Transgressing the Uncanny Valley: Cybersex and Android Incest


Alistair Brown explores the weirdness of android sexuality. In science fiction, androids are often fabricated as near-clones of each other, yet they can also be depicted as engaging in quasi-sexual relationships. Because androids are often identical, such relationships arguably represent the equivalent of two siblings committing incest. As Alistair shows, the strange relationships in science fiction have lessons for our own increasingly unusual relationships online.

It has become an epistemological truism that our encounters with androids, cyborgs, or other technological monsters typically involve a sense of the uncanny valley: a feeling that we are engaging with something that is almost, yet not quite, human. However, uncanniness may manifest itself in different ways, via different emphases of similarity and difference. Through focusing on the ways in which the potential sexual instincts of androids are variously emphasised or suppressed, this paper will highlight the nuances of our readerly encounters across the human/non-human divide.

It will begin by exploring how android sexuality presents itself in the literary subgenre of cyber-erotica. Here the uncanny valley is exploited, rather than being an unsettling phenomenon. In Kaitlyn O’Connor’s bestselling Abiogenesis, human-like androids aspire to procreate, ideally through polygamous sexual relationships. This fiction presents non-human characters who, precisely because they are not human yet have similar sexual instincts, can satisfy the reader’s libidinal fantasies without worrying about any of the ethical problems of orgiastic sexuality that pertain in the human world. Cyborg sex seems to be safe sex, allowing alternatives because androids are non-human. However, thinking more deeply about the ontological implications of cyborg sex ought to make us realise that such encounters could, in principle, also be seen as incestuous, since androids, robots or cyborgs are by definition of their mode of production essentially (genetically?) identical to each other. Abiogenesis contradictorily acknowledges each individual’s similarity to his or her cousins, whilst at the same time emphasising their difference (in terms of sexual ethical imperatives) to humans. The fact that readers do not notice this paradox shows how easily the uncanny valley can – in literature at least – be transgressed.

Cyborg erotica thus points the way towards deconstructive readings of more canonical texts, since our perceptions of non-human others are clearly steered by language towards noticing some aspects of alterity, in the process neglecting others. For instance, whilst incest is a latent theme in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in Frankenstein’s production of a mate for the monster we (or Shelley) never entertain the possibility that the two would be incestuous children, sharing a common creator-father.

By demonstrating how incest is the absent imaginary of android stories, this paper will complicate the simplistic notion of the uncanny valley, and instead suggest that all too often we read of androids without a sufficient sense of ethical anxiety.

This lecture was one of a series recorded at a workshop on Literary Criticism and the Fantastic, held at Palace Green Library as part of the exhibition, Robot!.

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