Virtual Girl was my first novel. I got the idea for the book in 1984 when I saw a very strange street person eating at Taco Time. He wore two pairs of heavily patched pants that looked like they’d become felted together. His hair looked felted together too, in clumps that were really too random to be dreadlocks. He looked like he lived under a bridge somewhere. The guy had several jars of resistors on the table in front of him, and he was sorting them into jar lids. There was a scary intensity to his focus, as though his life depended on getting the parts correctly sorted.
What, I wondered, was this guy doing? The answer was obvious: he must be building a robot bag lady. And that was the genesis of what eventually became Virtual Girl. Virtual Girl is the story of a robot named Maggie who was created by Arnold. Arnold is a wealthy man on the run from his domineering father, he lives on the streets. He built Maggie, an illegal robot, who looks human but has a machine consciousness, to be his companion. When Arnold is attacked in an alley, Maggie is left to cope with a confusing and hostile world on her own.
This was the late ‘80’s. Ronald Reagan was president. The Republicans had intensified their war upon the poor, and it was hitting the local homeless population hard. It made me furious. I wanted to protest the punishment meted out on the most vulnerable members of our society. One way to do that was to write a book in which people had to walk in the shoes of the homeless.
I volunteered at Angeline’s, a day shelter that provided a safe hassle-free space for homeless women to go during the day. Working there, I was stunned at the number of homeless women who were invisible. Standing next to them on the street, you’d never know they had nowhere to sleep. The kindness and generosity these women shared was humbling. And I remember how I felt at the end of the day, when I went home, and these women went god knows where. I tried to put that real compassion and heartbreak into Virtual Girl, along with the robots, the artificial intelligence, and the technological whiz-bangs.
Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture by Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth