And this is the companion piece to yesterday’s article. Lester Del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” is, I am sure, the story that inspired C.L. Moore’s far superior “No Woman Born”. This column appeared in Vector 279, Spring 2015.
The Science Fiction Writers of America was formed in 1965, and immediately launched the Nebula Awards. The first awards were handed out in 1966 for the best science fiction published in that year of birth, 1965. But two years later, under the SFWA’s second president, Robert Silverberg, it was decided to extend the idea backwards and identify the best stories that had been published before they could have been eligible for the Nebulas. All the then 300-or-so members of the SFWA were entitled to vote, just as they did for the Nebulas themselves.
The results were predictable. The top place went to Isaac Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’, and other’s prominent on the list included Stanley Weinbaum’s ‘A Martian Odyssey’, Daniel Keyes’s ‘Flowers for Algernon’ and Theodore Sturgeon’s ‘Microcosmic God’. Let’s face it, the voters were predominantly white male and American, who were raised during the 40s and 50s, and their choices reflected that background. 26 of the top 30 stories were gathered into an anthology, Science Fiction Hall of Fame, (the omissions were down to editorial decisions, such as no author appearing twice, so Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ was included, but not ‘The Star’). Looking down the contents list it is striking if, for the time, unsurprising, that all of the authors are white; with the exception of Clarke, all are American; and with the exception of Judith Merril and C.L. Moore (present as one half of the pseudonymous ‘Lewis Padgett’), all are male.
C.L. Moore, along with her husband, Henry Kuttner, is included for the delightful ‘Mimsy Were the Borogoves’, but her work under her own name, particularly ‘No Woman Born’ which I wrote about in my last column, did not make the list. But one story that did make the list was Lester del Rey’s ‘Helen O’Loy’, another story of the feminised machine, a female robot in this case rather than a woman turned into a cyborg; and I strongly suspect that ‘Helen O’Loy’ was what inspired ‘No Woman Born’.
In my last column I explained how the male gaze in Moore’s story, fixated on the appearance and supposed frailty of the woman as object, is consistently undermined by the strength and individuality of the woman. Del Rey’s story, on the other hand, is all male gaze.
‘Helen O’Loy’ was first published in Astounding in 1938, and like many stories of that period it offers a peculiarly uneven vision of the future. Technologically, things are far in advance of the present day. The two friends at the heart of the story ‘rented a house near the rocket field’ (62), and they travel by rocket even for what seem to be relatively short journeys, as when the narrator, Phil, ‘hired a personal rocket and was back in Messina in half an hour’ (66). Above all, there are humanoid robots with ‘memory coils and veritoid eyes … [and a] … cuproberyl body’ (63).
Yet against this background of whizzy, high-tech paraphernalia, the society we see seems Victorian in its attitudes and customs. Thus, at a key moment Phil is called away because old Mrs van Styler says ‘her son has an infatuation for a servant girl, and she wants you to come out and give counter-hormones’ (65). What this says about the future state of medicine is bad enough. Phil insists he is ‘no society doctor, messing with glands’ (65), which suggests that society doctors are still promoting monkey glands. This was a vogue that reached its height during the 1920s, during which the testicles of monkeys were ground up and used in patent medicines for their supposed revitalising effect. The vogue didn’t last all that long, and even at the time most people saw through it as a sham, but it presumably lingered far enough into the 1930s for del Rey to pick up on the idea as a shadowy underpinning for his futuristic medicine. It is also revealing, not to say disturbing, to find that young Archy van Styler and the poor servant girl can be ‘cured’ (del Rey is careful to put quotation marks around the word) of their mutual love by this counter-hormone treatment. This idea of a ‘cure’ for love, by the way, has resonances with the main body of the story, but we’ll come to that shortly.
If future medicine seems retrograde, what this brief interlude says about society is even worse. We are in a world effectively unchanged since the 1890s, where there are masters and servants who are each meant to know their place, and where a rich old woman can dictate who her son can and cannot fall in love with. Moreover, since we are told that young Archy and his unnamed servant girl are tricked into taking the futuristic monkey glands, we are presumably in a world where a reputable doctor will dispense medicine to people without their consent on the say-so of the rich and powerful. Nor should we fool ourselves into thinking that this hierarchical picture of society is meant to be in any way satirical. It is presented as a perfectly unexceptional portrait of how the world is likely to operate; this brief passage is here simply to show the dangers of love as a counterpoint to the central story of Dave and Helen.
Dave and Phil are a couple of buddies who share a house, and who miss out on marriage because they prefer guy pursuits (‘Dave wanted to look over the latest Venus-rocket attempt’ (62)) to girly pastimes like wanting ‘to see a display stereo’ (62). It is notable that Phil’s highest praise for Helen comes when ‘We went trout fishing for a day, where she proved to be as good a sport and as sensibly silent as a man’ (72). In the main, a woman can only be a worthwhile companion when she behaves just like a man; being love interest is something else entirely, and something that a man should approach only with trepidation.
The two settle, with every appearance of relief, into a comfortable bachelor existence. They have a robot servant who is clearly female, partly because she is called Lena, but mostly because she does all the cooking and cleaning. Domesticity is the sole purpose and entire measure of a woman. When Helen arrives, some time after the pair get rid of Lena, ‘there was the odor of food in the air that he’d missed around the house for weeks’ (68), which doesn’t suggest that either Dave or Phil can lower themselves to actually cook should the need arise. As Phil says later of Helen: ‘Helen was a good cook; in fact she was a genius, with all the good points of a woman and a mech combined’ (71). The trouble with Lena is that she isn’t very good, she puts ‘vanilla on our steak instead of salt’ (63). And even though she is a robot, with no emotions, no consciousness, such mistakes are still her fault. ‘When those wires crossed, she could have corrected herself. But she didn’t bother; she followed the mech impulse’ (63). As if a creature of wires and programs is responsible for any errors in that wiring, that programing. But then, Lena isn’t really a robot; she is meant to be an ideal woman, serving all a man’s needs without making any demands upon him. Only she isn’t quite ideal enough. So Dave combines his knowledge of robotics with Phil’s understanding of ‘the glands, secretions, hormones, and miscellanies that are the physical causes of emotions’ (63) to put in some ‘mechanical emotions’ (63). But the next day ‘she flew into a tantrum and swore vigorously at us when we told her she wasn’t doing her work right’ (63-4). What is wrong with a woman is clearly emotional, because then she gets annoyed when her rightful master criticises her work.
Lena obviously has to go: ‘we’ve got to get a better robot. A housemaid mech isn’t complex enough’ (64). The new robot is Helen, about whom the very first thing we are told is that ‘She was beautiful, a dream in spun plastics and metals’ (62). In fact this is all we are told about her appearance, all that really matters. As I say, this story is all male gaze. Amplifying this objectification of the female, we are further told that the manufacturers
had performed a miracle and put all the works in a girl-modeled case. Even the plastic and rubberite face was designed for flexibility to express emotions, and she was complete with tear glands and taste buds, ready to simulate every human action, from breathing to pulling hair. (64)
One can only wonder why a K2W88 utility model domestic machine might need tear glands and taste buds. And that coy reference to simulating ‘every human action’ is later discretely expanded when Helen says: ‘you know how perfectly I’m made to imitate a real woman … in all ways. I couldn’t give him sons, but in every other way …’ (70, ellipses in the original). But this is not a robot story, nor was ever meant to be. It is a male wish fulfilment fantasy in which Helen O’Loy is an object made to serve man’s pleasure, from great food to guiltless sex (‘I couldn’t give him sons’), but without the inconvenience of being a real woman.
And the chief inconvenience, as we soon learn, is that messy female thing: emotion.
Once they have unpacked Helen, Dave and Phil spend a sleepless night during which
we poured over the schematic diagrams of her structures, tracing the thoughts through mazes of her wiring, severing the leaders, implanting the heterones, as Dave called them. And while we worked, a mechanical tape fed carefully prepared thoughts of consciousness and awareness of life into an auxiliary memory coil. (64)
Before they can turn the newly enhanced Helen on, however, Phil is called away to cure that terrible disease of love between a rich woman’s son and a servant girl. When he is able to return home weeks later, he discovers that the same disease has struck there. Or rather, after carefully working to make Helen as close to human as possible, they are horrified to discover that she is displaying all the worst faults of a real woman. That is, although she is a superb cook and keeps the house spotlessly clean, she also enjoys romantic stories on the ‘stereovisor’ which acted like ‘a perfect outlet for her newly excited emotions’ (68). So when Dave returns home (this is a future shaped by visions of mid-century domestic normality: the man goes out to work, the woman stays home) she tries to greet him with a kiss. ‘Helen’s technique may have lacked polish, but it had enthusiasm, as he found when he tried to stop her from kissing him. She had learned fast and furiously’ (68).
Dave delivers a lecture about ‘the folly of her ways’ to which she replies, ‘but I still love you’ (69), whereupon Dave takes to drink and starts staying away from home. But when Phil, fresh from putting paid to one romance between a man and a servant, suggests that they change a few of Helen’s memory coils, Dave won’t have it: ‘I’m not used to fussing with emotions’ (69). In that case, he would appear to be the only character in this story who isn’t.
Rather than change Helen, therefore, Dave’s response is to run away. He sells up his business and moves out to a farm. Phil stays home with Helen, and clearly enjoys her companionship (that fishing trip). Noticeably, when he takes her shopping ‘she giggled and purred over the wisps of silk and glassheen that were the fashion, tried on endless hats, and conducted herself as any normal girl might’ (71-2). The romantic films and shopping trips suggest a very stereotypical view of how women behave, but Phil can afford to be dispassionate in his relationship because he’s not distracted by any of that love nonsense.
Helen, however, cannot escape her emotions. At one point, Phil finds her ‘doubled up on the couch, threshing her legs up and down and crying to the high heavens’ (72). Women’s emotions are such melodramatic and messy things. So Phil calls Dave: ‘I’ve made up my mind. I’m yanking Helen’s coils tonight. It won’t be worse than what she’s going through now.’ (72) They have already decided that this solution would be the same as murder, but clearly emotion is not worth living with. And Helen agrees: ‘Maybe that’s best, Phil. I don’t blame you’ (72). She is acting like a man again, bravely and rationally recognising that female emotions are worse than death.
Fortunately, Dave sees sense and realises he loves her, so the two live together as man and wife. ‘No woman ever made a lovelier bride or a sweeter wife. Helen never lost her flair for cooking and making a home’ (72-3). Again, the male gaze presents Helen in terms of her looks and her domestic skills. Of course they have a long and happy marriage, and when Dave dies, Phil heads out ‘kill’ Helen because they ‘both feel that we should cross this last bridge side by side’ (73). Naturally the story ends with the suggestion that Phil himself never married because he was also in love with Helen. So the story closes with reassuring sentiment, and it is here in this rather hurried final section that the reputation of the story probably lies. The more we make robots resemble people, the more they will behave like people, the more, indeed, that they will become people. ‘Helen O’Loy’ was, perhaps, the first story to suggest that a humanoid robot might be an object of love, which makes it something of a groundbreaker. But it only breaks that ground by making the object of the story, Helen, less a humanised robot and more a dehumanised woman.
One can easily understand why this dispassionate take on passion might have prompted a writer like C.L. Moore to respond with her own passionate attack on dispassion in ‘No Woman Born’. And re-reading Lester del Rey’s hackneyed piece, I am more and more convinced that Moore’s story must have been conceived as a response to ‘Helen O’Loy’.
What is less clear is why, 30 years later, the SFWA still considered it one of the finest science fiction stories of the century.
Quotations taken from ‘Helen O’Loy’ by Lester del Rey in Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I edited by Robert Silverberg, London, Sphere, 1972, pp62-73.