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Marge Piercy’s He, She and It

Beth Shalom M. Yedlin Memorial Library New (Old) Acquisition He, She and It.

First a bit about this amazing, prescient 27 – year - old novel: it was an early choice of the then-new Women’s League book discussion group. The BS library did not have a copy but one was recently spotted at the Jewish Drop In Centre, purchased for 50 cents, and we now have it. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction in the United Kingdom.

“Why Did the Cyborg Think Itself a Man? Marge Piercy’s He, She and It by Molly Templeton (excerpted from Cyberpunk Week)

We would probably technically call Yod, the being at the center of Marge Piercy’s He, She and It, an android—an entirely man-made creation in the shape of a human—but Piercy opts for cyborg. It’s a telling choice in a book that’s full of them: a cyborg is an augmented human, a more-than-person. And Yod, though he believes he is a person, and a male, is more than either.

In the mid-21st century setting of Piercy’s novel, artificial intelligences that can pass as human are illegal. Lesser AIs—smart houses that carry messages and act as guards; robot messengers; even human-shaped creations with lesser intelligences—are a normal part of life, but Yod is a secret, created in a private lab. The tenth in a line of cyborg attempts, Yod is the only one of Avram Stein’s creations to function as planned. Some were too dumb; some were terribly violent, the result of the shock of consciousness, which Yod remembers being terrifying. And wouldn’t it be?

Imagine appearing in the world with all the information, data, programming a human would think an AI needs— an AI built to appear human, with introspection, desires, and a great drive to defend, snapping into existence like a light. Avram’s co-programmer, Malkah, considers this and builds an awareness delay into Yod’s systems, so that not everything happens at once. This approximation of human growth makes all the difference.

But how much can programming replicate the process of learning, of experiencing the things that make you who you are? Piercy is interested in this question, but maybe more in the reverse: are humans just as programmed as her cyborg, and if so, how do these things relate?

Avram, on some level, has considered this. He invites Shira Shipman, Malkah’s granddaughter, home to Tikva to work with Yod on his behavior. After years working for a corporate “multi,” where behavior is highly regulated and controlled, Shira finds it absurd that everyone refers to Yod as “him,” but as she works with Yod, practicing everyday human interactions, Yod grows. He becomes less literal, more adaptable, able to read people and understand their strange idioms and metaphors. Living through more moments that become part of his life story, he becomes more like a person.

Running parallel to the tale of Shira and Yod is the “bedtime story” Malkah leaves for Yod in the Base (Piercy’s version of the internet). She tells him about the golem and Yod begins to ask questions…without easy answers; the best way to answer them is by living. But Malkah does the next best thing when she tells Yod the story of this other being who asked them. Her story is lesson and warning, a cautionary tale about being alive and at the mercy of your creator. 

Malkah’s story is as much a part of Yod’s programming as any of her technical work. We are all programmed with stories: stories about our families, our countries, our world, ourselves. People have invented a million stories to explain the world; those stories then become part of people, of who we are and what we value, and the cycle repeats, each of us telling and creating and retelling, changing the details as we learn. By telling Yod (about the golem), she gives him a creation myth—a key piece of programming—of his own: You are not the first of your kind. Someone was here already. Learn from their mistakes.

And by telling this story largely through Shira’s eyes, Piercy crosses the human/machine boundary, giving us a compelling argument for the way people are programmed by the narratives we choose to value. Shira believes her life irrevocably shaped by the relationship she had with Gadi, Avram’s son, when they were young. It ended badly, and Shira told herself that she could never love like that again. It is one of her defining stories—but stories can be retold, personal myths reworked.

And this, maybe, is where the programming Malkah gives Yod makes him the most human: like Shira, he is able to change himself, to rewrite programs, to find a way around things he learns to fear. He can become someone other than who he was created to be. The tertiary story in Piercy’s novel reflects this work, but on a bigger scale: two other characters subvert expectations of motherhood, destruction, and rebuilding, working to rewrite the world’s story by putting narrative power back into the hands of people rather than corporations…If a cyborg can reprogram himself, so can we all. Under the guise of a taut, thoughtful cyberpunk thriller, Piercy explores the stories that make us who and what we are—and the possibility that we can all change if we tell ourselves new stories, find new programs, value new ways to be.

Thu, 17 October 2019 18 Tishrei 5780