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Review: Virtual Girl by Amy Thomson

Virtual Girl by Amy Thomson was an enjoyable read on many different levels: literary theory, the way the book was written (narratology), and the exploration of Maggie’s role in society. I definitely enjoyed the second half of the novel more when Maggie was able to grow into her character and develop her own sense of the world. While I see many parallels between programming and socialization, her exploration of the world provided Maggie with the opportunity to become her own three dimensional character.

From a basic “how the novel was written” perspective, I feel that the dual perspective of Arnold and Maggie was a crucial contribution to my enjoyment of the novel. Not only is the story made more interesting by Maggie’s perspective, it threatens the typical subject-object relationship. We can experience the object witnessing the subject. This relationship continually threatens the monopoly Arnold could have had on the story, from her first moment ‘alive’ Maggie begins to destabilize Arnold’s power. It is through these sections of her own thoughts that the readers are able to get a sense of Maggie as person and not simply as Arnold’s creation.

Working chronologically through the rest of the novel, Arnold’s initial expectations of Maggie interested me. Arnold’s desire for Maggie to represent not only the innocence in the world, but also an ‘innocent woman’ reminded me of Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto”. Arnold believes that Maggie is untarnished and ‘whole’, he views her as a figure from Eden among all the corruption he sees in the world. How very un-Haraway of him (who would argue that for a cyborg, there can be no return to the Garden of Eden: they are destined to be heterogeneous and transgressive identities).

The latter portion of the novel when Maggie must negotiate the world on her own, without Arnold’s influence is a fascinating exploration of artificial intelligence and the ability of programming. Connected to Maggie’s exploration is the ending conflict between herself and Arnold over the Artificial Intelligence laws. Arnold is incapable of separating Maggie firstly from any other robot he will make, and secondly, from any other iteration of Maggie. Her experiences have made her unique in both respects from any other robot and other iterations of herself. It is this inability to recognize this and the wording of the bills which results in her need to protect herself.

Virtual Girl was a fascinating story of a robot’s exploration and renegotiation of her own identity. The book as a whole reminds me of He, She and It by Marge Piercy which explore similar issues of robots who must be taught how to interact with the world, their struggle with their identity, and how they must resolve this conflict.

This book is for anyone who enjoyed Piercy’s novel or wants to read about a scenario in which a self-actualized robot tries to understand the world and her place in it.

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