The Mechanical Nature of Love by Karen Heuler

The Mechanical Nature of Love
by Karen Heuler

This science fiction story is less about technology and more about humanity. What would life be like in a world without men? Would the missing testosterone end wars and social injustice or would there be something missing that even peace and prosperity could not fill?

science fiction short storyI took him back to the local AdvanceGuard lab where I got him, not at all a satisfied customer. Miffed, in fact. I’m a professional tester, happy to try out each new release, but still I expect a certain level of performance. I’m not some greenhorn, and I know my mind.

He grinned and leaned into the young woman behind the counter at Products & Services.

“Hey,” he said, “love your hair. May I touch it? I’ll be gentle.” And he did it—just lifted his hand and touched her hair, though she moved back and tucked in her chin.

“Not at all liking it,” I said to the Products clerk, indicating him with a short jerk of my chin. “Not at all. And it’s rude, aside from the fact that I think he should, you know, stick with me.”

“Tsk, tsk,” the clerk said, shaking her head. “It’s a reported bug. He’s not supposed to be programmed for promiscuity. We know what the public wants. In fact,” she said, looking up some records, “we’re recalling this model. Give me a few minutes to set up a replacement; we just got in some fresh stock. You, come along,” she said to the robot, snapping her fingers.

I swear he grinned. At the very least he sprang to attention with a flourish, then followed her, leaning forward at the waist, as if for a sniff.

I got a bite to eat, then came back and signed a few forms for the new model, glancing over the usual warnings about potential problems. I’d had four testers already and each one had a different flaw, so I was used to it. I noticed a discussion over by the door to the back room. Nods and shaking heads. Guarded looks at me. Then a shrug from one woman, and a minute later she brought out a newer, taller model.

“This is our latest,” she said. “Passes all the tests with flying colors. There was a stray bit of code in the one you returned, something about multidirectional aptitudes, but they would say something like that, wouldn’t they?”

“Overwhelmingly typical,” I agreed, and took him home. He was tall and dark-haired and graceful and strong; I looked at him for a while as he stood near the doorway watching me.

“Dinner,” I said musingly. “What do I want for dinner?”

“I could whip up an omelet or a pizza,” he said, coming over to me and running the backs of his fingers along my cheek, just the way I liked.

“Ah, whipping,” I murmured, thinking to tease him a little, but he glanced away and looked down. Modesty? Had they overcorrected their programming errors?

“Do you like me?” I asked. It was blunt, but I wanted to make sure he met my own basic criteria.

“You had above-average scorings on the AdvanceGuard Screening Quiz, and you show determination and unflagging respect for the future,” he said. Then he waited.

I sighed. “I love your eyes, your nose, your funny little ways. Repeat.”

“I love your eyes, your nose, your funny little ways.”

“And your legs go on forever.”

“And your legs go on forever.”

“Very good. Retain that. And make me an omelet.”

“Poof, you’re an omelet,” he said, and winked.

Programmers and their stupid little jokes. I’d heard that joke for the past twenty years.

Still, I thought he looked good draped against the doorway. He was more graceful than the last model and seemed willing to concentrate on me. The last one had really failed on that score, so I decided see how this one handled himself around other women.

“Scotch the omelet,” I said. “I’m calling a few friends over, so we’re going to switch to cocktails!”

He frowned in just the slightest way. “You really should eat something,” he said. “You’re almost too thin.”

I dialed the phone quickly. He was really very good.

“Cassie,” I said, “I need your help desperately. Can you get over here?” Cassie said yes, as did Jade and Patty. My three dearest friends. Jade was a neighbor, Patty was a woman I’d worked with years before, and Cassie was a high-level at AdvanceGuard, who had gotten me the job as tester. And oh, they were curious when I introduced Bob. Cassie walked around him slowly, eyeing him up and down; Jade pinched his arms; Patty took his hand and cupped it between her own hands. He put his own hand on top, a four-layer handshake.

“Looks good,” Patty said. “They’ve got the texture of the skin down pat.”

“They all look good, but they don’t all perform well. The last one had a subroutine about hair compliments that got out of hand. I probably didn’t describe it right in my request form. He got very flirtatious.”

“What’s wrong with flirting?” Patty asked. She blinked her eyes slowly, in part because she never lost a chance to show off her implant lashes (they cost her a great deal of effort; why should she be modest?). “Or do you just skip foreplay altogether?” she asked. Three pairs of eyes looked at me.

“Drinks in five minutes,” I said to Bob, and he went off to the kitchen. “I’m concentrating on attitude,” I said to my friends.

“Really? I mean, really?” Patty was always the most outspoken on issues of sex, mechanical or otherwise, though the “otherwise” was largely memory now. But I wasn’t Patty.

“I want to respect him first,” I said.

“A machine?” Cassie asked. “You want to respect a machine?”

“I want him to be as close to a real man as we can get,” I said, becoming a little flustered. “When I fill out their request forms, I’m kind of trying to figure out what I want from him. What I’d want from a real man. The cues, the gestures, the, well, the manly things that made me feel all giddy. What are the things that make men alluring? I know it’s important to have him pay the most attention to me, that’s a basic. They’re generally good when it’s only me, and either distracted or flirtatious when other women are around. That’s where you come in. How do you react to him? How does he react to you? I can still get some adjustments if he’s basically a good product.”

We all turned to look at him. He held a tray with glasses and wine and was patiently waiting for the next command. Conserving energy. Zoning out. Looking like he was paying attention when he really wasn’t. Patty went over and studied him. “He has nice features,” she said. “But a little bland. How about an interesting scar? To suggest he’s a little reckless, maybe a little too physical in the nicest possible sense?”

I nodded; scars were good.

“Too superficial,” Cassie said. “The sense of humor is the most important thing. He’s got to be devilishly funny. They’re the most inventive in bed, anyway.”

“Don’t pass over useful,” Jade said. “What about all the things you don’t want to do yourself? Be practical. Can he put up shelves? And what about the stuff you don’t want to do? I mean, does he vacuum, like those little robot vacuums that came out a while ago?”

“Vacuuming is useful,” Cassie said, nodding.

“But not sexy,” Patty pointed out. “Who wants to see a man vacuuming?”

“Men liked to see women cleaning. In little aprons and nothing else,” Jade said, frowning.

Patty’s eyebrows went up. “Well, then, have him vacuum naked, with maybe a … holster?”

We giggled and then went silent for a moment.

“What’s his equipment like?” Patty finally asked.

“I haven’t tested this one yet,” I admitted. “And besides, they always get the mechanics of sex right. As for the rest of it, the forms are really long and you have to think of everything that might appeal to you. Did I miss anything? That’s why I’m asking about all the little things in life that make us want to have a man around. What would make me love him?”

“Love him?” Jade said thoughtfully, her arms crossed, her head tilted. She sighed. “It’s hard to know, isn’t it? Is it just an accumulation of little things? I like a man who looks me in the eye and smiles very slowly, his fingertips just touching my hand. That’s nice.”

“Well, I like it when a man places the palm of his hand on my forehead, his fingers resting in my hair.” Cassie put her own hand there. “With a little pressure. As if he could soothe my mind.”

“Soothe your mind,” Patty scoffed.

“I bet you have something like that, too,” Jade said. “That little touch that makes your heart spin. We all have it.”

Patty shrugged. “Sure. I like when he holds his hand on the back of my waist, sort of guiding me. It feels very strong, very protective, very possessive. I like to think a man is really itching to have me, but holding back. For a while.”

“Umm,” the rest of us said.

“That is nice,” I agreed. “Little touches. As if the merest bit of us gives them pleasure. Yes. And what else? What did you like to talk about?”

“I liked it when a man talked about what interested him; I liked to hear what made him tick.”

“What made him feel.”

“His morals—I liked to have a firm idea of what his boundaries were. That he wasn’t totally wrapped up in himself; that the rest of the world existed for him.”

I was busy writing down notes as they drifted back in their memories, their eyes lifting up a little.

“That’s good,” I said. “I need to clarify things like that. Right now,” I made a motion with my chin toward Bob, “he’s programmed to respond to me; he doesn’t really initiate any topics.”

The nostalgia spell was broken and Patty laughed out loud. “Oh, come on, now—topics? Just be honest and tell me why you really got him. It was sex, pure and simple, wasn’t it?”

“A lot of it was sex, yes, I can’t deny that. But I was lonely for a man. I kept remembering what men were like, before, and I just missed it.”

“Men weren’t all that nice,” Jade pointed out. “I mean, some were, of course, but in general, a lot of them weren’t. And in groups they were impossible.”

“Agreed,” I said. “But individually, didn’t you like them?”

“Still do,” Cassie said strongly. “In principle and in reality.”

We all straightened up. “In reality?” I repeated, and the others nodded eagerly. “Surely you don’t see real men?”

Cassie looked pretty smug. “You do know I travel a lot for Family Planning? Well, in Utah, in the small towns, there are a few men left. There’s an underground market in meeting them, having a conversation with them.” Her eyes sparkled. “Charged by the hour. Usually it’s worth it.”

We all were silent then, our eyes and minds wandering.

Jade shook her head. “A real man. It’s been—how long?—close to twenty years since the war? I think you’re making it up. Another one of your amusing stories. How could there still be men?”

“Semen. We still use their little swimmers, so we still need their little cells.”

“I thought it was all artificial now, all of it. Not that I was selected for children,” Patty said.

“Oh, well, even though there are plenty of sperm lines in the labs, it’s still good to have something in reserve, in case of emergencies.”

“Like what kind of emergency?” Jade asked. “And where is this place exactly? And how did you find out about it?”

Cassie looked around at us, her mouth still retaining a social smile. “Oh, okay,” she said. “I don’t know anything and I haven’t been anywhere. But we’ve all heard rumors.”

“I haven’t,” Jade said. “I never heard anything like that.”

Cassie made a face. “I hear them all the time, but then I work in Family Planning, so I would, wouldn’t I? I heard too that there are boys born occasionally.”

“They die,” Jade said.

“No, they don’t. I heard they get sent somewhere. And yes, we’re supposed to think they die, but I met a woman who had a boy—”

“And she’d like to believe it lived,” Patty said. “The maternals get very invested.”

“All right,” Cassie said, shrugging. “No way I can prove anything anyway.”

“About Bob,” I said.

“I think he’s incredibly realistic,” Jade said, trying to sound cheerful, though we were all a little disturbed by the last turn in the conversation. I wondered which part of what Cassie had said was true. She’d been lying at some point of course, since she said she was lying, but where was the lying part, exactly? I had a vision of men—beautiful, supple men—the way they used to be, years ago, before the war. I hadn’t completely understood what or who killed off the last men after we won, though we all rejoiced, or were told to. Yes, no more war. No more violent competition. And it was true, I’d seen it myself, the way the men around me fell ill, so there might have been a genetic problem. Weak Y Syndrome, it was called. And the healthy men were indeed taken away, for their own protection, to various medical facilities, but they all died, too.

What a strange thing it would be if that wasn’t true. I looked around at my friends, who were busy discussing some of the types now available on the market.

“Well, I hope this one works better than the general release android,” Jade said. “That one’s so clumsy. I know someone who got a black eye from it. What’s this one supposed to do?”

“This one’s got the capacity to learn, it’s got the incentive to vary itself. And it has certain innate male characteristics, apparently. There’s a lot of discussion on which ‘innate male characteristics’ should be allowed, of course. You know how anti-male some people are.”

“And rightly so,” Jade said. “After all.”

“You know, some women are warlike,” Cassie said quickly. “A high hormone imbalance.”

“That gets corrected,” Patty said grumpily. She went over to Bob and pushed him. He blinked and smiled at her, then looked around for me. “Anything I can do for you ladies?” he asked.

“He’s pretty domestic,” Jade said approvingly.

“Oh, hell,” Patty said. “I miss them, I really do.” She sat down heavily, a deliberate thump. She’s a historian. She rewrites the old male-driven textbooks. If the state wants her to make the men look worse, she’ll do it. Though she says it was bad enough. Men chopping off the hands and lips of children; men putting bombs on donkeys, raising children to incinerate themselves. Men raping women, children; men cutting off the breasts of women and stuffing them in their mouths before killing them. All kinds of things that men did. No point in pretending it wasn’t so; they were atrocious. Small wonder women rose up. First in Africa—a great blast of keening and fierce passivity, then masses of women, wounded or in mourning, getting past passivity. Fighting. With knives and clubs and guns; digging up their dead daughters to carry them in the front wall of the resistance.

And then Pakistan; the women who were to be stoned were grabbed by other women and hidden, and the men, intent on honor, were given a final honor—dying for their prized beliefs. Good for them. Women rose up. And then it spread, little by little, driving across the map like a bold line, women rising up. And the women in the First Worlds grabbed their own resources to help—money and food and amnesty—but then trade was affected (because the men who were still around were manning the ships and trains and planes), and the First Worlds men began to put their own women down, declaring their acts illegal, until little by little women everywhere gathered up.

It was quite spectacular, bloody indeed, though the women detested blood. But the end result was that the men lost and most of them were interned while the women decided what to do. While the women debated, the male children born after the war began to die, and then the men began to die, and the history books said chemicals in the environment had targeted the Y chromosome. Men, it turned out, were fragile.

Although Cassie was right: rumors still arose that there were camps filled with surviving men, just in case. Just in case the new technologies, the clones and the sperm banks, failed somehow. It wouldn’t be advisable to leave it all up in the air, would it? That was the rumor.

“Sometimes I miss all the fuss,” I said, “the passion, et cetera. You know what I mean. They may have been nasty, but they weren’t boring.”

“True, true, true,” Cassie said, twisting around and tilting her head at Bob. “Used to be they could surprise you.”

“Oh god, yes,” Jade sighed. “I hate predictability in a man. I hate the stolid type. Give me a reckless man any day.”

“That’s good,” I said, reaching for my pen and paper. “So I want him to be spontaneous?”

“Unpredictable,” Patty said. “I like to be surprised. What if he suddenly wants to go to Panama? Fine by me. What if he suddenly decides to get flying lessons, or go up in a hot-air balloon? Fine by me.”

“Not risking much, anyway, with an animatron,” Cassie mused.

“So,” I agreed, “I’ll ask for a new kind of program. What do we call it?”

“The surprise button.” Patty laughed. “Never know exactly what you’ll get. Hmm,” she said, closing her eyes halfway. “I wonder what it would be like to be surprised during sex?”

“Forget sex for the moment,” I said. “Really, think about it: you spend most of your time doing ordinary things, so that’s what I’m trying to figure out. What I want in general.”

“Well, I want them to be smarter than me,” Jade said defiantly.

“Oh nonsense, nonsense, that’s idiotic. If there’s any male program in there at all, he’ll think it anyway,” Cassie said.

“Why do you want that?” I asked.

“Well, it’s good to have a second opinion,” Jade said stubbornly. “You know, if I have to change the heating system or buy a new car, I’d like to turn to someone who knows more than I do and ask his opinion.”

“You were raised to think that,” Cassie said. “We were the last generation raised with men around us. You have to find out for yourself.”

“But it’s all right, I suppose, if I ask your opinion?”

“Ask away.”

“But not a man’s?”

“Too much history for that,” Patty said stoutly.

“I don’t know,” Cassie replied. “Don’t you get a little tired of all this kind of thing? I’m old enough to remember boys, real boys. I had brothers. They weren’t all bad.”

The others looked uneasily around the room; Patty and Jade leaned in closer to Cassie. “Be careful where you say that,” Jade said. “Some people are doctrinaire.”

“Oh, come off it,” Cassie pleaded. “We’re just us; we’re all right. What harm is there in remembering? I’m sure we all knew someone male who wasn’t all that bad.”

“My father was great,” Jade said, shrugging. “He was part of the resistance.”

“Some of them seemed nice enough,” I agreed. I did remember them; I had even been married, and I remembered him quite well, even now. How annoyed he sometimes made me, how he overlooked some of the things I said; how he wasn’t in the least bit loyal. But I also remembered how he grinned, how his breath felt on the nape of my neck. I shook myself.

“They rape and murder,” I pointed out.

“Not all of them, surely,” Cassie said. “Not all of anything is the same, is it? I mean, we have women who are good at mechanical stuff and women who are good at cerebral stuff.”

“Without much chance to shine at either if the men were still around,” Patty said grumpily. “Unless they could learn to change.”

“Problem was,” Jade said, “they didn’t. And look what happened. Oh well,” she said, pouring herself another drink. “What difference does it make whether he’s real or not as long as he’s convincing?” She raised her glass to Bob. “To the perfect man,” she said, and drank greedily.

“I’m so glad we’re finally allowed to make intelligent male robots,” Cassie agreed pleasantly. “As long as there’s enough variety, how can we go wrong?”

“Back to where we started,” I said, bringing them back on track. “Which is to figure out what we want.” What did men give us? Had we lost anything that couldn’t be replaced? I was a little restless, sometimes, now that the good times felt like normal times, felt safe and comfy, and we all started to think of what we’d lost along with what we’d gained. I pointed at Bob. “If we can make a man, we can make him right. So let’s figure it out step by step: what do we miss and what can we create? Because we have him right here: we have the perfectible man.”

And we turned our eyes to him. I made a little clicking noise, and he turned his head to us slightly, just enough so that his face was at an angle, his chin toward the floor, and his eyes looked up at us through lowered lids. He looked boyish and mannish and devilish and hoping for fun. I heard the other women shift, their conversation forgotten already. “That’s a good gesture,” Patty said quietly. “Very lifelike.”

“For a moment, I felt … ,” Cassie said.

“Yes. That frisson, that little lurch,” Patty agreed.

“I had a man who looked that way, once,” Jade said. “Really good. I would pay extra for that.”

A gentle mood of melancholy settled over us. I went over to Bob and massaged his shoulders. He hunched them up a little, then looked at me quizzically. “Just saying hello,” I told him.

“Hello,” he whispered, and dropping his volume, “dear heart.”

Jade sighed. “So sweet,” she murmured.

“Is it close enough to the real thing?” I asked, turning back to them. Bob settled down and repeated, “Dear.”

“When do these go on sale?” Patty asked. “Or are you just going to keep testing them forever? The only models I’ve seen so far have been awfully unappealing. This one is the best I’ve met.”

“Or maybe the trick is getting to be a tester,” Patty said. “Where do I apply?”

I thought, They’re jealous. And that felt good. It made it seem authentic. I felt proud of myself, and then I made a note of that mentally. There were bound to be emotions attached to ownership. Maybe I would even feel love toward Bob, eventually. After all, I knew perfectly well that love came from me, not from the beloved. I’d been in love with real men. All I could hope for was to find the right set of coding to reflect my own concept of love convincingly. Because it was damn lonely in this world. You had to take whatever was available.

But of course, that was what men always thought. “Bob,” I said, “what would you like to do now?”

The robot straightened up. “Whatever you’d like to do, dear heart. That’s what I’d like to do.”

“So sweet,” Patty said. “In a generic kind of way. I mean, does he have an opinion of his own?”

“Bob?” I asked. “Do you have a opinion of your own?” I was curious by then, understanding what we were getting at. Men had been interesting because they were different, but part of the difference was cruelty. We would all love to have the difference without the cruelty.

Bob straightened up. If he had wheels, he would have been gearing up. “I’m interested in what you say, of course. I’m extremely eager to have opinions of my own. I’d love to learn what you think about everything, and how I should respond.”

“A little bland,” Patty said.

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s kind of refreshing, for a male,” Cassie said. “I wonder …”

We looked at her. We expected Cassie to shock us, at least once.

“I wonder if a real man could be trained like a robot? If we got them early enough?”

“There are no men,” I reminded her. “I mean, in camps, maybe, if the rumors are true, but not out and among us.”

“Of course not. But if there were, couldn’t we program them now? If we can train a robot—well, it’s giving them the right routines and subroutines, it’s giving them the right logic, isn’t that what it’s about? A kind of education?”

She smiled, looking at us with interest. I looked over to Bob, who was watching me closely. “I know what this is,” I said, eyeing Bob as he stood in the corner. He shifted from one foot to the other.

“Do you?” Cassie cocked her head.

“There are men,” I said. “They exist.”

Patty and Jade sucked in their breath. Their eyes snapped to Cassie, who looked at us thoughtfully.

She finally said, “Yes.”

“Where?” Jade demanded, and Patty asked, “How many?”

“You mentioned Utah,” I said to Cassie. “You mentioned that boys were being born. It started as a rumor, years ago, and we were always told it wasn’t true.”

“It did seem odd, that rumor about boys being born to refresh the sperm lines,” Patty said. “I mean, odd that it was a rumor, that we were told it didn’t happen, with all we know.”

“There isn’t a ‘Weak Y’ then,” I said. “That was a lie.”

“No, that was true,” Cassie said. “But we figured it out. Family Planning has been working on it for years now. We can correct the problem. That’s what we’ve been doing, here and there. And we raise them and we train them.”

“Bob,” I said suddenly. I looked at him in the corner.

He drew himself up, all smiles. “What can I do for you?”

We all looked at Bob, our eyes flicking up and down. “Are you real, Bob?” I asked.

“I’m real,” he replied, as if he couldn’t say it fast enough. “As real as you or you or you.”

I had to think of him as human, and it was a shock. It had been a terribly long time. My hands went into fists, and I relaxed them. “I thought I was testing an android,” I said. “I thought I was a new-products tester.”

“Well, you are,” Cassie said. “This is what we’ve been working on. We got closer and closer to the real male model, and then we made the leap. You knew you were testing him, you knew what to look for, and if you had a problem, you’d bring him back. We started placing him with women who knew what men were like.”

“It’s hard to believe he’s real,” I said.

“He’s real,” she assured me.

“It’s just her word,” Patty said. “She could be joking, or lying, or even just testing us now to see how the idea would go over.”

“All those things have already happened,” Cassie said. “In lots of different places.”

I looked at Bob, who stared at me intently. I’d never noticed an android stare that way before. I wanted to believe it, mostly. I did miss them, and not all of them had been a problem.

Yes. I did want to believe. Though there was enough history to make me question the wisdom of what I wanted.

“And if you had a gun,” I said, looking Bob in the eye. “What would you do with a gun?”

“I’d shoot it in the sky,” he said, his eyes all moist and earnest. “Like a single, gorgeous fireworks.”

We stared at him, and he winked.

“For you, of course,” he said. “A fireworks for you.”

©Karen Heuler
sci-fi short story

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Karen Heuler
Karen Heuler’s stories have appeared in over 70 literary and speculative magazines and anthologies. She has published four novels and two story collections with university and small presses, and her last collection was chosen for Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2013 list. She has received an O. Henry award, been a finalist for the Iowa short fiction award, the Bellwether award and the Shirley Jackson award for short fiction. Permuted Press just published her novel, Glorious Plague, about a beautiful apocalypse.
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