A New Spin On Future Dystopian Noir: Sex-Doll LiberationS

The flood of noir in science fiction and fantasy continues with Pleasure Model by Christopher Rowley. The first book under Tor's new Heavy Metal Pulp imprint, it's just as sleazy and prurient as you'd expect, but surprisingly thought-provoking as well.

And yes, there are spoilers below.

So with a series of books tying in with Heavy Metal magazine you'd expect a certain smuttiness and schlockiness. Add in the fact that Pleasure Model is illustrated, with manga-esque drawings of half-naked (or occasionally naked) bodies, and the salaciousness quotient goes up considerably. (Hence the "Pulp" part of "Heavy Metal Pulp," I suppose — this is really a trashy paperback in the old-school sense.) Not necessarily something you'll want to read on the bus, but fun anyway.

The surprising thing about Pleasure Model is the way it makes a stab at addressing the sex doll referenced in the title. The plot is pretty basic: in a dystopian future, a retired general is murdered in the middle of a movie-standard S&M scene with a dominatrix, who flees the assassins. The only other witness to the murder: A genetically engineered "pleasure model" with the standard pre-programmed name Plesur. The homicide detective, Rook, takes Plesur into his custody and saves her from being gang-raped by his fellow detectives. Plesur has the IQ of a fern, but is clearly sentient and experiences fear and pain.

The rest of the book is pretty standard "honest cop goes rogue in the face of a huge conspiracy in a dystopian world" story, but the stuff involving Plesur is actually pretty intriguing. The nubile, brainless young woman who's under a detective's protection is a standard trope of the pulp detective novel — and rule #1 is that the detective never sleeps with her, because he won't compromise his role as shining white knight. (This happens in almost every Mickey Spillane novel.) But it's a nice twist on this idea that the nubile young woman in question is actually genetically engineered for pleasure and made for slavery, and she's so mindless and eager to please, you could easily forgive anyone who used her. (Later in the book, we learn that pleasure mods like Plesur can receive an intelligence upgrade, and when this happens, they're usually filled with rage over all the things that people did to them when they were stupid.)

Asking questions about the rights of genetically engineered or constructed beings isn't all that new, of course, but invoking these issues in the course of a noir story is a nice twist.

Oh, and here's the incredibly trashy book trailer:

Besides the abundance of noir cliches, the novel's resolution depends on a coincidence so huge, even my usual relaxed attitude to plot contrivances couldn't stomach it. Also, Rowley seems to have taken on board some of the less-savory aspects of old-school pulp novels — the detective visits a brothel where there's an Asian madam named Soozie with almond eyes. And there's a brief but terrible Crying Game pastiche that's sure to piss off a lot of people.

Pleasure Model is the first volume of a new trilogy, and presumably there'll be other Heavy Metal Pulp books as well. Despite the book's flaws, I'm still vaguely intrigued by the idea of seeing Plesur's progress towards person-hood, and all of the issues about a sentient being who was designed to be property that the noir framework lets Rowley address. If nothing else, this book proves there's plenty of scope for blending the old noir tropes with Heavy Metal-style sleaziness.