The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree Jr.

Today’s transhumanist tale is a short story from Alice Sheldon, writing as James Tiptree Jr. 

The Girl Who Was Plugged InSee for instance that rotten girl? In the crowd over there, that one gaping at her gods. One rotten girl in the city of the future. (That’s what I said.) Watch.

She’s jammed among bodies, craning and peering with her soul yearning out of her eyeballs. Love! Oo-ooh, love them! Her gods are coming out of a store called Body East. Three young-bloods, larking along loverly. Dressed like simple street-people but… smashing. See their great eyes swivel above their nose-filters, their hands lift shyly, their inhumanly tender lips melt? The crowd moans. Love! This whole boiling megacity, this whole fun future world loves its gods.

You don’t believe gods, dad? Wait. Whatever turns you on, there’s a god in the future for you, custom-made. Listen to this mob. “I touched his foot. Ow-oow, I TOUCHED Him!”

Even the people in the GTX tower up there love the gods — in their own way and for their own reasons.

The funky girl on the street, she just loves. Grooving on their beautiful lives, their mysterioso problems. No one ever told her about mortals who love a god and end up as a tree or a sighing sound. In a million years it’d never occur to her that her gods might love her back.

Philadelphia Burke is a disabled girl in a future world, her misshapen body leaving her at best invisible and at worst disdained, while the beautiful people are lauded, celebrated, and constantly observed. It would never have occurred to her that she could become one of the beautiful people, but then tragedy strikes, and she’s offered the opportunity to “die” … and be reborn in the body of Delphi, a stunning young thing who’s guaranteed to turn into a starlet.

In this imagined future, explicit advertising is illegal, but corporations manipulate the public by giving their products to beautiful people, who in turn are seen and mimicked by the masses. Burke is persuaded that by joining this system, she can help the workers who manufacture goods; the blatant manipulation is sold to her as a natural way for products to be discovered by consumers. She’s won over by her desire to do good. And the fact that she gets a hot young body out of the deal certainly doesn’t hurt.

So while Burke’s damaged body is stored in a tank, emerging only to eat and do some basic exercise, her mind is plugged in to the network and relayed to wherever young Delphi is wanted. As predicted by the marketers, Delphi is an instant hit across the networks. But Burke is operating from a misplaced sense of idealism, and before too long, her values come into conflict with those of the company.

Considering that this story was published in 1973, Tiptree’s vision of product placement is eerily prescient, offering a caricature of famous-for-being-famous social media personalities. The juxtaposition of Burke and Delphi also has a lot to say about the deliberate creation of avatars that don’t exactly represent the whole truth of the person underneath; this is Photoshopped celebrity taken to an extreme. The Girl Who Was Plugged In is only a short piece, but it packs a hefty punch, leaving plenty to think about.

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