Thomas Berger: Adventures of the Artificial Woman

Fed up with “real” women, a guy builds himself a perfect robot wife who makes it big in show biz and ends up being elected President of the United States.

Eh? Not the kind of hook that would normally pique my interest, but after all it is by Thomas Berger. I went through a Thomas Berger phase about twenty years ago. He is quite prolific, and I remember being impressed with his incredible versatility: he has taken on everything from westerns (Little Big Man) to detective stories (Who is Teddy Villanova?) to King Arthur (Arthur Rex), and much in between.

Adventures of the Artificial Woman is a satire, of course. (With a plot line like this one, what else could it be?) The robot, Phyllis, is a bit like Mr. Spock. She has no emotion and no sense of humor, but relies solely on logic to understand the world around her. Thus she is the perfect vehicle for taking potshots at everything from marriage and sexuality to politics and the entertainment industry. For example, on the topic of vice presidents, Phyllis observes:

“I’ve researched the subject. Running mates are normally lifelong members of a party, notable for their loyalty to it. Though they may have been, up to that point, of the faction that earlier opposed the person now nominated for the big job, they are expected henceforth to join hands in partisan unity against the enemy, uncompainingly assuming the Presidential candidate’s exact position on every issue, especially those that were most fiercely debated during the nominating process by these two very individuals. The reward for the resulting hypocrisy is that the ticket-partner of a victorious President generally has an inside track for his own future bid for the White House.”

“Where does that leave our problem, Phyl?”

“We have no party, and thus far I have not expressed an opinion on any issue, so these matters need not be taken into the equation. We can promise a potential vice-presidential candidate that he will have a great opportunity to run on his own eight years from now.”

This is a pretty typical passage. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but clever and a bit snarky. If you’re looking to escape into a cozy story with finely-drawn sympathetic characters, this isn’t it. Satire needs to be read in a certain way (I am realizing as I write this). You have to distance yourself from the story in order to appreciate it. You can’t get wrapped up in it the way you can with other genres. Or can you? What do you think?

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