Once in a great while a book comes along which has an indelible effect on you, for reasons that the author may not have intended. Something, either in the way the writer has presented the story, or in the subject matter, strikes a chord that resonates on a multitude of levels. There have been a couple of books written by Marge Piercy that have had that effect on me.
The one that had the deepest impact on me, for a variety of reasons, was the novel He, She and It. Nominally a science-fiction novel, it moves through territory which at that time was unfamiliar to most readers. It may not have been the first book to postulate projecting people into the Internet, but it was the first one I read, and still remains one of the best ones I’ve read.
He, She and It is so much more than just cyberpunk science-fiction dealing with computers and technological warfare. It’s about the things people will do to preserve their way of life, and the consequences that follow. It also raises the question of what, exactly, life is, in the form of two examples of artificial intelligence; one based on science and nano-technology, the other on the mysticism of the Kabalah. (Please try to forget any pop stuff you have heard or read about the Kabalah, because most of it is not relevant to real study of this branch of Jewish mysticism. Unlike what most people who claim affinity for this study would have you believe, belief in all the tenets of Judaism is a mandatory prerequisite. Without that, Kabalah just becomes so many empty words)
In the middle of the twenty-first century we find a world that has just barely survived biological and nuclear warfare. Humans cannot venture into exposed air unprotected. All inhabited areas are covered with protective domes that maintain atmospheric purity. There are no civil governments any more; rather the world is divided into corporate spheres of interest, with multinational corporations ruling their own fiefdoms through out the world.
Scattered little pockets of independence still exist in the form of free towns that barter their freedom with specific services they can sell, and fierce defensive skills that keep the multinationals at bay. Shira Shipman was born in the Jewish free town of Tikva, but ran away to become part of the multinational conglomeration that rules North America, Norika.
When her marriage to another Norikan employee goes down the toilet, and he is awarded complete custody of their child, she flees back to the house where her grandmother raised her. Far from being your stereotypical Jewish bubbie, grandma Shipman is a computer programmer of the highest order. Primarily responsible for safeguarding Tikva’s Net portal, and designing the software they sell to the multinationals in exchange for their freedom, she has become involved in a side project with a fellow Tikvian scientist.
After a series of unsuccessful attempts they have created a being of artificial intelligence that is virtually indistinguishable from a human. In everything from appearance to emotional reactions, he is as human as you can get when you don’t have internal organs made of muscle and bone. They called him Yod, the equivalent of Y in the Hebrew alphabet, which offers an indication of how many failures they lived through before finally succeeding.
Yod’s purpose is to defend the city of Tikva from the multinationals. Both on the net and in person he is far superior to any human, and invulnerable to most forms of attack. His biggest asset is that he never needs to sleep, and is not subject to fatigue-induced mistakes, making him the ideal on-line guard.
As earlier versions of Yod had failed, due to their lack of understanding emotions, and their inability to control them, the elder Shipman has been charged with developing Yod’s emotional software. One of things she decides he needs to know about is his Jewish heritage, and that there is precedent for his existence.
Running parallel to the story of protecting Tikva from the incursions of Norika is the story of a Shipman ancestor’s creation of a Golem to protect the residents of the Prague ghetto during the annual Passover pogroms; rampant destruction of all things Jewish by mobs. The Rabbi had endured many years of persecution, and had learned to read the signs indicating when things were going to be worse then usual. He fears that this Passover will be the worst yet.
Like his descendants in Tikva, his wish is to create the means to protect his people from harm and incursion. But as each discovers, creating life is always more than you bargain for. Joseph the golem and Yod the robot both begin to develop feelings for the woman in their life. Joseph begins to love the rabbi’s granddaughter, while Yod and Shira become increasingly attached as the story progresses.
When Shira arrived home, she found Yod ready to go to work, but needing to be socialised. Learning the nuances of human behaviour, and not taking things literally, are just two examples of behaviour that he needs to learn so he can walk openly in the community. This enforced close companionship leads where one expects it to lead, with Yod and Shira eventually becoming lovers.
Of course action on other fronts is heating up as well. Excursions into the net are made to infiltrate the Norika system to try and figure out what they are planning in terms of trying to take over Tikva. All people have implants allowing them to plug into the Net and project an image of themselves into virtual reality. They are then able to travel anywhere the net does, including into someone else’s files if they can breach their defences.
With Yod as their point-man the Tikvans are able to easily breach Norika’s file systems, and even locate Shira’s son. Later, in an actual physical incursion, Yod and Shira succeed in retrieving him and returning safely to Tikva. This of course only increases the pressure on the community, because the child was being used as a means of blackmailing Shira to compromise Tikva.
Back in Prague, Joseph has been putting his own unique skills to work in defence of the ghetto. Whether through his ability to move freely through the gentile world and gather information in bars about forthcoming assaults, or leading the normally-passive Jews in defence of their homes against the assaulting mobs, he is a resounding success.
For both Yod and Joseph, the question arises about who they really are, and what their status is. One day in the synagogue they are one person short of a minyon, the ten men required to be present for a Jewish prayer service to proceed. When one of the congregation suggests Joseph (only two others know of his true origins) to complete the minyon, the rabbi is confronted with the reality: he doesn’t know whether Joseph qualifies as a man.
In Yod’s case, questions are being asked about the amount of work he seems to be doing, and why he never gets time off. When it is revealed that he is an artificial intelligence, the town council has to debate his status. Is he a free person, eligible to all the rights and privileges that this entails, or is he the property of his creators?
Marge Piercy is too accomplished a writer for there ever to be any black and white issues in the world. Of course our sympathies lie with the free town’s struggle for independence, but when it comes to the moral issue of where does life begin and end, in terms of artificial intelligence she shows that there are no easy answers.
Is Yod less human than someone created in normal circumstances? How about a person who has been augmented with artificial parts? Even in our world we have people with plastic joints, hearts they weren’t born with, and artificial organs that keep them alive. At what point do they stop being humans and become machines? If the intent in creating artificial life is the same as procreation—the creation of life—does it matter how the result is obtained?
This is a beautifully-written book that evokes style and mood wonderfully. Considering the constant changes of scene between 17th-century Prague and the mid-21st, Ms. Piercy does a marvellous job of making each era believable. Using the two time periods is more than just a device; the earlier tale is instrumental in bringing about the conclusion of events in the 21st century.
This is a story of the will to endure and maintain dignity and freedom, in a community and on a personal level. Whether the Jews of Prague or Tikva, or Shira and Yod, each are striving to find and define themselves in a world that seems set against them. It’s a story about the importance of community and the values they establish for us, while at the same time cherishing the rights of the individual.
He, She and It manages to be that rarity amongst novels that can impart important lessons and messages, without being a message book or strident. Through circumstances and events, the characters learn and grow. As Yod becomes more human, and Shira reclaims the emotions she thought she had sealed off as a child, we are shown the path to follow if we wish to emulate their journey. This novel is a trip well worth taking.