Unless otherwise indicated, all citations are from James Tiptree, Jr. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.” ENGL 246: Science Fiction. Ed. Daniel Newman. Concordia University Bookstore, 2014.
Touching From a Distance: Escapism and “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” by Matt Duffie © 2015
“The me that you know is now made up of wires and even when I’m right with you, I’m so far away.” (Nine Inch Nails, “The Becoming”)
I’ve been a committed fan of science fiction for most of my life; everything from the original Star Trek to Nineteen Eighty-Four (I don’t worry about whether or not the novel actually is sci-fi) to Jupiter Ascending. If it has aliens and/or cyborgs and/or time-travel, I’m usually into it.
That being said, I was taken aback whilst reading James Tiptree’s “The Girl Who was Plugged In” for the first time. I wasn’t sure what to make of it or how to feel about it. Initially, I found the novella frantic and confusing. I’d been tossed into a world that made no sense to me. To make matters worse, my guide in this alien landscape was a tweaking teenage girl – at least, that’s how the narrator sounded in my head. I was an aimless, wandering tourist. And although we were speaking the same language, my guide seemed to talk to me in a foreign tongue.
(This is, I imagine, what visiting Glasgow is like.)
Then a switch clicked in my head and it all became clear: that’s the point. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, and likely most sci-fi, is about being a stranger in a strange land. Not only is the narrator dragging us along this FUTURE, but P. Burke is in the same boat: she too lived in a world in which she felt she didn’t belong.
It’s been said that science-fiction is escapism. Tiptree’s story is the embodiment of escapism. P. Burke feels her life is so miserable that she relishes the idea of being someone else, someone beautiful, someone that someone could want. The poor, sad girl that could only live by proxy. Her wishes are granted when she is given the opportunity to live the ultimate escapist’s dream: actually being someone else.
The thing about escapism is that it’s only healthy if you don’t allow yourself to get lost in whatever world you’ve escaped to. The Borg Collective is a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. But P. Burke had to live there. She had to live her life through Delphi because that was the only way she could feel alive. And when the technological levee that divided Burke and Delphi was no longer able to hold back Burke’s emotional storm: disaster. Paul was incapable of seeing beyond the superficial beauty of Delphi when he came face-to-face with the “real” person.
A question to ask, however: How was Delphi not real? She (if we can assign sex to a human-looking husk developed in labs) was a physical thing. Paul was able to feel her and hear her voice. He was able to talk to her and she was able to talk back. Does the fact that Delphi’s “mind” was twenty-thousand miles away make a difference? When I speak; my mouth is simply relaying the words my brain is creating. Your eyes aren’t reading this; they’re relaying light waves to your brain. The brain is what controls everything through a biological relay system. So why does it matter that Delphi is being controlled by a girl plugged into a coffin very, very far away? Is the tech that separates Burke and Delphi any different from our synapses and nerve endings? Your toe may hurt when you stub it against a chair leg but the pain is actually in the brain.
Delphi represents the escapism we all take part in because escapism is necessary. Our world is often too stressful or too mundane for us to be forced to stay tethered to it. And we all have a Delphi. Delphi is Facebook. Delphi is Twitter. Delphi is MMORPGs and online forums. Whether a person is reaching out to someone with their hand or by tweet, the point is that they are reaching out.
There is, after all, a real person in there. Somewhere.
The Creation of a Sentient System, by Teresa Kuo © 2015
James Tiptree, Jr’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” is a science fiction short story of a girl hoping to be with her gods, but ending in a tragic death. What I want to highlight is the actual plot: the creation of a separate, conscious living being. This new entity is neither P. Burke, the protagonist, nor Delphi, her avatar, but a new conscious life. The process of this beings birth is never fully explained, nor is it explained how it’s able to continue living after its parents die. Although cut off from both parents too early for it to continue living, nonetheless conscious life was created.
This being is the result of the connection between P. Burke and Delphi. Whenever the relationship between P. Burke and Delphi is brought up the narrator focuses mostly on the intricacy and complexity of the system. Tiptree, Jr. writes of this connection as a “pattern flickering over the electrochemical jelly between your ears; delivered via long circuits from your hands; known as eccentric projection or sensory reference,”(10). The completeness of the connection is shown in the parallel sensation P. Burke feels while being Delphi and “washing her hands,”(10). P. Burke does not “feel the water running on her brain” (10); she feels “the water on her hands” (10). Although P. Burke is amazed at the fact that she cannot tell the difference between her hands and Delphi’s hands, the author makes sure to let us know this could not have been possible without the intricate processes of the system of wires. The wires are the border between P. Burke’s and Delphi’s functions.
Although P. Burke and Delphi seem to be the two running the systems, they themselves are not responsible for the whispering life that continued after their death. Had Paul not “just killed the person who animated the body of Delphi, causing Delphi herself to be dead” (24)? Who then is speaking through Delphi? The answer takes me back to the “electrode jacks peeping out of P. Burke’s sparse hair” (9) built to make the connection possible. GTX had found a “brain” (10) and grew a “body” (10) for the system to take over. P. Burke was nothing but a well accustomed “remote” (15) that molded perfectly with “no disorientations, no rejections” (15) to the system. Delphi, was a “modified embryo” (10) created from the “flesh Department” (10) that the developers of the system “couldn’t care less about” (10). It was up to the intricate network of systems and wires to enable the brain and body to work together. This system worked as the soul between the brain and body so when both had shut off, the soul was still very much untouched and thriving, trying to animate the body on its own.
What then is the importance of P. Burke and Delphi if the system was able to function on its own in the end? For the system to become a new entity. It needed a brain and body from which to absorb data. The brain and the body take the role of the mother and father, two parents giving birth to a child. The more deeply P. Burke connected to Delphi, to the point of “no longer recalling that she exists apart from Delphi” (20) the more information was being acquired through the system, which as Tiptree, Jr. hints, was slowly developing its own sentience. When both brain and body were disconnected, Delphi still “breathed a sound: “Yes” (16) or “called his name in her sleep” (21). Much like the plot of Mamoru Oshii’s film Ghost in the Shell (1995), a program turned sentient and explored through the vast network systems of human beings. The system between P. Burke and Delphi is aware and working on its own, dreaming its own dreams. It is like an unborn baby starting to move in its mother’s womb.
Unlike Ghost in the Shell, the newborn system did not develop completely to fully function on its own. It is similar to a premature birth; the system was not capable of surviving outside of the womb. Although it is showing signs of awareness, like moving in its sleep, P. Burke and Delphi were still very much in control of the system. Had it completely finished building itself, it would have taken over the body entirely. As the shell of Delphi lay in Paul’s arms, both mind and body dead, the system, or “the ghost of P. Burke or whatever whispering crazily” (24) its final thoughts until all it could say was “Ag-ag -ag-” (24) similar to a death rattle. Just as quickly as the baby had been given life, it was over. The reader is left wondering if the system could have ever fully taken control of the body, and how long it would take for the process to be complete. The story of P. Burke and Delphi is a tragic one, for not only do both mind and body die, but a new life was taken as well. The possibilities presented by this fledgling life are interesting. Like the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, who professes his sentience as he pleads for his life, the entity in the system struggles to make its existence known before it is over.
Oshii, Mamoru, dir. Kōkaku Kidōta (Ghost in the Shell). Kazunori Itō. Production I.G/ Shochiku, 1995.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.
Who Are You Really? Deciphering James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” by Rebecca Luger © 2015
I was told in advance that reading James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” would be challenging. I heard that some of the terminology and sci-fi jargon would be complicated and slightly hard to understand and yet I felt pretty confident I would have no problems. Little did I know that it would be harder than I thought to understand the story in its entirety and try to figure out the underlying issues Tiptree was conveying about our society. After reading “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, identity is a major theme, it defines a person’s identity and also shows how outside influences direct and change it.
I noticed the similarities between the idea of a Delphi, an active doll that your brain is controlling and is seen as a part of yourself, with the online personas, or “avatar’s” people create today. The avatar is generally made up of the creator’s characteristics and traits, mashing into one character that the individual approves of that they associate or define as their identity. In the introduction of P. Burke to Delphi, Tiptree Jr. explains that Delphi is not a robot and that she is a “real-live girl with her brain in an unusual place” while the body is somewhere else (13). One can argue that an avatar is just that. That an avatar is extension of our person, a body in one place and the brain in another. Delphi gives P. Burke the chance to live in a society that rejects her for the way she looks and behaves but accepts Delphi. As Delphi, P. Burke was happy living a life of luxury and being someone who was admired and loved. Throughout the story, as P. Burke develops a love for Paul, she is doing so using the body of Delphi, “…it’s really P. Burke five thousand miles away who loves Paul” (19). P. Burke’s reality is experienced through Delphi, the once disgusting creature P. Burke, who was rejected by society, is no more and instead is Delphi. P. Burke identifies herself as Delphi, she “can no longer clearly recall that she exists apart from Delphi” proving that she considers them being one in the same and that she identifies as Delphi (20).
“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” displays technology in a number of ways. On one hand, it is used as a mode of improving P. Burke’s life as she adopts the identity of Delphi, “totally unselfaware and happy as a clam in its shell” (13). The technology used in attaching P. Burke’s brain to the body of Delphi gave her the opportunity to experience a life that appealed to her and was useful to society through her beauty and hidden advertising for big corporations. P. Burke was disregarded by society, “now you can see she’s the ugly of the world” (7). On the other hand, Tiptree Jr.’s portrayal of the heavy impact this technology had on P. Burke’s mental and physical health shows how powerful technology is or can be.
“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” stresses an individual’s perception of their own identity. P. Burke, unhappy with her past life, becomes someone else. So much so that she cannot distinguish herself separately from Delphi and so identifies as her. Though we can see the technology killing P. Burke, sucking out her life as she prefers to continue experiencing the world as Delphi, it is hard to say whether or not technology is altogether bad. Technology gave P. Burke a life that made her happier than she had ever been before or would ever be if she refused GTX services. She was able to fall in love, be admired and live well. However, in the end, once P. Burke becomes detached from Delphi, and is separated in mind and body from this technology, she dies. Technology does something somewhat similar to people; bringing them together, helping make connections and even finding partners and romance. Technology can, on the other hand, do just the opposite. Isolate individuals from their own physical world, tear up relationships and ultimately can kill. A key example of this is cyber bullying. In many cases, the situation becomes so extreme and stressful for the person who is bullied, that they prefer to take their own life, than continue facing the people online that hurt them. Even though P. Burke’s life did not end well, it still made her happy for the limited amount of time she had as Delphi.
Untitled, by Steven Danovitch © 2015
The first thing that comes to mind when reading “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” is the futuristic take on the American dream. Where we have this girl taking the role of what we can assume in this story is our future’s version of a Britney Spears or a Miley Cyrus; A poor young girl with some particular spark of talent, dragged away from her home and family and then thrown into the spotlight until it shrivels them out into nothing . She is literally given an entire new body, taking the re-imaging, plastic surgery, Los Angeles Hollywood tradition to a new level. In her case however, her talent isn’t an obvious one like singing but rather a proven ability in controlling her surrogate
Beyond that, there was another parallel that I found interesting, perhaps one not as intentional but still noteworthy. Having known people in real life who participate in what are called “Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games” (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft, I couldn’t help but see these people in poor P. Burke. How the only moments she spends outside of that box or Waldo as they seem to call it, are spent filling her most basic needs, and then right away back into the box. Back into her new virtual life, which is so much better than her regular boring life.
Although in this setting, the intended purpose of her living out this fake existence is for advertising, for her we see it is clearly all about having a fun. She has a blast as Delphi and wants to experience her actual life as little as possible. It’s just like some MMORPG players, who will spend 10, or 12 hours a just mining away in the hills or running away from centaurs or whatever it is that their elves and orcs do, then down a bag of chips and a soda and drop into a cot for a minimum amount of restoration, eliminate waste and take a shower (maybe?), and then back to the hills and/or centaurs.
We see this in P Burke when she rushes through her essential activities like washing, eating and sleeping so that she can get back to her fantasy world as quickly as possible.
When this was written, in 1974, MMORPGs didn’t exist, and video games were fairly new. I don’t think reducing one’s self to a few hours a day of rapidly filling up your basic needs to go pursue your much better life of hopping over barrels or getting chased by ghosts was a very common occurrence. Back then, the only conceivable and comparable activities that could have this effect would be books, movies or television. Does this story have a hidden anti-literary message? Probably not, that’s kind of stupid. In this period, television had already established itself as a regular household activity for quite a few years. You could say that the story may be trying to make a point against people getting lost in the lives of their television heroes and losing track of their own, but I doubt this was much of a common occurrence back then, or even today with television.
This is something the story shows us as well, that what is addictive about the activity is the fact that you are actually in it, you are in control, but you don’t have to be you.
In some way, the Hollywood starlets of today are living somewhat of a similar experience to that of the MMORPG players, but to an extent that is much more real, perhaps even more so than what P. Burke, goes through. Whether the ending turns out tragic or triumphant, it’s obvious that there is no turning back.
“The Girl Who Was Plugged In”: Brought to you by MasterCard®, by Michael Callisto © 2015
In “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” we are shown a world in which advertising has been limited to “displays in or on the product itself, visible during its legitimate use or in on-premise sales” (51). This restriction is central to the story’s plot as it has caused corporations to find new ways of advertising to the public which in turn, has shaped the motivations of the characters in the story such as those of Cantle and Delphi/P. Burke.
Many times throughout the story, P. Burke is told by Cantle that working as a walking billboard for GTX is not simply a job, but more of a “solemn social duty” (52) to inform the public at large about their products. He goes on to say that if they could not advertise, society and the economy “would be totally destroyed” (52). I believe that this emphasizes the indivisible connection between the corporations in this story and society, and the lengths they will go to in order to manipulate people. Companies such as GTX have placed themselves, through the use of advanced technologies, in a situation where they have great influence over the shaping of government policies and when they are unable to actually change them, they are able to subvert them and render them meaningless. In the case of P. Burke, these subversive technologies are used to give her the illusion of being somebody she never could be on her own. By inhabiting the body of a beautiful, rich, attractive woman, GTX makes Burke feel an attachment with Delphi which in turn invests her emotionally in Delphi’s, and by proxy GTX’s, success. In a more general sense, creating these faux-celebrities and turning them into walking billboards helps viewers feel more connected with the company’s product through the intermediary of their new favourite celebrity. This makes the public more willing to accept that the company’s product is a good one. Cantle acknowledges this when he tells Delphi: “You saw Ananga using [a Burnbabi cooker] so you thought it must be good, eh? And it is good, or a great human being like Ananga wouldn’t be using it” (51). This shows that these companies know that the best way to make customers more accepting of your product is for them to have someone they trust or admire tell them that it is a good product. Furthermore, they build up the importance of advertisement to such a degree as to render it an essential part of the economic integrity of their society. They sell the idea of advertising as a moral imperative for which P. Burke has been privileged to have been chosen.
In sum, GTX and other corporations in “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” are using new techniques and technologies in order to manipulate both P. Burke and society at large into buying their ideology and products respectfully.
Tiptree, James Jr. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.” Her Smoke Rose up Forever. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2004.
Advertising and Why You Need it in “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” by Marco Pomenti © 2015
The world of advertising is a very underhanded and devious one. Companies will emphasize advertising and product placement in order to achieve financial gain regardless of morality or ethics.. Product placement is rather interesting because it preys on an individual’s admiration of another person, TV show or movie. When a Mountain Dew product shows up in a Transformers movie, it was paid for to be in that spot. Subliminally, companies can advertise products to us in this way, and it works. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” tells the story of an atrocious looking girl by the name of P. Burke who is given telepathic control of a body surnamed “Delphi”. The story follows Burke as she explores the world around her as a celebrity meant to advertise a wide variety of products for her “boss” Mr. Cantle. This short response to the story by Tiptree will look specifically at the issues of advertising as well as the public consumption of celebrities in our modern era. This core issue is what I wish to discuss, the almost drone-like behaviour that human beings show in relation to celebrities.
What Tiptree suggests about advertising is quite interesting to me because she chooses to go away from this reality and introduces the “Huckster Laws” which ban advertising. Corporations bypass these bans by using the social attention celebrities attract to sell products. Throughout the story Delphi is paraded around wearing the latest fashion accessory, or newest product and thus Mr. Cantle and his company exploits her celebrity position to advertise various products. Delphi is similar in celebrity status to our world’s Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton; famous for being famous. She is inserted into the world at big parties, paid for by the company who created the Delphi body. This company only demands compensation in the form of public advertisement of various brands. In this fictitious world, companies advertise through celebrities, essentially putting forth the idea that if I were to see Paris Hilton sporting the latest Louis Vuitton boots or cutting edge iteration of the iPhone then I should buy them as well. The shocking thing about this situation, or perhaps not so shocking, is that this is exactly the way the world works now except advertising is not banned. Interestingly enough, even though this stark difference exists, both Tiptree’s story and our world function on a similar plane when it comes to consumer cultures and product placement. Even if traditional advertising is banned, Tiptree argues that the consumer culture would continue to thrive.
One of the many issues that Tiptree tries to discuss in his short story is the problem with consumer culture and the way we as a people flock to these icons for guidance. Millions of people would listen to what Oprah has to say about which tea kettle to buy or to Ellen about which earrings are best but in reality these celebrities are exactly like the banned advertisements in Tiptree’s universe; dishonest. The author also brings up the idea of social stability and how a ban on advertisements can eventually spell the end of our society as well as economy (8). Personally I partly agree with this statement, because in its most basic form a healthy economic structure would cease to exist in a world without advertisements because of how important ads are to the buying process. However while Mr. Cantle, the character who mentions this concept of social stability, stresses the imbecility of these laws (8), advertising is not by any means dead. Quite the opposite in fact, advertising lives and thrives through product placement and thus produces Delphi’s fame.
One observation that I found quite interesting is how the attention that James Tiptree’s character Mr. Cantle pays to social stability is somewhat similar to how Aldous Huxley’s Mustapha Mond similarly values it. While advertising, and therefore social stability, still exists in Tiptree’s story, there is still a careful attention drawn to it by corporate bigwigs like Cantle who seem to value it. Cantle stresses that if the Huckster laws were strictly observed, they’d spell the end of humanity (8). Mond, one of the world leaders in Brave New World, values social stability and conformity above all else and even sacrifices his own curiosities for the betterment of his society. He places the bigger world before himself, for the sake of stability. A very interesting parallel exists between these two pieces, linked by their careful attention to social stability.
Tiptree presents an interesting world where advertisements are illegal. Characters instead resort to product placement and public adoration for celebrities to popularize their products. The author presents a world opposite to ours where blatant advertising is banned but product placement still occurs on a large scale. Tiptree excellently tells her tale and raises interesting questions about fervent issues such as advertising and celebrity culture.