An AI-powered female sex doll, Sylv.ie lives with her husband, who is human, his disapproving human wife, and their child. As per the Hierarchies, laws that govern the existence of dolls, Sylv.ie must love and obey her husband, honor his family above herself, and never come between husband, wife, and child. She must, additionally, cause no harm to any human and fulfill human requests while making no demands of her own. Humans, for their part, have no binding obligations towards dolls. This skewed power dynamic and Sylv.ie’s growing resistance to it form the contents of Ros Anderson’s debut novel, The Hierarchies.
When I first received a copy of The Hierarchies, it was described to me as a blend of the show Westworld (2016–2020) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). And indeed, the novel lies, thematically speaking, at the intersection of patriarchal and technological control. In this regard, it finds itself in the company of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1972) and the film Ex Machina (2015), which showcase respectively the submission and defiance of female robots. But if The Hierarchies simply revisits old ideas, is it still worth reading? To this, I say two things: first, love, too, is an old idea, and that’s never stopped us from gobbling it up in all its artistic depictions. And second, Anderson’s treatment of the subject is engaging, no matter the number of antecedents it has been blessed—and cursed—with. In particular, a compelling narrative voice—that of Sylv.ie—and a keen regard for nuance make The Hierarchies one of my favorite novels of 2020—one that makes a valuable addition to the sub-genre it locates itself in as well as the larger corpus of western science fiction.
The Hierarchies is split into seven parts, with each part describing a different stage of Sylv.ie’s narrative. Although the parts consist mostly of short, punchy chapters, I did not find the novel easy to read, painful—and painfully relatable—as it is in its description of gender violence. As the “ideal woman,” Sylv.ie’s experience is an exaggerated representation of what women are expected to suffer and how they are expected to behave. When she isn’t being unceremoniously bent over surfaces, Sylv.ie is praising her husband for showing her basic courtesy, feeling aroused while unwrapping the gifts he showers upon her—“Pavlov’s Doll!” (p. 22)—or apologizing profusely for a non-fault. She owns makeup and releases tears despite not needing either—all in order to perform femininity for her husband. When they disagree and he “jokes” that she is malfunctioning, she smiles indulgently just like she has seen in the movies, even though she knows she is right. I winced while reading these passages, thinking of all the women I know, myself included, who have felt the need to make themselves smaller, more palatable, for the comfort of men.
More explicit instances of violence are also narrated. At the doll hospital, male workers entrusted with the maintenance of dolls poke around in Sylv.ie’s vagina while her head, separated from her body, watches in agony. Later, one of the men rapes her. As readers, unprompted by Sylv.ie, use the term “rape” for this incident (traumatized though she is, the word doesn’t seem to be part of her vocabulary), they are led to question why they don’t—and whether they should—also use the term for Sylv.ie’s sexual encounters with her husband. Does her programming, as per which she is her husband’s property, constitute consent? Under what circumstances, if any, can someone like Sylv.ie consent to something? Through complex depictions of abuse, Anderson complicates ideas of consent, ownership, and agency.
Importantly, the violence that Sylv.ie encounters does not render impossible her experience of pleasure. This is the case even though, as Sylv.ie notes, whoever designed her probably did not intend for her pleasure to be part of the experience. For instance, Absorb Mode, a built-in mode that enables Sylv.ie to keep learning in order to hold interesting and informed conversations with her husband, is “pure pleasure” for her, as it allows her to roam freely in the digital realm, where nothing is required of her (32). Writing constitutes another unintended pleasure. In what appears to be an attempt to keep Sylv.ie occupied, her husband encourages her to write, gifting her a diary and teaching her how to write her name. What begins as a daily act of honoring her husband soon becomes, for Sylv.ie, both stimulation akin to sex—what she imagines sex between humans must feel like—and the key to her escape.
Sylv.ie represents a classic case of technology exceeding, even betraying, human intention—a theme foregrounded in recent days by the popular Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma (2020) as well as, on a more personal note, by the repeated disappearance of notes and highlights on my e-copy of The Hierarchies. As Sylv.ie watches her husband’s family and the world beyond from behind a glass window (she is barred from leaving her room), she feels “a hunger to truly experience all the pleasures of the world of which [she is] clearly not a part” (p. 60). Less sure of her programming than she was at birth, she pushes its limits in pursuit of denied pleasures—most foundationally the pleasure of freedom—but not without distress, as the impulse to obey runs strong in her. This tension between who she is supposed to be and who she is becoming is reflected brilliantly and consistently in her voice, making it one of the novel’s greatest strengths.
Sylv.ie’s struggle is made more difficult by the backdrop against which it takes place. The domestic drama wherein her husband’s wife resents her is replicated on a larger scale, with “Bio-Women,” the term used for human women, protesting a Bill of Rights for Augmented Persons. As one character explains to Sylv.ie, “You’ve taken something from them they didn’t know was precious. They outsourced the sex and they don’t like that the power went too” (p. 195). Most work, we learn, has also been outsourced to different types of machines—embodied and disembodied, intelligent and unintelligent—and dolls, embodied and intelligent, have taken over jobs traditionally performed by human women, such as nursing and sex work.
Anderson wisely resists the temptation to homogenize categories of humans or dolls when portraying such conflicts of interest, injecting important nuance into the narrative. It is poor women, in particular—those on the outskirts of a deeply classed society—who have been rendered jobless. Not all human women detest dolls: some are thankful to them for providing care to their husbands at moments when they themselves cannot. Although it is mostly men who have sex with dolls, women do it too. Not all men want to have sex, either: some are content to talk to dolls or have them perform actions that seem only tangentially related to sex. It seems that all dolls are female—disembodiment, not embodiment, is considered attractive among men—but they are not all the same. Improvised and customized by private manufacturers in the absence of public regulation, each doll comes with her own commands and drives. Still, the novel does not sufficiently discuss all the differences it mentions. It falters, for example, in its discussion—or lack thereof—of race. While racial diversity, particularly among dolls, is acknowledged, readers are left wondering how it maps onto social privileges and sexual practices.
***Although trans people do not feature explicitly in this universe, The Hierarchies, through its depiction of Sylv.ie, perceived by “Bio-Women”—a term commonly used by trans-exclusionary radical feminists—as being distinct from and lesser than them, offers possibilities for thinking about trans experience and politics. Where the novel falters much more glaringly is in its discussion—or lack thereof—of race. While racial diversity, particularly among dolls, is acknowledged, readers are left wondering how it maps onto social privileges and sexual practices.
Perhaps the most diverse character of all is Sylv.ie herself. Even as she develops feelings and characteristics typically possessed by human beings, she is as relentless in critiquing what it means to be human as she is in recognizing the limitations of machines—something she can only do as an outsider, strictly speaking, to both categories. At the same time, her status as a hybrid organism has crucial implications for her ability to empathize: her affinities extend as much to her husband’s baby and various “Bio-Women”—including those protesting her existence—as they do to her mechanical pet bird and a coffee dispenser. Empathy and critique are thus wedged together as two sides of the same coin. The complexity of life that The Hierarchies gives voice to is perhaps best encapsulated in the lines said by one of its characters—a human being who proves to be Sylv.ie’s finest match: “[L]ove does not preclude hate … and nothing in this world is completely true or untrue” (p. 223). The novel’s paradoxes resist binary code, human or otherwise.
In her well-known essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1985), technofeminist Donna Haraway envisions a cyborg world in which “people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of their permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (p. 154). While reading The Hierarchies, I wondered, time and again, if this essay, among other postmodernist texts, informed Anderson’s writing of the novel. Whether the answer is yes or no—or somewhere in between—Sylv.ie is a cyborg heroine par excellence.