Agony/Ecstasy, “Wetwire”, and the Erotica of Augmented Reality

I’m foregoing the semi-usual Muse Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Whenever-The-Hell-I-Write-It  post in favor of one in honor of a release I have today: Jane Litte’s  (of Dear Author) BDSM-y anthology Agony/Ecstasy. You can pick up a copy here and I highly recommend it, because I’m in some extremely good company.

I’m also a bit of an oddball, though, and I’d like to mark the release by talking about why.

“Wetwire” started out just straight-up erotica, but part of the way through the inception process, something interesting happened: I started to think about Themes. Those themes eventually expanded to fill most of the mental space of the story, until I ended up feeling like the sex was mostly a way of talking about something else. Two primary something elses, actually. They are:

- William Gibson’s idea of  how “the street finds its own uses for things”. “Burning Chrome” is one of my favorite short stories ever, and Gibson is one of my favorite authors ever, so of course, setting out to write cyberpunk porn, it makes sense that he would be lurking in the background (not like in a creepy way). But the idea is interesting to me beyond that. What I ended up writing about was that initial moment in the emergence of a new form of technology – or a new evolution of an existing one – when it’s not yet widespread or widely commercial, when the only people making much use of it are techies and hackers. At those moments, its actual use might be extremely up for grabs – people might use it for a whole set of things for which it was not originally designed, and for which it may not be used by the public in general once it goes mainstream.

We were the first ones in the pool, sinking in the data-seas, surfing on waves of raw binary, slammed against the shores of our own perception and then straight back out for more. We loved it. It was like being there at the beginning of the universe, an explosion of unformed potentiality, the point of cosmic orgasm. I tossed out my name after I dropped out of college, and I called myself Tiamat because I floated in the watery chaos of that world like it was home. Once Kim gave me a taste I never wanted to come back. We were out there, Kim and me and all the rest of the net-jetsam, drifting through a paradise of incompatible coding, where anything could be and was and would be forever.

The characters in my story exist in that moment, dealing with a new form of communications technology where the interface is within the brain rather than at the fingertips. This isn’t in itself a new idea -  a fully immersive version of the internet has been a cyberpunk trope since the beginning of the genre. But I wanted to tackle it, nevertheless, because of the other thing I ended up primarily writing about:

- The nature of cyborgs. I should be clear about this: I’m thinking of cyborgs in the Donna Haraway sense, beings for whom the line between humanity and technology is not in any way clear or static. My characters are already in that state, much as we are now – their reality is augmented, their world is a lived implosion of atoms and bits. Indeed, their experience of the world is becoming more about the perception of bits than of atoms – the virtual world in which Tiamat and her friends spend most of their time is chaotic and unformed, almost nothing like the “real” world, and as such their very ideas of what the world is and should be are changing in response to a relationship with technology.

In that sense, I’m also responding to a trope in a lot of cyberpunk: the idea of shedding the physical body in favor of an existence in digital space. This is an interesting idea and it continues to resonate with a lot of people, but I wanted to turn it a bit on its head. Tiamat is losing touch with her body, her flesh, her meat. But her body is still a feature of her world. It still matters. I wanted to try to pull her back into that, to put her in a situation where the very technology that disconnected her from her flesh puts her back into full and immediate contact with it. I wanted to implode atoms and bits from a different angle.

With sex.

So “Wetwire” happened. I think it’s interesting. I hope other people think it is, too. But it is, again, an odd SFnal bird in a flock of stories many of whose authors are usually identified with romance. And in light of that, I feel like I should issue a warning, especially given some of the early reviews that have trickled in:

If you are generally a romance reader, you will probably not like this story. Because it’s not romance. It’s not even romance-ish. I’ve seen it described in more than one place as “cold” and “emotionless”, and I fully own that. I wasn’t especially interested in emotion when I was writing it, and I think that shows. I wasn’t interested in establishing any kind of meaningful relationship between my main characters, and I think that shows as well. So if you’re looking for those things, be aware that you won’t find them. This is probably not the story for you. Hopefully, given that it’s a pretty diverse collection, there will be plenty of other stories in there that provide all the things I left out.

But just as an aside, I do think this is indicative of some ongoing issues in the classification and marketing of “erotica”, some of which I’ve written about before – including how it’s kind of weird to me that I’ve sold a bunch of things that are marketed pretty heavily toward romance readers when I don’t consider myself at all a writer of romance.

But what the hey. People like categories. This is useful but also clearly creates problems.

Regardless, I hope you’ll pick up the anthology. Again, with that diverse a collection of authors and takes on a theme, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find something that floats your boat.

Here’s a longer excerpt:

“You can tell me to stop anytime,” he said. “If you really don’t like it. And I swear, I will.”

At first there was nothing. I watched him go back to the netbook again, and I squirmed a little, experimentally, but as he tapped on the keyboard I caught myself starting to doubt this whole “input” thing, starting to wonder if this was all just some kind of kinky prank.

Then he hit a key and my fucking brain started buzzing.

It was a low hum at first, but it ramped up until it was a purring between my temples. My vision doubled; I shook my head, trying to clear it, and then he was crouching over me. I licked my lips, tried to gather myself enough to speak, and he touched me again, light, running the tips of his fingers up the insides of my bent arms. It was like the raking of little needles over my skin. I jerked and he laughed.

“Kim, tell me what the fuck—” His fingers moved back down, quick, and he pinched my nipple through my shirt. No gentle teasing, just one hard pinch. It should have made me yell, and it just about did—but it didn’t hurt. It was like someone pressing a slick finger down on my clit, flicking it so fucking perfectly, all pleasure. I dropped my head back and whimpered.

“I rewired your peripheral nervous system,” he murmured, lips against my ear as his fingers kept twisting, pulling my skin out of shape. “Pain is some of the most intense shit you can feel, right? Pleasure is harder, more subtle . . . So I figure, if I switch which makes you feel what . . .” He gave my nipple one more hard twist and released me. I let out a whine of disappointment, but it cut off when his hand smacked hard against the side of my face.

Tears flooded my eyes. He’d avoided the jacks, but I could feel my cheek burning . . . and it was hard to describe what else. It was all the pain I would feel from a slap like that, but flipped. Sweetened. It was lingering, a warm honey-glow spreading down my neck, all through me. I gasped, twisted a little, but I wasn’t trying to get away.

“You like that?” He flicked his tongue against my ear, and it was like he’d dug his fingernail into the lobe. I tried to get words out—what I would have said, then, I have no idea—and they didn’t come. Should it have been scary, what he’d done to me? Maybe. I hadn’t known exactly what was coming. But I hadn’t really asked. Because I’d wanted something new, I’d wanted to be surprised . . . and here we were, and I wanted . . . Fuck, I wanted him to hurt me.

3 responses to “Agony/Ecstasy, “Wetwire”, and the Erotica of Augmented Reality

  1. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but it is one of my favorites in the antho. It’s interesting to read your inspirations and thoughts on this story.

  2. Thanks so much, Bettie! I loved Each Step Sublime, also–great twist on a fairy tale that’s already more than a little masochistic. And the prose was lovely.

  3. A little late in catching up on my google reader here, so I just read this, but I also really liked your story! It may not be romantic, but it’s definitely erotic. And I loved the way you took the usual “sucked-up-in-cyberspace-addiction” and turned it back to the physical, yet not.

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