Laura Mixon’s SF novel Proxies was published a decade ago, but I only just got around to reading it. It is a compelling book, filled with ideas — mostly about robotics, virtuality, and telepresence — that are played out in a semi-dystopian setting. It is the mid-21st century. Global warming has become catastrophic; but in the US, the affluent adapt to the heat and live their lives much as before, using “canopies” and “cool suits” to reduce the effect of the extreme heat, and fortifying the borders against the global poor from the even hotter countries, who have tried to storm the US as refugees. Technologies involving electronic communications, “syntellects” (artificial intelligence) and “waldos” (robots) continue to be developed, often in secret and with enormous funding from the military and other arms of the government. (There is also an interstellar exploration project underway, which ends up playing an important part in the plot).
The “proxies” of the book’s title are a new breed of robot, nearly indistinguishable from human beings in appearance, but with far greater strength and a wider range of sensory capabilities. They are not autonomous machines, however; a proxy needs to be “piloted” by an actual human being. You lay yourself down in a “creche,” a sort of isolation chamber, a coffin-like enclosure with a nutrient bath, feeding and breathing tubes, and various electronic connections: the sensations of your actual body are pretty much shut down, and instead you operate the proxy body, feeling its physical sensations, moving and acting with its limbs and organs. In effect, you have physical telepresence elsewhere. The technology is a government/military secret; it is extremely expensive. Most people not only lack access to it, they don’t even know it exists. The general population is forced to make do with much cruder, less immersive and less satisfying, sorts of telepresence.
Mixon imagines life via proxy with great care and detail. Most importantly, she insists upon the glitches in the process: all those things that prevent the technology from being altogether seamless. For instance, sensation in your actual body is never entirely cut off; in moments of stress or high emotion you are especially prone to feeling things in your creche body rather than your proxy one: you cry, or breathe fast, or are shaken with spasms of fear. Also there is a certain degree of lag in the actions and responses of the proxy: you are never quite as fast and coordinated as you are in your own flesh. This is partly because of transmission delays (net latency), and partly because of the way our neurons are wired (we’ve “learned” from early childhood how to make our own limbs move; but making the proxy’s limbs move involve slightly different connections that we aren’t as accustomed to, so they aren’t as smoothly and thoroughly automatic). The lag is only a matter of milliseconds, but there are times when this is enough to be significant. The difference from primary physical reality becomes disorienting and disturbing in the long run. A pilot may stay in his or her proxy for a number of days, or weeks; but eventually there’s a need for some psychological and physical rehab in one’s own actual flesh. Excessive piloting can lead to a psychotic breakdown.
Proxies are used to accomplish tasks in the real world — often tasks beyond the physical capacities of unenhanced human beings. But they are also open to various sorts of play, as when you pilot a proxy with a different gender than your own “actual” one. (I wish there had been more of this in the novel; as it stands, Mixon just teases us with the prospect). The remote physicality of the proxy allows for an intensity that merely virtual presence cannot quite match (full-immersion virtuality is itself a commonplace in the world of the novel, but it is more limited, more evanescent, and less satisfying than proxy telepresence).
However, the drama of the novel turns upon a still further, and more extreme, technological twist. Proxies are a secret technology; but there is another level of experimentation, a secret within the secret. The scientist in charge of the project recruits, or adopts, small children to be the ideal proxy pilots. The ethics of doing this are questionable, and are debated at great length throughout the novel. The scientist justifies her experiments on the grounds that the recruits are young children with severely damaged immune systems, who could not expect to live very long in the ordinary world. Instead, they spend their entire physical lives in the sterile and low-gravity environment of creches in an orbital space station. Their bodies atrophy, or never grow to normal adult dimensions, but their isolation and chemical treatment keeps them free from infection; and their entire lived experience is through their proxies. The scientist theorizes that, growing up in this way, without any direct physical experience to contradict their virtual lives, these pilots’ neurons will be wired optimally for their proxy bodies, and they will not suffer from the disorientation and deprivation that adult proxy pilots are always in danger of.
The scientist turns out to be only partially correct. The child-pilots do turn out to optimize their neural organization for life by proxy, and they are able to achieve precision tasks with their proxies that adult pilots are incapable of. Growing up in so highly prosthetic an environment, they also develop computer programming skills far beyond those of adult programmers. And they do not develop the sorts of depressive psychoses that adult pilots with overly extensive exposure do. They are attuned to the prosthetic, and to multiplicity — the ability to switch between several proxy bodies — in a way that people who grow up with their “own” bodies can never be.
But, of course, there turns out to be a price to pay for all this. The creche children somehow never become “mature” (I am using the quotes just in order not to be pinned down to too explicit a definition of just what “mature” might mean). They exist in a permanent state of emotional dependency upon “Mother” (as they think of, and call, the scientist who has “adopted” them). They look to her desperately for approval, carry out her commands, endure her erratic mood swings and violent outbursts of anger, and accept the punishments she burdens them with when they have not properly fulfilled her orders. All this could be thought of as pre-Oedipal regression (or as never having reached an Oedipal state at all); though I don’t think the novel necessarily enforces so psychoanalytic a reading (psychoanalytic theorists may argue that the absence of the father has much to do with the failure of the children to attain autonomy, but the novel never thematizes such a reading, either positively or negatively. One of the “normal” human protagonists does have a strained relationship with her father, however). One of the most emotionally telling moments in the novel — it’s an image that absolutely haunted me — comes when Pablo, the creche child who is one of the book’s protagonists, sits (via proxy, of course) in Mother’s lap (she is also in proxy), and immediately, unthinkingly, starts to suck his thumb (his proxy is adult-sized, and he is 15 or 16 years old). The creche/proxy children are intellectually advanced, but emotionally crippled and blocked.
What’s more, although the creche children do not suffer from the alienating effects of the gap between telepresence and “immediate” presence, they are also (or thereby?) unable to deal with any sort of ambivalence — and this creates gaps of its own. Although the creche children do not suffer from the psychotic disintegration (or dephasing between physical body and proxy) to which adult pilots are prone, they tend to develop, instead, something like Multiple Personality Syndrome. Pablo shares his body with Buddy, who hates Mother as desperately as Pablo loves her; further splits occur in the course of the narrative; and by the end we get to meet Pablito, the little boy who was separated from his birth mother and placed in the creche to begin with, and who is the initial “personality” whose primordial trauma is at the base of the split (as is generally the case in MPS narratives). Pablo and Buddy are sometimes together piloting a single proxy, but at other times they pilot separately. Since they are both ultimately driven by raw pulsions (as the French call them) rather than integrated or “sublimated” emotions, they are unable to compromise or to deflect conflict.
I am perhaps putting the “psychology” of the novel in more Freudian terms than the author would necessarily wish. The originality of the novel has to do, however, with the way that these “pre-Oedipal” conflicts are, precisely, symptoms of technology. Mixon does not suggest any such thing as a “natural,” pre-prosthetic, unalienated state. Like Donna Haraway, she evidently prefers the status of the cyborg to that of the goddess. Prosthetics are a matter of degree, and nobody is entirely free of them. The sense, therefore, is less that of a regression in development, in the Freudian sense, than it is one of psychotechnology, of the ways in which our prosthetic technologies (of any sort, because these technologies are themselve constitutive of what we mean by “humanity”), together with their political and economic circumstances, shape and affect our psyches. The novel ends, not by trying to restore “symbolic efficacy” or to push the creche children onto a more “normal” or “complete” developmental path, but precisely by suggesting that their “line of flight” needs to be pushed to its own extreme, to become whatever it is capable of being — and this is left deliberately open. Such a (literal and metaphorical) flight can only take place, however, if the creche children can be removed, or liberated, from the economy of the military-industrial complex in which they were initially produced — and the novel literalizes this removal, as well, as the children end up on a flight into deep space with no prospect of return to our own solar system.
In short, Proxies displays the contradictions that lie at the heart of our relation with new technologies, without pretending to resolve them. Telepresence or virtual presence has often been seen, in SF as in philosophy, through the lens of an inveterate dualism. For William Gibson’s Case (in Neuromancer), as for Descartes, the mental is a different order of being from the physical. Indeed, Case pushes Cartesian dualism further than Descartes ever did, since he hates his body and sees the exultation of cyberspace as an escape from that body. Much has been written on this dualism, and on the need to overcome it by understtanding the embodiedness of even the most abstract and virtual technologies. But Mixon gives this whole problem a different inflection. The creche children have a strange misunderstanding, grounded in their own always-proxied experience, of dualism. They cannot think of their proxy embodiments as anything but physical, for it is the very way that they function and participate in the physical world. But they distinguish between bodies (which they understand as finite and limited, as capable of being injured or destroyed) and “flesh” (which means their degree-zero locatedness in the creche, and which they imagine as the indubitable way in which they always exist (like the sense of myself as a “thinking thing” in Descartes). This creche “flesh” is in fact extremely vulnerable and weak — we can see this when we look inside a creche and see the child’s crippled, vestigal form — but the children imagine it as being invulnerable and eternal, that which they will never be without, and to which they will never be merely reduced. They don’t understand death, even (or especially) the death of others: because they imagine it as something that happens only to “bodies” (which can always be replaced; if one is injured or destroyed, all you need to do is move your awareness into a different one), and not to the underlying “flesh.” In this sense, they are not denying embodiment, so much as they are taking it too much for granted.
(Is this not also the error of singularity enthusiasts like Ray Kurzweil, who assume that, once they can upload their minds onto the network, they will live forever? Even if “I” am only software, I still need some hardware, somewhere and somehow, in order to instantiate the program that I am; Kurzweil may hope to distribute copies of his intellect in multiple nodes all over the network, but he will still need the physical presence of the network as a “body” within which alone he can survive. Isn’t Kurzweil more naive than the creche children of Proxies, who at least have some awareness of the physical basis — involving both the creches, and the medications with which they are continually being supplied– for virtual and distant presence, even if they overestimate the security and stability of this physical basis?)
I will cease here, even though I think there is more to be said about this novel, which is often classifed as “cyberpunk” (or perhaps as a feminist revision of cyberpunk) but which actually goes off in new — and still insufficiently theorized — directions.