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He, She, and It, 1991
Piercy's consolidated reputation as a major American writer rests not only on her lucid verbal skills. Her uncanny ability to extrapolate significant future trends from contemporary social and cultural phenomena is a prominent facet of her work, although perhaps not since Woman on the Edge of Time has she honed her cutting edges so wickedly sharp. In this complex, potentially controversial novel she draws on multinational corporations, bionics and organ piracy, post-militant feminism, drastic pollution of the environment, the proliferation of the Internet, hackers, the development of synthetic foods, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality entertainment to imagine the Earth of 2050 and, contriving an ominously plausible background for a searching story, poses numerous unsettling questions, of which the most provocative is: what constitutes a human being? For a brilliant male scientist has illegally built a powerful cyborg in human form, and an equally brilliant female scientist has so sapiently programmed its "emotions" that her granddaughter Shira falls inevitably in love with Yod, who is just what she feels a man should be. Their adventure is adroitly reflected in a cautionary retelling of the kabbalistic legend of a Golem created in Prague in 1600 to protect the Jewish ghetto, just as Yod has been made as a defense weapon for the data-base of a beleaguered free community in Piercy's disquieting next-generation world, where state-of-the-art technology marks the watershed between haves and have-nots, where disregarded masses of humanity eke out a grim existence in the contaminated, ruined cities while corporate technocrats, secluded in their shielded enclaves, hog Earth's diminishing resources.
Shira Shipman, a highly educated technician employed by the Yakamura-Stichen corporation, engages in a losing struggle with her estranged husband for custody of their son Ari, coldly awarded by the corporate justice system to his father, who immediately transfers himself and the boy out of Shira's reach to a two-year tour of duty on a space platform. Mulling over impossible plots to rescue her son, and further frustrated by the inexplicable stasis in her career and a failure to win promotion, Shira abruptly abandons her privileged status and retreats to lick her wounds in Tikva, the coastal Jewish community where she grew up under the care of her grandmother Malkah, a charismatic woman of eerie intellectual acuity and independent life-style. Malkah has created for Shira a myth that the women of their family never cramp themselves within the steely bonds of marriage, and Shira is still conscious of her feelings of guilt over breaking, apparently so unwisely, with the invented tradition -- a decision she took in large part to assuage the anguish of her first lover Gadi's betrayal of their exultant youthful pairing.
In Tikva Shira is persuaded by Gadi's father Avram Stein to assist him in a clandestine scientific project. She is to devise a plan for socializing an artificial-intelligence entity dubbed Yod for the tenth letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The latest and most promising experimental model in a series of failures, Yod has been physically constructed by Avram, but endowed with a personality generated by Malkah's subtlest software. Startled to discover that Avram has unlawfully made Yod to pass as a male human being, Shira at first treats "it" as a machine like all the other advanced computers she is familiar with. But as she begins to interact with the socially awkward cyborg, she slowly and unwillingly recognizes the presence of a unique "he" -- a being conscious of his own wants and feelings, alone of his kind, whose growing ambition is to share as fully as he can in the perplexing human world around him. Nor has Malkah neglected to program Yod's sexuality, and when Shira finally yields to his insistent courtship she finds in Yod a sensitive, loyal, and caring lover, every woman's impossible, fantasized ideal. Enrapt in the unusual relationship, Shira finds it easy to resist Gadi's cynically renewed blandishments when Gadi, a charming sexual gadfly, comes home to cool his heels in temporary exile after a scandal.
To aid Yod's ongoing education in his nature and capabilities, Malkah places on the net, reserved for his access, an imaginative version of the tale of Joseph, a Golem evoked from the mud by a pious rabbi to foil violent Christian incursions into Prague's Jewish quarter. Yod's own primary function is to guard Tikva's inner network from intrusion by cyber-pirates attempting to steal data, for Tikva maintains its precarious independence by devising complex firewall software and selling its exclusive products to the rival multinationals who dominate the global economy. The poignant chapters of Joseph's crude history parallel and highlight Yod's own experiences, but also serve to issue a warning: the rabbi has the power, and exercises it in the end, to return Joseph whence he came. And Yod is aware that his "father" Avram has not omitted to implant an inaccessible self-destruction sequence, to be ruthlessly activated should Yod ever veer out of control.
Yakamura-Stichen launches devastating attacks on the security of Tikva's data-net and then, when the infiltration fails, high corporate officers try to lure Shira back to the fold, using her son Ari as bait. Shira finally grasps that she has been deliberately maneuvered into her Tikvan refuge as an unwitting spy on Avram's secretive experiments. After she and Yod bring off a daring raid to recover Ari, Tikva fights back. Malkah, the insouciant Gadi, his new lover Nili (a bionically enhanced "superwoman" from the radioactive wastes of Israel), and Shira's elusive, dispassionate mother Riva (a cyber-pirate outlaw posing as a colourless bureaucrat, on crusade against the multinationals' arrogant data-hoarding) all contribute their distinctive skills to the cause. But it is Yod who determines the outcome through a decisive act of free will and self-sacrifice that not only trounces Yakamura-Stichen, but violently puts paid to Avram's godlike meddling as well. "I was a mistake," Yod states in a blunt farewell message. "I have done one good thing with my death. I have made sure there will be no others like me."
He, She, and It will intrigue readers with speculative minds, able to relish having their principles challenged by Piercy's more extreme hypotheses, and who also enjoy dextrous plotting, an unusual setting, and a dynamic story rife with action, original characters, and moral conflict.
© Wordreign, April 2000
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