Jennifer Pelland’s Captive Girl (see review), is a slightly disturbing love story between a woman so integrated with machinery that she is effectively disabled and the scientist who needs her to be that way. Machine echoes that, the story motivated by a woman becoming a machine, and her wife’s refusal to accept her as one. The novel’s protagonist, Celia, copes with the pain of this rejection by trying to become more of a machine, in a quest to transform away all remnants of her humanity.
The core of the story is the possibility of a person’s mind being copied into a humanoid machine, primarily as a physical replacement for a body with a critical illness and that has been frozen awaiting a cure. In this case, Celia’s body has been frozen indefinitely but she is copied into an artificial but almost identical copy of herself, to continue her married life until her body is cured and her mind can be copied back into her flesh.
The novel introduces a wide range of characters to explore different aspects and attitudes towards this possibility. One person desires the extended life an artificial body can provide, in order to live hundreds of years and see the exciting developments of the future. Another desires it for vanity – the ultimate in cosmetic surgery. Yet another represents the orthodox justification of a continued life with loved ones.
But it’s as much about the negatives as the positives. Is it really possible to copy a human consciousness into a machine? Celia’s wife, Rivka, is unable to accept as real a copy of her wife. Sometimes the copying process is defective, so that machine-copies have distinctly different personalities from their originals – and can such copies be truly regarded as copies? Or as entirely new people?
Then there are the humans who fetishise machine-copies, and humans with phobias about them. And how the machine-people confront their new reality as fundamentally non-human varies considerably too. Much of this echoes the reality of people in contemporary society who differ from society’s norms. The novel’s main story is set against a political backdrop that is a clear allegory of the U.S.’s neverending war on abortion clinics, and also of society’s fear and confusion over gender identities – and the right of others to police the boundaries.
Despite all the not-so-subtle subtext, ultimately this is a human story about love and loss, with elements of a psychological thriller. The ending is good, though it leaves open many questions – but that’s no bad thing.