The stories in Candas Jane Dorsey’s collection Machine Sex are melancholy and evocative. They are concerned with themes of alienation, displacement, transition and loss, but also with the importance of making connections and the possibilities that may be played out within the limits of our human lives.
The two linked stories, ‘The Prairie Warriors’ and ‘War and Rumours of War’, are set during a moment of transition at the end of old relationships and the beginning of new ones. As part of a long tradition, a small community gives a young girl to a separatist society of female warriors. The story is told from the perspectives of the girl and the two women who are sent to collect her. Traumatised, addicted to drugs, hostile and desperately needy, the girl finds herself faced with an entirely new set of values and ways of relating. She must decide whether to let go of her old life and take the risk of connecting with her new companions. The story features one of the best representations of a disturbed teenager that I’ve ever come across and probably draws on Dorsey’s own life experience as a social worker. Dorsey also identifies as a queer writer and sexuality is well-handled in her stories. I especially liked the way ‘Prairie Warriors’ contrasts the sexually abusive patriarchal world of the town with the dynamics of the warrior society in which sexuality is not commodified.
‘Black Dog’, another haunting story about a moment of transition, demonstrates Dorsey’s skill at evoking images and feelings in her readers. Set after most humans have abandoned Earth and set out in generation ships for new worlds, this story is told from the perspective of one of the few who decided to remain behind. This woman has only a black dog and a teenage runaway for company. It’s unusual to find a story about the people who decide not to go on the adventure. As the Earth moves from being a planet dominated by humans to an empty world, those who remain use their time to ponder their choice. Why did they stay behind and what does their aloneness do to their identity? What are they going to do with the time that is left? The story left me with a powerful impression of the Earth as a tiny world spinning alone in the vast emptiness of space.
The final story in the collection, ‘Willows’, is probably my favourite. Thanks to the consequences of travelling near to the speed of light, a spacer encounters a new generation of people on every return visit to Earth and finds herself becoming more and more displaced as the world moves on without her. On this trip, she is accompanied by an alien friend and finds that there’s more at stake than simply her own sense of displacement and aloneness. The Earth, it seems, is being judged by greater powers and its fate hangs upon the emergence of the spring pussy willow.
There were some other stories that I really liked. ‘Johnny Appleseed on the New World’ sees a group of colonists begin to suspect that they are not alone as they struggle to survive the winter on a new planet. In the macabre ‘By Their taste shall ye know them’ the people of a distant future colony await the return of the ships from Earth, but after a 100 years and genetic changes, they wonder if they will be recognised as human relatives. In this interview Dorsey says that Canadians often feel like aliens and observers of North American culture, and I think her nationality is probably the source of the persistent concern with colonialism in her stories.
As a more realist story ‘Time is the School in Which We Learn, Time is the Fire in Which We Burn’ is a bit of an anomaly in this (mostly science fiction) collection, but it continues the themes of transition, ultimate aloneness and limited time. It’s a brilliant and heartbreaking evocation of the thoughts of a woman in the last stages of cancer as she hallucinates encounters with her children, husband and parents. As a writer Dorsey seems to be more interested in the journey than the destination and she leaves the woman there waiting to die at the end of the story.
These were the stories I liked best. I wasn’t so pleased with more avant garde pieces like ‘Colombus Hits the Shoreline Rag’, ‘The White City’ and the title story ‘Machine Sex’ (a parody of cyberpunk) but this is a matter of taste and other readers might find these the best stories.
These are thoughtful stories that seem to ask for a response and remain with you long after reading. Dorsey is a confident writer who drops you into her worlds without giving much explanation or background and lets you figure things out for yourself. This creates an interesting sense of the narrative unfolding as you read.
Recommended if you like Ursula K Le Guin.