If James Tiptree Jr.’s The Girl Who Was Plugged In (1973) were published today nobody would think it dated. Ahead of its time, it was cyberpunk before the movement had a name and post-human before it too became a craze. Telling of an abused, heavily augmented girl taken advantage of by the system, the novella remains fully human in scope, the motifs of sci-fi used to spectacular yet poignant effect in this tale of self-perception in a media-ensconced world.
P. Burke is an abused, cyborgized teenage girl, biologically and mechanically modified to the point of disfigurement. Found near death in a park and brought to a hospital, a caretaker recognizes her implants and phones a friend. A company representative showing up and asking questions a short time later, P. Burke will do anything to escape the bleakness of the hospital and into the home of someone who cares. Graphic advertizing outlawed in the world of the future, she is made a proposition: to change her life and become a living advertisement. Agreeing to the terms, P. Burke is locked inside a cabinet, cables and tubes attached, and is connected wirelessly to a living doll. Reality taking a twist in this environment, so too is P. Burke’s definition of existence as the company puts her through the rounds.
Before digging deeper into the story, a point must be made: The Girl Who Was Plugged In, despite it’s rather obvious title, is superbly written. Tiptree striking an amazing balance between metaphor, symbolism, and just plain electric lexical dexterity, the surface of the story is a joy to read. Check the opening paragraphs:
Listen, zombie. Believe me. What I could tell you—you with your silly hands leaking sweat on your growth-stocks portfolio. One-ten lousy hacks of AT&T on twenty-point margin and you think you're Evel Knievel. AT&T? You doubleknit dummy, how I'd love to show you something.
Look, dead daddy, I'd say. See 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.
A pleasure to read from the first to last word, Tiptree presents her best skills as a poetess futura in this story.
But the fact a pair of consequential, provocative sub-texts underlie the surface are what make the novella spectacular. The first is the fairy-tale aspect, and its subsequent subversion. P.Burke an ungainly, ugly girl at the outset, her mind is soon thereafter piped into the body of a young goddess—every girl’s dream, seemingly. Tiptree Jr. playing with this time-old motif, the story’s result is one deeper rooted in tragedy than comedy, however, given the circumstances of the choice. The second major sub-text is the manner in which the virtual-self interrelates with the actual self. In P. Burke’s case the two are the same temporally, and yet separate spatially. Though incorporating some aspects of the psyche into this scenario, Tiptree Jr. mostly examines the social aspect, particularly the manner in which outward appearance influences inner perception, as well as how one believes they are perceived by others, and vice versa. The advertizing motif is thus wholly suitable—a tidal wave, in fact—that makes the whole story click like clockwork from beginning to end.
In the end, The Girl Who Was Plugged In is a spectacular read. Prosaic, intelligent, and possessing a lot of heart, what appear simple elements are combined to tell a story that wrenches compassion from the reader. It’s impossible not to read of P. Burke without empathy and wonder in amazement at the society—one not so far removed from our own—she is a part of. Delphi becomes a doll, a puppet for big business, the strings of cyberpunk lurching her forward. Undoubtedly influential on a variety of writers who came after (William Gibson’s Sprawl series and John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider strong possibilities), that Tiptree Jr. manages this without cheap literary tricks is a real testament to the integrity of the piece.