Kamala Puligandla’s novella You Can Vibe Me on My FemmePhone is a science fiction story that fills me with hope rather than fear or despair. Set in a close, COVID-free future, the story revolves around technology — the way our lives do today. But while the contemporary wariness of tech lingers, Kamala’s characters have an optimism that harkens back to the early-Internet ideas of true connectivity. For that, they thank the FemmePhone, a highly advanced piece of AI.
Unlike an iPhone, with its factory settings and surface-level customization options, “YOU set the values for your own FemmePhone. It’s not one-size-fits-all, like those t-shirts second-wave feminists wear, claiming the future for themselves—just like a man !” Instead, the FemmePhone reflects the values and intentions of individual users, offering personalized feedback on their correspondence and behavior. It’s a tool, not for power or efficiency or entertainment, but for self-awareness. And through self-awareness, FemmePhone users can be better aware of others and have more meaningful relationships.
The femme trio at the heart of Vibe Me is made up of Bay-area-based best friends, each with their own projects and artistic endeavors: Remy, “star of Horsie porn classics;” Phoebe, “Producer of The Seedy Underbelly podcast;” and the story’s narrator Veronica, “writer of the queer, Asian-American remake of Clueless.”
Remy and Phoebe love their FemmePhones, but Veronica is skeptical — until she meets Josephine, an alluring painter from Los Angeles who uses her FemmePhone to send Veronica “vibes” (a personalized evolution of the emoji). Veronica is obsessed. She buys a FemmePhone and arranges a trip to LA. Meanwhile, Remy and Phoebe have their own business to attend to in southern California.
While Veronica — guided by her FemmePhone — gets to know Josephine, Remy takes his first step into the Horsie scene, while Phoebe goes undercover on an investigation of Antifa for her podcast. Veronica’s hot and heavy night is interrupted by an SOS call from Phoebe. Despite her FemmePhone’s objections, Veronica takes the sleeping Josephine’s car on a rescue mission. At a Horsie party, in a desperate move to go unnoticed, Veronica and Phoebe lock lips. No comments are made in the moment, but Veronica can’t shake a surprising feeling: she was into it.
Her FemmePhone has observations about Veronica’s relationships with Phoebe and Josephine, but ultimately no answers. Instead, it asks Veronica to recalibrate her settings, so that the phone can update. Now that Veronica has discovered her new desires, her FemmePhone can integrate her growth into its artificially intelligent behavior.
“Recalibration,” her phone gently reminds her, “is a standard part of system growth and femme advancement.’” Rather than determining Veronica’s needs and force-feeding her consumer products to solve her problems, the FemmePhone seeks to understand Veronica’s changing behaviors, intentions, and desires . . . and to change with her.
Algorithm vs. evolution — are these the two genders? The masculine assertion of what’s right and wrong, what has value, what problems need to be solved with what tools, has little presence in Vibe Me. Instead, the feminine imperative to understand a complex situation, embrace contradiction, and expand one’s knowledge of reality takes the lead. With the FemmePhone, there’s no shame in admitting failure or encountering problems; every failure or problem is a chance to learn more about yourself and the world.
With the FemmePhone, there’s no shame in admitting failure or encountering problems; every failure or problem is a chance to learn more about yourself and the world.
Kamala’s thoughtful conceptual design of the FemmePhone and the future is mirrored in the physical design of her novella. This little book — just shy of 100 pages long — sports a bright pink cover and thick cream-colored interior pages. On the back cover, instead of blurbs by “real” “people” or “authorities” in the “art” and “literary” scenes, three text message bubbles quote one-liners from the book’s three main characters.
The pages are peppered with Phoebe Unter’s illustrations of the FemmePhone: new-wave emojis (like a flaming Confederate statue, a crystal dildo, and a geode) and images of apps, both the recognizable (like Instagram) and the reformed (Vantasy, a ride share service “like Uber, but with shea butter hand cream and lavender laced joints, but without the anti-blackness and transphobia.”).
The words and illustrations are printed in blue and pink ink using a risograph (an “affordable, sustainable, and creative alternative to traditional forms of print production,” according to the Co-Conspirator Press website). “This process allows for a more accessible avenue to distribute intersectional feminist content to our interconnected network and beyond.”
Vibe Me is definitely intersectional feminist content; the captivating story and fleshly-built world are boldly laced with Kamala’s feminist perspective. The book, with its trippy two tones and big, bold type, could be an artifact — a riso-printed pamphlet, perhaps — from Kamala’s imagined future. It’s a future where toxic masculinity still exists, but other options exist, too: unexplainable vibes, Horsie sex prosthetics, phones that care, romantic friendships, polyamorous relationships, and infinite other options not yet named or imagined.
Then again, the book is an artifact, something someone in some future might come across and read, adjusting their perspective of 2021 as they read about rideshares that are anti-black and anti-trans, or about tech companies that curate influencer-influenced trips for their app’s users, or about the ideal way to smoke a cigarillo.
Perhaps the future Kamala created in Vibe Me feels so fleshy because it is built from the present. But unlike dystopian sci-fi that follows the worst possible outcomes to their logical conclusions, Vibe Me latches onto the sparkling facets of our present situation — the abundance of love, the potential for technology to do good, the communities that embrace and explore their evolving boundaries — and extrapolates them into even more facets that sparkle even harder.
And here is the takeaway from Kamala’s action, which hides behind a love story in an edging-towards-utopian Los Angeles: if she can extrapolate those sparkly facets and create a new future, we can, too. We can do that with her.
© Hannah Lamb-Vines (12/23/21) Special for FF2 Media®
Buy You Can Vibe Me on My FemmePhone from Co-Conspirator Press.
Visit Kamala Puligandla’s website.
CREDITS AND PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: You Can Vibe Me on My FemmePhone on grass.
Photo courtesy of Hannah Lamb-Vines (with extra drama from Jan Lisa Huttner)