The Joy Wagon by Arthur T. Hadley
This is forfemfan, short for forgotten female fantasy. I read books written by women, or books written by men with feminine-enough sounding names that as I tear through my local used book store not-really-double-checking-things, they slip through the cracks. I call these accidents fauxfemfan.
Today, I report back on a book written by a man that’s not fauxfemfan. I bought The Joy Wagon on purpose because I swear to cod that’s Claptrap on the cover.
If you’re not familiar with Borderlands (and thus Claptrap), here’s a crash-course:
The Joy Wagon is about a robot named Microvac running for president. Since Microvac looks like Claptrap, I just naturally read everything he had to say in Claptrap’s voice. This helped a lot when reading The Joy Wagon. Too much, probably, because otherwise I would have quit reading, and that might have been for the best.
The Joy Wagon is pitched as political satire. I’m not sure why, during the midst of election season, I decided to subject myself to the grim humor of politics, but here we are. I think I had hoped the satire would be more … satirical. But then again, politics these days are weird. So when “The Committee for a Beautiful Minnesota” is actually just a coalition of mining corporations, or the “Strong Union Amendment” is an amendment that would actually cripple unions, or when questions are shot down as “anti-God and therefore anti-American”, it just seemed like another day in modern American politics. Another depressing day.
And that wasn’t the only depressing thing.
What most interested me about The Joy Wagon was the robot itself; the cover promises an infallible candidate. I kind of expected a personality-less robot, one where a reporter would ask it a question, and, to its handler’s horror, it would respond with the truth.
Microvac is not a beep-boop-beep sort of robot. It’s got a superb AI, it can easily lie, and it knows how to take advantage of people. It felt more like reading a book about a sociopath than it did about a robot.
It’s funny*, I’ve read lots of old fantasy and sci-fi, and this is the first book that’s been pointedly racist. And how. A reporter thinks to himself that a story he got the scoop on “wasn’t as good as a lynching, but it’d do.” When a bunch of folks decide they like Microvac, they say “that machine’s all white.” At one point Microvac and some friends sing a song named “Mammy” that was popularized by a blackface musician. Later there’s an extremely dodgy interaction with a Native American fellow who had been paid to endorse Microvac.
The racism of the book feels straight-up but also strangely unintentional. Like the author wasn’t trying to make anything racist, but it slipped in there anyway. This is probably at least in part because Microvac and its team of politicians actively seek the votes of people of color by insincerely pandering to their needs.
Which is fucking obnoxious, but not at all surprising.
The sexism of the book is more subtle. Women are wives, secretaries, phone operators, mentally unstable, or, in one case, a sex symbol. When talking about potential running-mates, Microvac says that it’s not ruling out “any capable man”—and this distinction of man, not woman, is quite clear because any woman with an idea is dismissed entirely. There are only two times when women are important in the narrative:
1) When Microvac’s opponent says it doesn’t have a mother and therefore lost out on all the training of what it means to be a good … uh … machine, which means it doesn’t have enough of a moral/religious compass to be an elected official
2) When a woman fucks up and costs Microvac the election
Perhaps the most bizarre thing surrounding sexism and this book is that everyone in the book realizes the importance of Microvac—the sexless robot—coming across as ‘masculine.’ That’s why their marketing push involves pairing it with a sex-symbol. Aside from the idiocy of trying to make a robot look masculine, it makes a certain amount of sense. Women are nothing in this world, and everyone thinks in terms of the gender binary when it comes to talking creatures.
What kills me is that even I think of Microvac as a ‘him.’ I’ve had to edit this post several times looking for instances of gendering the damn robot. What the fuck! How is this so ingrained in me that even I a) can’t let something exist without gender and b) subconsciously correlate a robot running for president with maleness. This bothers me. A lot.
In short: if you really like political satire and want a slight twist on that, maybe The Joy Wagon is worth checking out. For the rest of you, though, please go read something else. The Seven Citadels, perhaps? Have I mentioned recently how much I like that series?
*It’s not funny
Cover art by Unknown :( — there’s no visible signature, either.