them an unecessary garnish.
But minor quibbles aside, this is a strong and refreshingly different read. I’ve enjoyed this author’s work before, and her voice has a very natural flow. It’s pleasingly unintrusive, and the prose lets the characters and dialogue shine.
Don’t let the lurid-sounding title put you off. Poignant but never saccharine, “The Life and Death of a Sex Doll” is intelligent and amusing sf that surprises without ever resorting to cheap shots.