January 15, 2023

Double Bubble Chapter 7: Pygmalion

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This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series Double Bubble

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The Helping Hand Sex Toy Company is located in a two-storey warehouse on Palladium Drive in Ottawa’s west end.

According to the news articles I read before heading out the door, Vivian Landers is slated to take over as CEO of the company now that Danny is dead. She has no social media presence whatsoever, but the press release announcing her promotion says she has a Ph.D. from Queen’s University in artificial intelligence and has been with Helping Hand since its founding two years ago.

I couldn’t find anything online to explain how she and Danny met or why the two of them started a sex toy company together. What I did learn was that the company is considered an industry darling and is part of a new crop of tech companies leveraging artificial intelligence. The company has won all sorts of awards for its tech and all sorts of controversy for its product.

Turns out Helping Hand is not your garden-variety sex toy store selling old-fashioned white vibrators shaped like an Apollo rocketship or cheap inflatables more likely to arouse laughter than libido.

No, Helping Hand specializes in designing, manufacturing, and selling cutting-edge sex robots that are so life-like that some men have tried to marry them. These robots have become so popular that there are sex doll brothels in Barcelona, Berlin, and Moscow and even a sex doll cafe in China. Helping Hand claims that its products will cure loneliness for all genders but specializes in selling its products to men in retirement homes, the military, and even to a prison where the robots are used as a part of a pilot program intended to lower sexual violence among inmates.

Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer brains to batteries and sex without silicone. After reading all the controversy on both sides of the debate, I concede I don’t quite understand the attraction of sex robots. But, then, in a world of angry men claiming to be involuntarily celibate — whatever that means — I suppose it was inevitable for someone like Dirty Danny Quick to cash in on all that anger.

A cure-all for every guy who thinks sex is their prerogative and is disappointed that marriage is no longer mandatory. The irony is that the Helping Hand robots cost a small fortune, and the men who can afford them can probably find sex for free. I’m not political, but it strikes me that Helping Hand is just cashing in on a world that has everyone chasing the highest reward for the lowest effort. And there are few things requiring less effort than fucking a sex robot.

It takes a little more than 30 minutes to get to Helping Hand. I was worried the building would be closed, but the lights are still on, and the parking lot is half full. Like many tech companies in Ottawa, Helping Hand is part R&D and part manufacturing. The company occupies a surprising amount of real estate for a startup, but I’ve never understood the vagaries of high-tech economics. Ottawa has had a high-tech community for years, built on the shoulders of companies like Nortel and Mitel and all the other tels. Most of those companies have splintered, shrunk, or shuttered with each successive tech bubble, but the industry continues on.

I pull open the front door and find myself standing in an oversized bright white lobby that looks like a cross between the Star Trek’s holodeck and the shuffleboard pad on a Carnival Cruise ship. The walls and floors are gleaming. The place is so white, and clean, and empty, if it weren’t for the sign over the reception desk with the words Helping Hand on it, I would think I was in the wrong place.

I scan my eyes from wall to wall, looking for a sex robot, but there isn’t one to be found. The space employs a minimalist vibe, and the only furniture is a few white leather sofas with red accents scattered around the room. To the right, I notice a small stage and podium along the far wall. Surely Danny wasn’t screening his movies for a live audience right here in the lobby?

The reception desk is inconveniently located deep on the far side of the lobby, pushed up against the back wall. Walking quietly in this space is impossible, and my shoes squeak with each step. The receptionist is a twenty-something man dressed in a whole lot of fashion. He’s smiling ear to ear as I approach the desk. He stands up to greet me. He’s still straightening his tie and adjusting his jacket when I get to the desk.

Up close, he looks like a guy meant to be seen from afar. His suit’s new but working overtime to keep his sculpted body contained, the front button of his jacket only minutes from a malfunction under the strain. He’s eager to see me, probably because there isn’t much foot traffic at this time of day, or ever.

Because Helping Hand sex toys are expensive and filthy, the product isn’t an impulse buy and is only sold online. That makes this guy ornamentation. Or more like decoration. A set piece. The kind of thing people do to make an environment feel real, like putting a mannequin in a kitchen at a nuclear bomb testing site. It’s pointless, but golly, it feels as wholesome as momma’s apple pie. And clearly, whoever designed this lobby is trying to push the wholesome and clean.

Or maybe this guy doubles as one of the actors in Danny’s films, a walk-on pizza delivery man or a plumber. He certainly looks the part. I read that Danny had actually branched out beyond his usual solo adventures to make more traditional pornographic films. So maybe this guy is a future star, the John Holmes of his generation. Whatever his purpose, I’m glad to find somebody here.

“Hello,” he says. “Welcome to Helping Hand. How can I assist you today?”

He says it with so much enthusiasm and gusto that I almost wonder how far he would go to assist me today. Helping Hand indeed. I smile and resist the impulse to ask him. I remind myself that I’m here to meet Vivian and to find out about Danny, not to crack wise and sexually harass the kid in the lobby.

“Hi,” I say, trying to sound casual. “I wonder if I could speak with Vivian Landers. Is she in today?”

He drops his fake smile and looks at me suspiciously like I might be one of those activists I read about who think that robots have rights and ought to be protected from the sexual demands of perverts and deviants.

“Do you have an appointment,” he asks with all the pleasantness of a grizzly bear protecting its offspring.

“I do not,” I say. “I hadn’t realized an appointment was required.”

I hoist a big smile up on my face, hold my arms up and my hands out in open supplication, and give him my best I didn’t know pose.

One thing I’ve learned from my dealings with underlings is that it’s better to feign ignorance and stupidity than bravado and arrogance when you are trying to curry their favour. People love feeling superior to others, and the more powerless the position they occupy, the more they crave any recognition of their limited power.

My gambit seems to do the trick because the tension in his body dissipates a little, and his fake smile returns to its customary place on his face. He’s eager again. I’m guessing he hasn’t had this much fun since he won a gold star in his high school drama class.

“Not at all” he says as though I’m making a reservation at a restaurant. “And who shall I say is here to see her?”

“Norbert,” I say, still smiling. “Norbert Wiener.”

The young man laughs loudly for several seconds before he realizes his mistake. I’ve got a serious expression on my face, and I’m not laughing. This causes his laugh to die in his throat. Awkward. Now he’s worried I may be someone important, and his laugh may cost him his job. I do nothing to ease his discomfort. I just stand there impassively as he squirms and mutters his apologies, although I can still see the amusement shining in his eyes. Still, all the fun has left his lips. I guess we aren’t friends anymore, these kinds of bromances never last.

“Of course, Mr. Wiener, I’ll see if she is in. Please,” he says, gesturing to a small coffee service set up past some sofas behind me, help yourself to a latte while you wait.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” I say.

I move away from the desk and to the coffee service. As I pass by, I notice a small plaque with the words Ada Lovelace Theatre. That certainly explains the open space. I try to imagine the galas and balls and cocktail receptions that are held here. I laugh at the thought of all those important people in their evening gowns and tuxedos milling around and mentally masturbating with one another while Dirty Danny Quick was upstairs masturbating for his online audience.

The coffee service consists of a very large machine that looks like it could power a human to mars and a fiesta of coffee and tea and other things I don’t recognize. I glance over to see the receptionist still watching me, and I presume, waiting for me to ask him over to help me make some fancy drink. I don’t. I detest small talk. I’d rather jerk off with a cheese grater while undergoing a lobotomy performed by a drunk clown with a rusty spoon than engage in small talk. And if that sounds like so much hyperbole, grab a spoon and find out. I won’t try and stop you.

I settle for a tiny square bottle of water and move off to investigate the rest of the room. I don’t get far before I hear the familiar chime of an elevator and then the sound of someone walking across the floor behind me. I turn to see a woman in a stylish suit moving with confidence but without swagger. The soon-to-be CEO of the Helping Hand Sex Toy Company looks at me quizzically, trying to decide if I am friend or foe.

“Mr. Wiener, I presume.”

I hold out my hand and say, “The same.”

She grasps my hand with hers, shakes it firmly, and lets it drop.

“Norbert Wiener?”

“Exactly,” I say.

She’s smiling brightly now, exposing a row of straight white teeth. It’s an attractive smile. Playful.

“The MIT professor?”

“You’ve heard of me,” I say, returning her smile.

“The inventor of cybernetics?” she says.

“Indeed,” I say, still smiling.

“The deceased inventor of cybernetics?”

“Yes,” I say. “That is an unfortunate drawback.”

We both laugh. It’s a pleasant kind of laugh.

“And tell me Professor Wiener, what brought you back from the dead and into our establishment today?”

“Penises,” I say with a wave of my hand.

“Penises,” she says with a light laugh. “Yes, I’m sure we can help you with that.”

“I should think so,” I say, still smiling and gesturing around me. “I understand that you design and manufacture the most wonderful penises here.”

“Would you like a tour,” she says.

“Does a monkey know about the taste of ginger,” I say

Her smile wavers. She’s still trying to be polite, but I can see from her eyes that she thinks I may be crazy. I’m still smiling and looking at her expectantly.

She says, “Um, yes. Well, I’m sure we could talk about penises and monkeys all day, but I’m guessing you didn’t come back from the dead and travel all the way here just for that?”

“Quite right, Dr. Landers, I didn’t.”

I don’t want to be too cagey, but I also don’t want to have this conversation here, in this giant open lobby, with John Holmes lingering close enough to hear our every word. I lower my voice an octave and look at her seriously.

“I was a friend of Danny’s,” I say.

She arches an eyebrow.

“I see,” she says. “There has been quite a bit of interest in Danny lately.”

“Really,” I say as though the news surprises me.

“Really,” she says.

We stare at one another for an eternity. Finally, her smile returns, and she says, “I was just about to leave for the day but I always do a quick check on our facility before I go. Why don’t you join me and we can walk and talk and reminisce about our dear friend Danny.”

“Splendid,” I say.

She gives me a last serious look before turning back the way she came. She sets off, and I follow her across the lobby to a wall with a locked door and keypad. She swipes a card, there’s a click, and she pushes through the door and into a short carpeted hallway with pictures framed evenly along the walls.

She moves quickly and efficiently down the hall, and I have to hurry to catch up. It isn’t until we reach the third picture that I realize that these are product sheets of the robots and dolls Helping Hand sells. I stop to take a closer look. She moves a few more steps before she realizes I’m not following her. She turns to look at me, and I nod to the pictures.

“Sex dolls have evolved,” I say. “I’m old enough to remember when they were about as interesting to look at as a beach ball?”

She glances over at the pictures and says, “The sex and dolls don’t interest me, I’m afraid.”

“Seems like a strange comment for someone trying to build her fortune selling sex robots?”

“Not really,” she says. “Danny liked the sex. I like the technology. The dirty truth is that sex has always been one of the singular causes of technological advancement. While the pornography industry may not invent anything new, applying sex to any new technology speeds up its evolution and widespread adoption by others in society. Danny was the sex guy. I am just someone who wants to push the boundaries of robotics.”

She smiles, but her expression is pensive, almost melancholy. She shrugs, turns, and starts walking again. I fall in beside her. We arrive at another door with another key lock. She swipes it, and we walk through and into the factory itself.

I am immediately regretting my decision to take the tour. It’s like I have stepped into one of those horror houses people pay to walk through on Halloween, only instead of ugly men in hockey masks carrying chainsaws, the entire space looks like a sanitized version of a serial killer’s basement.

I have always been pretty cavalier about sex and pornography, but this is obscene. Everywhere I look, there are half-assembled torsos suspended from chains hanging from the ceiling, each meant to mimic a woman but only as a man would design her. Standing here among all these torsos, each nothing more than silicone breasts and orifices, convinces me that God must be a woman because if a man had been tasked with the job of creation, he would have been so distracted by breasts and vaginas, he would have forgotten to include the arms and legs and hearts and souls that make us human. Fucking hell.

Vivian is standing a few feet away, watching my reaction.

I shake my head, trying to ignore my realization that all of these dolls are being manufactured for the single purpose of being penetrated by some man somewhere in the world. Penetration is a part of the process, I get that, but seeing it manufactured at scale is making me queasy and uncomfortable. Is this what we’ve become? Is this the future of my gender, mindless apes rutting fake females because building a relationship with them is too much work?

“Squeamish or aroused,” she asks with amusement.

I look over at her.

“Definitely not aroused,” I say. “I’m not sure how anyone could be, seeing this.”

“Your colleague—“

“Colleague?” I say.

“The other guy, the one who was here yesterday. In the suit. He wasn’t squeamish. He had all sorts of questions about our process and spent quite a bit of time feeling and fingering and fondling our finished product.”

“He rather enjoyed the tour did he?” I say.

She rolls her eyes at me as though she finds him, or me, or all men in general ridiculous.

“Most men do,” she says. “We wouldn’t be in business very long if they didn’t.”

I look around at the boxes and boxes of female body parts waiting to be assembled, and I wonder if this isn’t what Dr. Frankenstein would have been making in his tower if the book had been written by a man. Not Shelley’s deformed monster longing for acceptance, but a sex robot longing to be screwed.

“Until seeing this, I thought the whole Campaign Against Porn Robots was a gag,” I say. “Now I’m not so sure.”

“Yes,” she says with a frown. “There are certainly many who claim that our products do nothing more than objectify women and oppress them.”

“But not you?” I say.

She walks over to a box with what appear to be eyeballs, picks them up like a handful of sand, and drops them one by one back into the box.

“I think that it is unfortunate that our product can only find an audience with men if the robots are made to look like women but, honestly, whether a man humps his hand, his pillow, or his doll, he’s wired to hump and I don’t see any value in pretending otherwise.”

“Ah yes, Ovid’s Pygmalion, just another vessel to whisper sweet nothings to,” I say.

She laughs and moves over to stand beside one of the torsos suspended from the ceiling, its giant silicone breasts causing it to tip forward slightly.

“Yes, only it was Danny who was Pygmalion trying to sculpt the perfect woman,” she says.

“And so what does that make you?”

She spins the torso with her hands as if trying to free it from its hook.

“Why Venus, of course,” she says with a smile and shrug. “I’m the one he appealed to when he wanted to bring them to life. I’m the one who animates them, and gives them their personality. As I said, men will hump anything but I program the software with the hope that one or two might do more than hump.”

“With artificial intelligence,” I say.

“Yes, although, I avoid using that expression. Artificial implies it isn’t real but I think you will see that the intelligence infused into our products is very real.”

“And profitable?” I ask, trying to steer the conversation toward Danny and his suicide.

She spins the torso again, sending it jiggling like a top. She looks at me seriously.

“Your colleague asked the same kinds of questions,” she says.

I don’t say anything as I watch the doll twirl.

“Would you like to see one of our finished products,” she says.”He was positively pulling on his bit to see one of our girls.” She laughs. “I think he may have done a bit of window shopping online before he got here. I suspect he would have liked to try one for himself but, well, there are no test drives.”

“Every man wants to hump something, is that it?” I ask.

“Something like that,” she says.

“Thanks,” I say. “I’ll skip it.”

“Such self-restrain,” she says with a grin.

“Yes,” I say. “I’m a real saint.”

She laughs gently and casts her eyes around at her creations.

“What was it Augustine said, give me chastity and self-restraint but just not today?” she says.

“I haven’t heard that one before. I’ll log it away for the next time I want to sound smart.”

We both laugh.

“I can see why Danny brought you in?” I say.

Her lips tighten, and her eyes squint in an expression of irritation and anger.

“Why, because I’m a woman?”

I shake my head, trying to undo the damage.

“No,” I say. Because you’re obviously smart. From what I read, I don’t see how he could have done any of this without you.”

Her face relaxes a little, but there is lingering anger in her eyes. She says nothing.

“How did you two meet,” I ask hoping to get her talking again.

She frowns. “It’s silly really. He was having technical problems with his…”

“Film studio?” I say.

She smiles. “Yes, exactly. His computer and networking skills were subpar. And—“

“Story of his life,” I say with a laugh.

She stops smiling.

“How’d you say you know Danny?”

“We went to high school together,” I say. “You could say I was there when he first started his, um, performances.”

“So you know about —“

“His sub-par equipment? Ya,” I say with a laugh. “No one who went to high school with Danny didn’t know about his little—“

“Soldier,” she says with a laugh of her own.

“Exactly.”

“So, than you know that he made a business out of his, what did you call them?”

“His performances,” I say.

“Yes, his performances. But, he kept having problems streaming his shows online to his audience. I was working at a local tech support company at the time while getting my Master’s Degree and I got assigned to Danny’s case.”

She starts rummaging through another box of parts, this one filled with hands. I say nothing and let her talk.

“When I found out what he was doing, I nearly quit. Not that I was bothered by his sexual fetishes but I was trying to solve complex mathematical equations not help some porno star get his rocks off. But he talked me out of it. Danny was respectful and polite and far more engaging than I think he was ever given credit for. He had this disarming quality. It’s difficult to explain. It was like he was comfortable in his own skin, shortcomings and all. As we talked, I realized he was surprisingly creative and hard working and energetic. He was a peculiar man. I guess you could say he won me over.”

She stops talking. She’s still holding one of the doll hands, its fingers flexed in an open circular grip. She tosses it into the box with the others and looks over at me, waiting for my next question.

“So were you and he —“

“No,” she says with a laugh and a dismissive wave of her hand. “Never. It wasn’t like that. When he found out I was studying AI, he became fixated. He became hellbent on trying to persuade me to help him change the world. He was lonely and obsessed by the loneliness he saw all around him and the shame he saw in so many of the men who watched his videos. He felt sorry for himself. And he felt sympathy for them. He persuaded me that there was room in the world for a robot that provided more than just sex. So we set about trying to make one.”

I nod, trying to imagine the Danny I knew in high school talking to this woman about changing the world. I try and imagine the man she’s describing killing himself. It doesn’t track.

“There’s no easy way to ask this,” I say. “But—“

She looks at me squarely. Unflinchingly. “You want to know if Danny killed himself?”

I nod.

“If you had asked me before he died, I would have laughed and thought it preposterous.”

“But now,” I say.

“But now, I know he was in deep financial difficulty and I wonder…”

Her voice trails off. She has started absently flipping through the box of hands again.

“You wonder…?” I ask.

“I wonder if maybe he thought killing himself was the only way to solve his financial difficulties.”

“How,” I say. “How does his being dead solve anything?”

She looks over at me, the sadness evident in her eyes. “Because,” she says. “He knew the insurance policy would cover the company’s debts.”

“But the policy names Katrina as the beneficiary not Helping Hand,” I say, confused.

“Katrina,” she says, furrowing her brow. “Who’s Katrina?”

“His girlfriend,” I say.

“Danny didn’t have a girlfriend,” she says.

She’s fighting back tears, trying to speak through her pain, her voice almost a whisper.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. That’s why we started this company. He asked me to help build him one. To end his loneliness. He was desperate to know what it would be like. He was desperate for me to finish the software, to perfect the illusion, to perfect our robot, so that he could finally have a girlfriend, even if she wasn’t ever going to be real. And now, he never will.”

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