Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (17)
Penny Harrigan, an ordinary and humble associate in a Manhattan law firm, and is wooed and won by billionaire C. Linus Maxwell. So far, so romance beach reading. But Maxwell has an ulterior motif: he wants to use Penny as a test-bed for his new range of sex toys, including Beautiful You, the ultimate in vibrators. After he dumps Penny, the Beautiful You range threatens to cause civilization to collapse as women abandon men and obsessively diddle themselves to death. Only Penny and a two-hundred-year-old sex guru can frustrate Maxwell's fiendish plans.
There's plenty of energy and invention in Palahniuk's apocalyptic vision. Women beg for batteries; sex toys are turned into weapons ('Flaming dildos continued to pelt down, dealing random death'); there's a vividly cartoonish climatic confrontation at a wedding. But as satire it's thin stuff. The characters are caricatures and mostly dislikable, the sex is graphically gynacological, but unlike, say, J.G. Ballard's clinical descriptions, it's also interminable, the sex guru seems to have wandered in from an unfinished Kurt Vonnegut novel, and the idea that women would become instant sex addicts is risible.
Straight men, frustrated and disenfranchised, turn into Paleolithic rapists, and the reaction of the gay community is summed up by a couple of joggers ('Let the gals have their fun!' 'I don't care of they never come back!'), but women come off far worse. Penny, about the only vaguely sympathetic character in this short novel, is a chick-lit cliche from the Mid-West caught between careerism and old-fashioned notions of marriage and family as she tries to make it in the carnivorous Big Apple, and despite some Learning and Growing she remains wedded to cliches of female fulfillment. The female autoerotic addicts are pitiable - Penny's mother is saved as if from substance abuse by the intervention of her husband and a male friend - and at every level female sexuality is shown to be determined by what men want and by their fear of losing control of it - let's not even get into the nanobot powered vagina lasers that update the concept of chastity belts. In short, nobody comes out of this well, including the author.