Book Review: He, She and It by Marge Piercy

Robo Reads

Title: He, She and It 
Author: Marge Piercy
First Published: 1991 by Ballantine

Isn’t it a rare but exhilarating thing when a book comes along that ticks almost all of your personal reading boxes? For me, He, She and It is one such book. It’s a work of feminist (tick),  dystopian (tick), cyberpunk science-fiction but with a strongly literary flavour (triple tick) that also features an affecting and pretty damn sexy robot romance plot (yes that’s a big tick for me too, which should surprise nobody). Piercy’s novel also contains many ingredients – such as its elements of Jewish history and mysticism – that I wouldn’t necessarily seek out in a book but which actually proved fascinating. The novel features two interlinked stories, one set in a grim near-future of nuclear fallout and environmental destruction and one set in 1600s Prague. Despite their very different locales both narratives explore, in a way that is both searching and sympathetic, the consequences of creating an artificial being that can think – and, crucially, feel – for itself.

In the futuristic main narrative, a high percentage of the human population have been wiped out by war, radiation, plague or famine. Those that survive exist in one of the three societal models: the main contrast being between the corporation-run domes and the Glop. The former are a fairly standard cyberpunk conceit: climate controlled enclaves where elite workers are shielded from physical deprivation but have every aspect of their personal lives strictly regimented.  The latter is effectively a vast post-apocalyptic shanty town where survival is one long fight amidst a ruined climate and the turf wars of rival gangs. But there is a third option, and this is where the setting becomes more unique: a small number Free Towns exist. These bubbles of municipal independence are left in relative peace so long as they continue to supply useful products and services to the corporations.

Book cover

Never judge a book by its cover, particularly not in this case

Piercy’s narrative follows the unassuming Shira Shipman who was raised in the Jewish free town of Tikva and heads back there after her marriage and her life in the corporate Y-S enclave has fallen apart. Shira has been denied custody of her young son is returning to her grandmother, Malkah, feeling bereft and broken. As she settles in to life in the town – all the time wondering how to reclaim her son – Shira becomes involved in the work of Malkah and her collaborator Avram, who have created Yod, an anthropomorphic robot warrior built to defend the town’s fragile peace from exterior threats, both physical and in the virtual world of the Net. Yod’s identity is a secret – and it becomes Shira’s role to help preserve this, working with Yod so that he can pass as a human male in behaviour as well as in appearance. Though initially skeptical, she gradually comes to accept Yod’s individuality, and acceptance evolves into something deeper. But not everyone, either in Tikva or beyond, is so ready to concede Yod’s autonomy.

Interspersed with Shira’s story – and echoing many of its themes – is the Jewish legend of the Golem of Prague, an automaton created by the religious magic of Kabbalah to help protect the Jews from the violence being incited against their city ghetto by the priest Thaddeus. Malkah tells this story to Yod across the course of the novel and the parallels between Yod and the Golem, Joseph, are clear. The Maharal who animated Joseph and keeps the secret of his identity owes the golem his life but cannot grant him his trust or respect. Can there really be a happy ending for a machine who as been created as a weapon? Piercy is not the first to grapple with this weighty question, but He, She and It embellishes its cyberpunk core with familial and religious values to tell a tale that is both action-packed and thought-provoking.

I was particularly intrigued by the questions the novel asks about the A.I.s and continuity. In one sense, Yod seems like the next stage in human development. As Shira tells him:

we’re all unnatural now. I have retinal implants. I have a plug set into my skull to interface with a computer. Malkah has a subcutaneous unit that monitors and corrects blood pressure … We can’t go unaided into what we haven’t yet destroyed of ‘nature.’ Without a wrap, without sec skins and filters, we’d perish. We’re all cyborgs, Yod. You’re just a purer form of what we’re all tending toward.

Yet Yod also observes how intensely Shira and Malkah value their family ties, bloodlines and their heritage, something he recognises he can never have. “You are embedded in history in a sense that I can’t be” he tells the women. “What leads to me? Legends, theories, comic books. All my destroyed brother machines.” Yet while Yod longs to be more human, the novel doesn’t shy away from the destruction and suffering that humans have caused, both to each other and to the ravaged planet. So there is also a sense that Yod’s newness, his detachment from the past, is something to be celebrated, a perspective that is realised more fully in the interesting character of Nili.

Technology, love, Kabalah, cyborg philosophy, folklore, not to mention some pretty frenetic chase and fight sequences; with so much going on, the novel could easily have been a mess. Of course, some sections are stronger than others but Piercy holds it together through her real strength as a crafter of vignettes. He, She and It reads as a series of interlinked set piece scenes, some thoughtful, some adrenalin-pumping. Although much of the narrative is inner voice feelings and emotions, the novel nonetheless has a very cinematic tone and – in the right hands – I would imagine could make a superb film.

He, She and It has also been distributed under the alternate title Body of Glass, but the original title is far more representative of Piercy’s thoughtful, multi-layered contribution to the genre of robot fiction, as the title itself could be interpreted in a number of ways. It could refer to the romance plot and the love triangle between Gadi (Shira’s childhood friend and first love to whom she feels an enduring connection), Shira and Yod. It could refer to Yod’s creation, since it is significant that he was created and programmed collaboratively by both a man (Avram) and a woman (Malkah) who have very different hopes for his future. Or it could refer to Yod, who identifies as male but is repeatedly highlighted as having many feminine traits and can therefore be seen as embodying both genders and neither of them. The title, then, is a neat reflection of the work as a whole which is hugely concerned with gender, and inspires many more questions than answers – its perspective constantly zooming in and out between quiet, personal moments and wider social and political significance.

Shira is an interesting protagonist precisely because she actually isn’t all that remarkable. This is a powerfully feminist work and there are some very strong women in it, from the free spirited but scientifically brilliant Malkah, to female information pirates and cyborgised assassins, but Shira reminds us that a women should not need to be exceptional to be strong.   Shira actually seems quite conservative in many ways, likeable enough, but content to ride the waves rather than making them. Yet she is a survivor, and her relationship with an illegal cyborg is of course one of fierce novelty. I can see how Shira’s voice could seem weak compared with that of other members of her family but, for me, her unremarkable character actually served to ground what could otherwise be a very philosophically-crowded narrative.  Unlike her grandmother, Shira isn’t the sort to pursue novelty or freedom as lofty ideals in their own right; her love for Yod evolves gradually and organically, and is all the more affecting for that. I’m not ashamed to admit this book grabbed me hard and that tears may have been shed.

He, She and It has a lot of great things going on. I’ll confess, though, I wasn’t immediately hooked, as the opening chapter’s vision of life in the corporation-controlled domes feels a little tired and unoriginal. But it’s really worth sticking with it because once the action shifts to Tivka the novel develops a voice that is much more fresh and fascinating. It’s really a story about ownership and creation, as most robot fiction is on a fundamental level. Yod reads Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as part of his education, and that classic tale of a creator who fears his creation haunts much of Piercy’s narrative. Avram sees Yod as a tool, a thing to be owned, and he fears losing control of the robot. Malkah, meanwhile, appreciates Yod’s individuality even as she struggles with the morality of her actions in having programmed him that way when he was essentially conceived as an intelligent weapon: ”an artificial person created as a tool is a painful contradiction.”

This is a sad novel in many ways, and Piercy’s bleak vision of environmental collapse is concerningly plausible. But Tikva is a Jewish word for hope, so it is significant that – for all its action, conflict and grand political questioning – it was the novel’s quieter moments of beauty, connection and understanding that lingered on in my mind after I turned the final page, and which will, I’ve no doubt, continue to haunt me long into the future. He, She and It, is that kind of book: easy to fall in love with, much harder to resolve or forget, rather like its “inhuman” protagonist.


Robo Reads

Next time on Robo Reads:  R reviews The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov.

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