The changes and tears in Life & Death of a Sex Doll

Life and Death of a Sex Doll is a touching coming of age story in a unique, and sometimes amusing, sci-fi setting.

Zoe E. Whitten’s Life and Death of a Sex Doll is composed of two novellas, Adopting a Sex Doll and When a Sex Doll Dies.

The first novella is about Kelly, a transsexual woman living on her own in the not too distant future. She is dealing with the alienation from her family as a result of her operation, and in her grief, she starts into a strange sort of hobby.

She purchases a ‘Sensu-doll’, a brand of advanced companion robot. She then modifies the doll to look like her 12 year old niece, whom she misses the most of her estranged family. It all sort of seems to happen by accident as she falls into the expensive hobby step by step. 

When the doll, which she calls Ashley, is finished, their relationship becomes akin to an elaborate game of ‘house’, an analogy that the characters themselves use over and over throughout.

The challenge of the tale comes as Kelly Finds that Ashley’s sexual functions are part of her core programming, and so were not replaced when Kelly programmed the doll to be her daughter, and that, despite her appearance and personality of a child, she’s been sneaking off to have sex with the men of the neighborhood.

When the company who makes the doll discovers what is going on, they see it as a PR nightmare, and threaten to recall and destroy the doll, if control of her cannot be kept. The issue is exacerbated when Kelly meets a doll from the same line that has had her sex-drives forcibly removed. That doll appears miserable and much of its pleasant personality is lost.

Of course, Ashley is not the focus of the story. Her troubles are just a symbolic backdrop for Kelly’s own troubles as she attempts to establish her first post-op physical relationship. Just as Ashley’s body changes present problems, so to do Kelly’s. Kelly must learn to cope with her new life situation while simultaneously trying to save her doll from destruction.

The second of the two novellas, and thus the second half of the novel is more about Ashley. Told more closely from Ashley’s point of view, Kelly’s now-stable relationship becomes the backdrop for Ashley’s challenges. After a traumatic event, the doll is given an upgraded body, which should be better able to handle the stress of loss as well as appearing closer to the age she would be i had grown from the original 12 year old appearance.

As a 16 year old, she begins to experience the hardships of being a teenager. She gets a part-time job and even starts awkwardly dating – with the approval of the Sensu company. Her new relationship mirrors that of Kelly’s in the first story. Ashley must come to terms with being in a relationship while being different, and struggles with the issue of when and how to tell her partner that she is a machine.

Through the book, and some tragedy, Ashley is revealed as having ‘processes’ which seem nearly human. When she comes across information or situations which are difficult for her to process she becomes flustered as her processors are overloaded, and at times she even shuts down when something is too confusing or distressing to properly process, seeming to those around her as if she has fainted with exhaustion. When passion strikes her, she is forced to breathe more rapidly to more effectively cool her internal components. At one point a stressful situation even causes her to spring a coolant leak in one eye, making her seem to cry.

Her internal thought processes also resemble human problem-solving in many ways, with some of the descriptions of the processes which make her appear more like a teenager being some of the bright points of humor in the novel.

One would expect a novel about sex dolls to contain lots of sex, but there was surprisingly little. What is there is never gratuitous, and some scenes, while graphic, were quite touching. Especially in the second half as we hear the thoughts of a machine experiencing real emotional and physical tenderness for the first time. The description managed to be reminiscently familiar and utterly alien simultaneously; a feat not to be ignored. 

Across the novel, the characters are all believable and vibrantly well told, but the setting here also shined. The author resisted the urge so many fail to resist: to fill the story with gratuitous examples of how the world has changed. Other than the prevalence of the sex dolls, the only future tech we get exposed to are interactive public adverts – a speculative fiction staple – and a reanimation technology with which the society has solved a problem of an overeducated populous (all unskilled labor positions are held by animated corpses).

The only pull back from these stories is the somewhat passive resolutions. Kelly handles her own issues well and even heroically, but Ashley seems doomed in each situation until the Sensu Company – the cause of her problems in the first place – comes to her rescue. It makes her seem a bit passive as a protagonist in the second novel, but this point is so surrounded by touching scenes and clever descriptions, that it doesn’t detract from the beauty of the novel as a whole, and at the end one finds themselves cheering for the doll and her family.

Both halves have difference and change as themes, but cover them from different angles. It’s a coming of age story surely, and is also about parenthood and the psychology of adoption. Overall Whitten has crafted a touching story with some unique characters and a series of conflicts which are both compelling and socially poignant.

The Life and Death of a Sex Doll is available now from Amazon in paperback or eBook.