Social Distancing 2.0: A Review of Hsin-Hui Lin’s Contactless Intimacy

Ariel Chu

English /// 中文
Photo Credit: Book Cover

HSIN-HUI LIN’S Contactless Intimacy is a claustrophobic character study, a dazzling exercise in worldbuilding, and a chilling thought experiment: what would happen if artificial intelligence gained the power to dictate human intimacy? In a world where physical contact is prohibited, relationships are optimized by machines, and free will is exposed as fiction, what might become of individual agency?

The novel follows a woman whose generation is the first to experience a “touchless society.” Under the mandate of a centralized AI government, the protagonist is taught to avoid all bodily contact: touch leads to emotional contamination, and emotional contamination results in human suffering. Though she has a few brushes with physical intimacy—including a chance encounter with a “Free Hugs” protestor—the protagonist grows up insulated from the world, raised by a distant mother and a mechanical housekeeper. Her alienation intensifies when she signs up for a “Human-Machine Mating Program” as an adult. Placed into a new body, paired with a specialized android partner, and thrust into a new world where “synchronization” is key, the protagonist must grapple with what it means to be herself—and what it means to retain her humanity.

I encountered Contactless Intimacy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced much of the world into lockdown. Lin’s descriptions of silent cities, empty streets, and virtual classrooms evoked all-too-recent memories of urban quarantines. Even now—holding my breath in elevators and shrinking into the corners of crowded train cars—I find it difficult to relax around strangers. Lin’s idea of touch-based contamination thus carries a sobering resonance, evoking a not-so-distant social paradigm.

Yet Lin’s conceit goes even further, probing the role of touch in human bonding. According to the AI that governs Lin’s world, physical contact is a vector for emotional distress—including familial trauma. The protagonist’s mother, part of the last generation to fully experience touch, is guilt-stricken after “contaminating” and killing her immunocompromised husband. After the government outlaws human contact, she shrinks away from her daughter, who struggles to understand the gulf between them. Though the protagonist remembers these moments as alienating, the reader learns that the mother’s motives are protective. Not wanting her daughter to experience emotional turmoil, the mother pushes the protagonist to embrace a touchless future. Through this mother-daughter relationship, Lin forces us to confront an all-too-human dilemma: in trying to shield our loved ones from pain, are we inflicting even more suffering upon them?

This mother-daughter relationship stands out as one of the core threads of the novel. One of the most affecting moments of the novel is the mother’s government-assisted death, which the protagonist witnesses firsthand. Invoking Simone de Beauvoir’s A Very Easy Death, Lin plumbs the ambiguity of human emotion and its relationship with so-called reason. What should the protagonist prioritize: her instinctive grief, or the happiness that she “should” express at her mother’s painless death? Lin exposes the contradictions that lie at the heart of our social responses, the competing kinds of “programming” that drive our decision-making.

Contactless Intimacy also explores speculative relationships, chief among them the melding of man and machine. In Lin’s future, humans can engage in “safe” touch-based intimacy by joining the Human-Machine Mating Program. In this program, humans are stripped of their original bodies, wired to technologically advanced constructs, and paired with specialized android partners. These androids, tasked with matching themselves perfectly to their humans, place their partners through daily exercises to improve their synchronization rate. Over the course of the novel, the protagonist experiences deeper and deeper bonding with her partner, whose touch thrills her new body. But synchronization comes at a price. In a surprising chapter, Lin treats us to the android partner’s perspective, revealing the power imbalances that threaten the protagonist’s agency. Threatened with the loss of her identity, the protagonist must eventually decide whether her fulfilling partnership is worth the surrender of her autonomy.

Lin takes this exploration of identity even further, questioning the very basis of the protagonist’s self-understanding. The new bodies created by the program are ageless, raceless, and sexless, an attempt at total equality. Yet the protagonist’s subjectivity persists within her assigned shell. Stripped of her breasts and genitals, the protagonist stares at herself in the mirror, trying to scratch an opening between her legs. Though she is interrupted in this task, she can’t shake the memory of the body she used to inhabit, the physical features she used to possess. The protagonist’s identity is further challenged by her doppelganger partner, who shares her exact appearance and name—but none of her inner conflict. By estranging her protagonist from herself, Lin calls us to interrogate our own identities, to reflect on how much of ourselves is embodied, how much is performative, and how much is somehow innate.

Despite its egalitarian claims, the Human-Machine Mating Program also preserves heteronormative relational models. Monogamous, compulsorily intimate, and codependent by design, human-android partners are even expected to intertwine when they walk. Binary gender roles emerge in the protagonist’s partnership: the protagonist is eventually relegated to the domestic sphere, whereas her partner goes to work, socializes with other androids, and dons menswear for formal occasions. In this committed monogamous framework, the protagonist’s lingering interest in K—a stranger she used to date virtually—is perceived as deviant. In other words, this allegedly equal society still differentiates between appropriate and taboo relationships. Acceptable intimacy is dictated by dominant power structures, which take their cues from a heteronormative “past.”

The Mating Program also features a tiered value system, which contradicts its supposed egalitarianism. In a world where intimacy determines worth, one’s synchronization rate stands in for social and economic capital. The more bonded someone is to their android partner, the more privileges they receive. And even then, human-android pairs are still expected to work, performing rote labor under the gaze of an arcane bureaucracy.

Thus, Contactless Intimacy challenges a fundamental myth of an AI-based future: the idea that machine intelligence is naturally objective. Created by humans, sustained by human information, and adapting to human consciousness, AI is necessarily susceptible to human biases and value systems. In fact, one of the most horrifying images in the novel illustrates just how dependent machine learning is on humanity. The protagonist learns that the AI government has confined human dissidents to transparent lockers, directly gleaning data from their brains and nervous systems. Though it claims to transcend human fallibility, the AI-dominated world of Contactless Intimacy is undeniably human in its origins—not to mention its gendered logics, tiered economic models, and preservation of power imbalances. Lin thus challenges the false dichotomy between human “irrationality” and computer “logic,” showing how the latter is always already inflected by the former.

In addition to her futuristic conceits, Lin populates her world with details that feel eerily familiar to the present-day reader. The protagonist grows up attending virtual classes, participating in online discussions using a pink bunny avatar. She experiences the world through VR experiences, even going on virtual dates by an artificial sea. Meanwhile, drones surveil city streets, destroying buildings where dissidents congregate. And the dissidents in question—standing firmly against a touchless future—are none other than “Free Hugs” sloganeers, harkening back to signs that used to be common before the pandemic.

Contactless Intimacy thus forces us to reckon with the technology, infrastructure, and social patterns that govern our own lives, exposing how alienation is built into our most quotidian institutions. And indeed, the threats of this novel are already a reality for so many populations. The criminalization of queer intimacy, the forced isolation of incarcerated people, and the separation of detained migrants from their children are all proof of a dystopic, touchless present. Lin’s novel is thus less speculative and more cautionary, calling to notice the myriad ways we’ve become disconnected from each other.

In discussing a book so concerned with intimacy, I would be remiss in ignoring my relationship with its author. Hsin-Hui and I spent six months together in Los Angeles, a city infamous for its alienating sprawl. Hsin-Hui shared that after moving into her new apartment, she’d gone days without seeing another person in her building. We commiserated over our shared loneliness, our physical and emotional isolation, our sense of being cut off from the larger world in our segmented apartments. Contactless Intimacy takes these tiny moments of estrangement and explodes them, forcing us to reckon with our threshold for physical separation. How much structural isolation can we tolerate? How much distance from each other can we endure before we begin to lose our humanity?

One of the most haunting passages of the novel comes at the very end. Faced with the prospect of having her ego erased—returning to her “original factory setting”—the protagonist reflects upon several memories that have haunted her throughout her life. One of those memories involves her fleeting encounter with the “Free Hugs” protestor, whose hand managed to graze hers years ago. After reading Contactless Intimacy, I thought about the brief moments of intersection between my body and another’s—about all the information contained within a single touch. Hugging Hsin-Hui goodbye before her flight to Taipei, I was inundated with competing emotions: sadness, gratitude, fear, hope. Perhaps the AI in Contactless Intimacy would view these emotions as a kind of contamination. I would call them proof that I shared a world with Hsin-Hui once, that for a brief time, my humanity found a mirror and home in hers.

Ariel Chu

Los Angeles, California
April 2023

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