I absolutely love to read. I’ve been immersing myself in books since I was a wee girl and I have a “to be read” stack of books that is ridiculously out of hand. The Nerdette’s Library will be a semi-regular feature on this site, where I will review and recommend (or tell you to put the book down and run screaming for the hills if you value your sanity) the books in my stacks as I work my way through them. Mostly genre books, with a couple surprises thrown in, because well, it’s my library and that’s what I like to read. So starting at the top, He, She and It by Marge Piercy.
He, She and It is a cyberpunk story set in the near future (2059) where huge corporations (“multis”) control a toxic world that has been ravaged by war and environmental disasters. The story follows Shira Shipman, who returns to the Jewish free-town of her birth after her marriage ends and her young son is taken from her by the multi she worked for. There she accepts the job of socializing and mentoring the cyborg Yod–an illegal creation who was designed to protect the town from the always present threat of cyber attacks. But Yod is more than a machine, and Shira soon finds her assumptions being challenged and experiencing strong feelings toward the cyborg.
There are many intriguing and disturbing ideas explored in He, She and It. Piercy does a masterful job at describing the world of 2059, and the most deeply disturbing aspect is how possible and realistic it seems. With events occurring like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the hottest January through July world-wide on record, and rampant industrial pollution it’s really not hard to imagine our planet turning into a poisonous environment where humans cannot survive without protective domes and suits.
The character of Yod is beautifully written, a “person who is not human” as he is described in the book and I felt that the relationship that develops between him and Shira was believable and vibrant. Piercy forces us to examine our assumptions on what is machine and what is human and what specifically makes us human. Yod is programmed to protect, but also to seek companionship, to be curious about the world around him and to want to learn and grow, just as humans are programmed by our biology to want the same things. As the reader grows to care more for Yod, we are asked also to examine the ethics of creating an intelligent, conscious being whose ultimate purpose is as a weapon.
The Jewish themes of He, She and It were interesting, and unusual in science fiction, and are what drew me to the book initially. Yod is a modern Golem, a being created to protect the Jews in their times of greatest need. Woven through the main narrative is the traditional Golem story set in 17th century Prague, told in the voice of Malkah, Shira’s grandmother and one of Yod’s programmers, as she is telling the tale to Yod. While I understood the author’s intent, this to me weakened the forward thrust of the story and I found myself skimming the Prague story in order to get back to the main story. I feel that the philosophical Yod=Golem connection was already established, and the many chapters of the Maharal and Golem in 17th century Prague distracted and brought the main story to a screeching halt. But the many elements of Judaism (community, repairing the world, matrilineal descent) were beautifully woven into the story and in many ways this novel was a celebration of those elements, as the free-town of Tikvah is a bright spot in a dystopian world.
Overall, He, She and It is an interesting and engaging exploration of what makes us human as well as a cautionary tale of near future dystopia. The story of Yod and why he is ultimately a tragic figure has remained with me beyond the final page of the novel. It’s a worthwhile read and one that will probably continue to resonate as technology continues to progress and our environment continues to degrade.