This eye-opening debut is a compelling investigation into the implications of the cutting-edge technologies that aim to deliver the perfect partner, the perfect gestation, the perfect meat and the perfect death. The sceptical Kleeman makes a witty and tenacious guide as she probes unsettling visions of our human future; interviewing a sex robot, eating a lab-grown chicken nugget, watching foetuses growing in plastic bags, and meeting people determined on "rational suicide".
Kleeman approaches her subject with a winning scepticism. When McMullen loftily recalls his early years experimenting with latex and the female form in his garage (“I found that sculpture was my medium”), she privately notes how he talks “as if he were Rodin rather than the man behind the RealCock2”... It’s important to know that, of the innovations discussed here, no functional versions currently exist. So is Kleeman worrying us over nothing? Not entirely, since it seems likely they will go on the market one day, even if there’s no guarantee they will be desirable, let alone affordable. Reading her book, you are left dismayed not so much by what lies ahead as by the current reality of the men with planet-sized egos vying with one another to control birth, food, sex and death. It’s a habit that’s as old as the hills.
Speculative fiction that explores gender dynamics is particularly popular now, with novelists such as Atwood, Naomi Alderman, Louise Erdich and Bina Shah all depicting dystopias in which sex and reproduction are fundamentally disrupted. Sex Robots reveals how it’s mostly men who are creating these innovations and mostly women who will face the consequences. All the same, Kleeman’s arguments about how clean-meat and death machines will negatively impact women feel more tenuous – and the fact that the book is based on five years’ worth of long-form Guardian reports may lead you to question how up-to-date her insights are.
Many people may agree with her; but I found myself wishing that she would back her point up. No doubt all these things will have some negative consequences. But the question is whether the benefits gained will outweigh them: the reduction in animal suffering, the improvement to women’s careers. Even sex robots, icky as they are, might make lonely people feel less isolated. They are empirical questions, but Kleeman doesn’t seem interested in answering them. She just declares that the technologies are bad.
Sex Robots and Vegan Meat is an epic exercise in concision – all four of these sprawling chapters could have run to books on their own, and at times I wish they had. But a vital epilogue pulls all the strings together, with Kleeman making her curiously belated and infuriatingly hurried central point: all these entrepreneurs are men. “Men dominate the tech industry, and their inventions reflect their egos and desires. But women will be disproportionately affected by the technologies I’ve encountered.”
Freud believed that recalling a trauma in a dream softens its blow, by allowing the dreamer to anticipate that which in real life took them by surprise. Perhaps by this logic, worrying about a future in which a handful of egomaniacal men unilaterally reshape human nature is a way of staving off the realisation that that’s the world we’re already in. Just look at what Mark Zuckerberg has done to our attention spans. I’m not sure whether Kleeman intended it, but her book seemed to me like a tacit elegy for a time when Silicon Valley was not rapidly rewiring our brains.