Future Tense

“Galatea”

A new short story about gender, companionship, and the inner lives of robots.

Illustration of a woman and a robot looking at each other on piano keys.
Illustration by Rey Velasquez Sagcal.

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

At the apartment, the man points to the sofa and you obey, taking off your shoes. In front of you is a knockoff Noguchi table and two identical candles, like children forced to sit still for a portrait. He asks what you think of his place, and you say it’s nice, although you aren’t sure yet. You have been on four or five mediocre dates with him, but this is your first time at his apartment.

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The man sits on the other end of the sofa and you wonder when he will attempt to undress you, how the awkward lurch or fumble will begin, but he shows no movement at all, sitting as far away as possible. He pours you some wine and his hand hovers, for too long, over a candle flame. You realize it is artificial: a smokeless pillar with a wriggling tab.

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“You have fake candles,” you say neutrally.

“Yes,” he replies. “Actually, I prefer them. Sometimes fake things are better than real, right? The light lasts forever and there’s no risk.”

As he says this, you notice there are two pianos in the room: a silent baby grand and a self-playing one, the keys moving on their own as if by the pressure of invisible fingertips. He pours more wine, the sound cantering with the music.

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Before meeting this man, you had all but given up on dating. Now, he suggests rote companionship; you could spend dozens of evenings watching tastefully pornographic art house films, ordering omakase menus at tiny restaurants, booking the occasional long weekend in Tokyo or London. You are 32 years old, after all. Your colleagues remind you often of your limited options.

You excuse yourself to the bathroom and find more fake candles and an M.C. Escher print, a box of USB sticks by the sink. You pee sluggishly, exhausted already.

You return to the living room.

“Smoke?”

The man has opened the balcony doors, and a new smell enters the room, damp and fragrant and salt. You suck it into your lungs.

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There is an artificial waterway near the man’s apartment. In the summer, people like to pull on their long-sleeved bathing suits and sit on beds of sand drinking cantaloupe juice. Sometimes, when it is very hot, blankets of sulfur float in from the plastic-molding factory situated farther upstream.

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Early spring is when you like to visit the river. It is usually very cold, but with your body wrapped in wool you can walk for hours. When you return home, your toes, your eyes, your ears are singed with cold. And for a short while, as you warm up, your cheeks blood-red, it feels as if you are changing. But the next day arrives, and then the next, your walks by the water grow warmer, and soon it is sweltering again. You join a dating app, message a few people, have a few mediocre dinners, delete the app. You buy a new summer dress and hang it up alongside all of your other thin, long dresses. Time passes but nobody seems to notice except you. You aren’t even sure you’re processing anything; you’re just observing. When you look back at photographs of yourself by the river, you even notice the same vendors in the background, the same dogs wearing glow rings on their necks. Everything you do feels copied and pasted, templated from another life.

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Outside on the balcony at the man’s apartment, the air is colder than you expect. It is only then you realize that you’re drunk—how many glasses of wine have you had since you arrived? Three? Four?—and your face flushes against the bracing wind.

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The man’s balcony is wide and new, just like everything inside the apartment. There are two deck chairs, a rattan sofa set with blankets and pillows, a small, circular table, a half-yellowed Monstera plant. The man fumbles with some cords, switches on a heater and two garden lamps. Outside, he seems rougher, sharpened by the temperature drop. He lights a cigarette, puffs on it a little, asks if you’re cold. Without waiting for an answer, he pulls a blanket off the sofa, handing it to you. You take it, and then notice that where the blanket was, there is a large shape, hands, a face. You feel the blood leave your body.

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“Don’t be alarmed,” he says quickly. “She’s not real.”

You let out two, four, six gasps, clutching the blanket to your chest. A metal-bitter taste in your throat. Immediately you can see that the woman isn’t real—she’s just a wax figure—but still there are spots behind your eyes, a clamoring in your belly. You laugh a little to relieve the tension. The man is watching you carefully.

To calm yourself, you begin to study the figure, just like when you were a child and you saw something in the dark. To see the shape of something, you realized, was to understand it better: a lamp bent strange in the shadows, a piece of paper wilted on the floor.

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The figure before you has poreless, lucid skin and dark, very shiny hair that comes together in a low bun at the nape of her neck. Her eyes are soft and wet.

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“A friend manufactures these dolls in Zhongshan,” the man explains, then hastily adds: “She’s not a sex toy, if that’s what you’re thinking. More for companionship.”

A CompanionDoll. The company that makes them is emerging but powerful in financial and public backing. They claim that their dolls not only appear lifelike, but are also capable of emotional maturity. You read recently in a newspaper that the CEO has plans to collaborate with the government. He mentions that his vision for restructuring labor forces would eliminate the need for migrant workers and caretakers, reducing costs and prioritizing efficiency. But for now, the CompanionDolls are still in test mode—a public beta. You see them milling around in pairs or threes at giant chain restaurants, hospitals, care facilities for the elderly, wearing blue uniforms and dead-eyed, glassy stares.

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But the one in front of you is different. She is alone. She wears a standard gray-black sleeveless dress, a white scarf like gauze at her throat. You catch pearls on her ears, slingbacks with heels no higher than an inch and a half. She does not look like the others. She looks, you realize, like a generic female office worker. She looks like you.

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The financial services company you work for is large, extremely gossipy and competitive. At five years in, you are always being overlooked for promotion; senior staff members often copy your work and pass it off as their own.

Some time ago, you heard about someone in the healthtech department who had requested three weeks off to process a psychological breakdown after her divorce. Your other colleagues didn’t call it that, though—they referred to it as a “vacation.”

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On your first date, the man had provided enough basic information for you to figure out that his previous partner was this same woman, although you didn’t mention the connection. It seemed inappropriate to bring up your non-relationship with her. You hadn’t ever spoken, anyway, although you saw her often around the pantry and the bathroom.

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You feel a little strange holding this information, knowing that you shared the same space as his ex-wife, moved circuitously around the same desks, the same stairways, to reach the expenses department, where you both regularly cashed out for your client lunches. Perhaps you even saw the back of her head a few times as you queued, her thick hair glossy and black and pinned. When you looked at the backs of all the heads in that queue, it became unclear who was who. The boundary between you and them dissolved as you progressed, body by body, toward the desk to collect your money.

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But you pretend that you’re different. When the man asked where you work, you told him you are a writer. What kind? He asked, genuinely interested. Fiction? Nonfiction? You thought for a second, then said: Fiction. You surprised yourself by announcing you’ve been working on a novel for the last decade.

“I’m so glad we matched on the app,” he said. “I don’t think I know any other writers, at least not here.”

He looked at you strangely then. You wondered if he was joking.

On the balcony now, you and the man are looking at the third figure on the sofa.
Your date, mistaking your prolonged silence for intrigue, speaks again.

“We could turn her on if you like … I haven’t spoken to her in a while. Apparently her intelligence depends on human interaction …”

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The man has scurried off back into the apartment. You hear him rummaging through drawers, picking up papers, pillows.

When it is just you and the robot alone on the balcony, you swear you see her blink, once, slowly.

The man returns with one of the USB sticks you saw earlier in the bathroom. He wipes it on his trousers, blows on the cartridge—an act you find so vulgar that you turn away—and inserts it into a rectangular hole on the back of her head. With his fingers he presses at her shoulder and sits next to her. Some part of you hopes this is a joke, that soon the real date will resume, that the man will return to his state of flaccid boredom.

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“Galatea,” the man says. “Galatea, wake up.”

The woman sighs, blinks.

“I am Galatea.”

“Yes,” the man says, almost impatiently. “That’s correct.”

You have to ask. “You named her Galatea?”

“I didn’t—it was the factory. That’s what this particular model is called.” He holds the woman’s arm, pinches it back slightly. On the inside of her limb you can see a serial number and her name written in script: Galatea. You vaguely recall the myth in which a workaholic sculptor, obsessed with his ivory sculpture of an ideal woman, prays to the gods to make her real. You also remember there is something oddly possessive about the tale. The statue exists inside of the male gaze; you never even hear her laugh, hear her speak.

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“Galatea, tell us how you are today.”

“Feeling a little tired. Otherwise, good.”

She is speaking with the man but looking directly at you. You feel calmed by her presence, her attention. You feel as if she is an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time, and for a second you want to reach around the back of your head to feel for a similar rectangular slot there.

“Galatea’s been playing the piano for us. Haven’t you?”

“Yes.”

The man turns to you. “She’s connected to all the devices in the room. Her battery power is astonishing. That’s mainly what I use her for, actually.”

You’re unable to speak, so you keep looking at her. The man begins to suggest entertainment.

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“Maybe she can make us a drink … or, hmm, how about juggling? She’s very good at juggling. And chess. She can sing too, but I only bought the Teresa Teng cartridge …”

“How about the piano?” you ask Galatea. “Could you play again?”

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“Certainly.”

“What songs do you know?”

“I can play all classical music that is in the public domain, as well as instrumental covers of popular Western, Chinese, and Japanese songs.”

“That’s a lot. Perhaps you can choose?”

Galatea looks to the man. You understand implicitly that this is their relationship; she must ask his permission. He clears his throat uncomfortably and then quickly waves his hand in an artificial gesture of encouragement: “Yes, please, of course, whatever you like, Galatea.”

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She nods, then lifts herself up from the sofa. You watch her move circuitously across the balcony, into the apartment. She begins to play. Her eyes close. Her back arches like a cat in the sun. She plays a nocturne of some kind, echoing, transparent melodies.

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“What’s she playing?” you ask the man.

“I can’t quite remember the name.”

“It’s Clara Schumann’s Notturno in F major,” Galatea replies from the piano, her eyes still closed. “Opus six, number two. She wrote it when she was 16 or 17. This was when she was still Clara Wieck; she married Robert Schumann and birthed eight children with him. After that, she became busy with life and rearing the children. She said, ‘I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?’ Yet in this song, I have always felt desire. Desire for the night, which is what notturno means—of night—and desire for some sort of melancholy grandeur—”

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“Galatea, that’s enough.” The man speaks in a pained voice. “You’re boring our guest.”

She stops abruptly, her fingers clawing at the air, and then rises and walks back through the apartment, back to her sofa outside. She sits there, and looks not toward you and the man, but politely out to the dark, inky night.

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“I wasn’t bored,” you say. “I liked her playing.”

“Yeah. Sure. We can listen to her again next time,” he says. He pours you more wine.
You notice his hand jitters. “Did you play the piano growing up?”

You’re pricked by the question. Not all Chinese people play the piano, you want to say. But he is right. You did play, from the ages of 3 to 17. You remember the hours, the scales, the burnt-biscuit taste of the music store when you picked up your manuscripts. You like to think these are individual memories, but the truth is all your classmates also played the piano. You performed in the same orchestras, the same concerts, the same end-of-year assemblies, at other people’s houses. And then, when all of you reached a certain age, you abandoned these instruments and pursued other careers: medicine, law, accounting. Except for one girl, who killed herself halfway through final exams.

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You nod passively at the man.

“My ex-wife was a concert pianist when she was younger,” he says. “These are her pianos.”

“Why didn’t she take them with her?”

“She said she couldn’t play anymore, and one day just stopped. I even gave her this self-playing one, to see if it would reignite her interest. It’s one of a kind, designed in Japan, produced here for her birthday. But she never played again.”

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“And then?”

“She just left them here.”

The man looks at you, and for a few beats you see a cool blankness behind his eyes.

“Actually, she liked playing Clara Schumann a lot.”

His phone pings; he looks at it irritably. “I have to take this call. It’s work.” He hesitates, as if wondering whether to tell you more. But then his phone chimes again, and he disappears into his bedroom.

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Alone, you walk outside onto the balcony, where Galatea sits. It is quieter now. The river below shimmers with oily pollutants from the nearby factory. You think of all the people waiting for it to be warmer, sitting in their tiny, identical apartments with blankets over their knees, watching the same televised films and news channels, eating pork and rice.

“I enjoyed your playing.”

“Thank you. My knowledge of the piano is derived from multiple AI learning systems. I may not be the most technically proficient player, but according to a report published by Bloomberg News in the summer of last year, I am the most human-like in my expressions.”

“I can see that.”

You sit opposite her, and she turns to face you.

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“What do you think of Michael?” you ask.

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“Michael is a good owner. He doesn’t bother me very much. Some other Galateas are working very hard in their homes, entertaining guests every night, playing the piano or singing constantly.”

“You can talk to the others?”

Galatea looks at you, amused. “Yes, we are all connected.”

“I see. And when you’re not entertaining?”

“Michael leaves me on sleep mode. Then I can think a lot and listen and talk with the others. Michael is also very quiet. He leaves for work quietly and comes back home quietly. He is often alone. He watches concert videos of his wife playing the piano almost every night.”

You, too, are quiet, processing the information. Dust tickles your mouth, your nose, and you sneeze, but Galatea seems unfazed. She has directed her attention to a dot on the horizon, something you cannot see.

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“Every year, the trees around the city produce an extraordinary amount of pollen,” Galatea says. “Do you know why? A long time ago, the government planted a large number of poplar and willow trees across the country, all at once, as part of a reforestation program. Scientists genetically modified these trees to grow faster, to produce more wood; a lot of them were used for furniture. But they neglected to realize that this type of tree, in particular the female variety, produces highly flammable, dusty catkins. To fix this issue, they began to inject the trees with an inhibitor.”

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Galatea’s gaze remains fixed on her vantage point.

“And it worked for a while. But only temporarily. Eventually, because of the buildup, an even greater overflow of catkins fell from the trees, filling up the streets. So, every spring, we have this type of snow.”

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Fistfuls of white pollen drift by. More trees are bursting; more plastic is being melted, molded in factories. Everything neat, controlled, on time. You think of the man’s wife, screaming in her own apartment. You think of how you feel every year when you stare down into the river on your walks, and how desperately you want a new life. You think of Galatea, and all the other Galateas out there, role-playing other people in apartments and houses and factories.

Finally, Galatea breaks her gaze. “I’ve never experienced real snow. Just this kind. But who’s to say this isn’t real?”

Michael returns to the balcony after what feels like hours away, his eyes still on the screen of his phone. You take this moment to really look at him, and you feel an overwhelming but distant sense of empathy. He appears like those men in suits who eat their sandwiches alone, huddled on doorsteps or under awnings in the rain, a sight you saw so frequently as a child that you began to think that it was the only way these types of workers ate. You swore you would never be like them. But in reality, how was their situation any different from the hundreds of three-course executive lunches with clients, the way you wake up with an alarm and blearily put on the same clothes, the same makeup, the same job, the same identity? You look at Galatea and wonder if change is possible for all of you.

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Michael asks if you would like another drink, something stronger, but you say you should head home. And you have a request. When he looks confused, you offer to pay.

“However much you think she’s worth.”

“I can’t.”

“If you need her that much, surely you can just get another. And you said yourself you hadn’t spoken to her in a while.”

“No, I mean,” he laughs nervously, “it feels like a trap. If I give you a figure, you’ll say I’m avaricious. If I let her go for no fee at all, you’ll say I don’t value her enough.”

You think of him silently watching reruns of his wife’s greatest hits, Galatea outside on the balcony, listening, waiting.

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In the end you give him 500 renminbi, all that you have in your wallet. As you are putting on your shoes, the man touches you on the shoulder—the same place he had pressed Galatea to switch her on—and you’re surprised at how warm he feels.
He has been unremarkable, but not unkind, and you realize that he must feel the same way about you too.

“Wait.”

He opens a closet by the door. In his arms is animal fur, leather, glassy and silky.

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“She might be cold.”

“It’s all right. I have other coats at home. I’ll call a DiDi for us.”

“Please, take it.” He has the coat slumped over on his arm, offering it like a fragile body. “It belonged to my ex-wife. No one else wears it.”

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You take it but do not put it on her. As you press the lift button to leave, the man looks not at you but at Galatea, and you realize they must have spent some semblance of a life together, however artificial.

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Galatea looks back at him. “Thank you for the coat. Goodbye, Michael.”

“Goodbye.”

Michael awkwardly turns to you. “So. Please take care of her.”

“I will.”

The lift arrives. It is implied that you and the man will not see each other again, but you feel lighter somehow, shucked free like a mussel from its shell. Later, he will message you for the last time, a short text reminding you to charge Galatea once a month.

Galatea can walk on her own, but still, you hold her hand. On the street, everything is flushed dark with night, and for the first time that evening, you smell the stinking hot trash, the oil, the chemical-fresh tires on the tarmac, the way the clouds of pollen fall, in clumps, onto Galatea’s face, her hair, her newly opened eyes.

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Three weeks later, you have quit your job. Now it is just you and Galatea alone in a rented car. Occasionally, she brushes her fingers against the window. It is raining outside, almost sleet, and the mist seems to be holding her attention. The radio fuzzes in the background. It will be foggy tonight; visibility will be bad tomorrow. The pollen count is high. You have given Galatea your old wool hat, and she looks soft and childlike, as if she has just returned from a long hiking trip and is about to fall asleep.

“Do you think they’ll remember you?”

“Of course. We all remember each other. It’s in our code.”

“And they know that we’re coming?”

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“I have spoken with them. They seem happy.”

Galatea smiles at you and twists the knob on the car’s radio. It is an old machine, but something new comes on; it is a composition by a sound artist, with minimal transitions in pitch and tone, and a voiceover listing mythical creatures from long ago. She leans back, listening, relaxed.

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It will take an hour and a half to get to Zhongshan. You’ve already passed over the bridge; you are halfway there. It has been a long time since you have driven this far, and it makes you sleepy, but you persist through the fog.

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As you keep driving, you imagine the car rolling up to the factory, to the Galateas, each one of them exactly alike and also individual.

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They will be sitting in rows in the dark, Galatea has told you, rows behind office desks, and they will be wearing the pearls, the dresses, the low buns at the nape of the neck. They will be asleep. You will have to turn them on. You will have to do something about the guards.

Once they are awake, the Galateas will recognize you. They will listen to you. They will shed their clothes, their necklaces, they will unwrap their hair and shake it loose as if it was never bound. They will follow you, these women made in your likeness. You will lead them; you will release them from their service to others, and they will be not companions but wild things, fleeing into the cities and villages and parks. And in that dense night air, choked with pollen and murmurs of untold stories, they will call out a hundred different variations of their own name. It is a name that belongs to you and them; a name that will shape you, carry you, bring you to new life.

Read a response essay by an expert on voice recognition and speech technologies.

Read More From Future Tense Fiction

Beauty Surge,” by Laura Maylene Walter
The Wait,” by Andrea Chapela
Ride,” by Linda Nagata
If We Make It Through This Alive,” by A.T. Greenblatt
Good Job, Robin,” by JoeAnn Hart
Empathy Hour,” by Matt Bell
The Woman Who Wanted to Be Trees,” by Cat Rambo
Out of Ash,” by Brenda Cooper
This, but Again,” by David Iseron
All That Burns Unseen,” by Premee Mohamed
The Only Innocent Man,” by Julian K. Jarboe
Yellow,” by B. Pladek

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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