Title: He, She and It
Authors: Marge Piercy
Publisher and Year: Originally published 1991, this edition published by Ebury Digital, 2016.
Genre: science fiction, dystopia, feminist fiction,
Blurb from Goodreads:
In the middle of the twenty-first century, life as we know it has changed for all time. Shira Shipman’s marriage has broken up, and her young son has been taken from her by the corporation that runs her zone, so she has returned to Tikva, the Jewish town where she grew up. There, she is welcomed by Malkah, the brilliant grandmother who raised her, and meets an extraordinary man who is not a man at all, but a unique cyborg implanted with intelligence, emotions – and the ability to kill…
From the critically acclaimed author of Woman on the Edge of Time, comes another stunning novel of morality and courage. A Pygmallion tale for the modern age, this classic feminist speculative novel won the Arthur C Clark Award.
An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
He, She and It was a revelation to me, I’m so glad I got to read this and am so glad that somehow this book came to me exactly when I needed it. There is as much about this book that is literary as science fiction, to the benefit of the book and the story it tells. It has incredible depth and is written beautifully, with poignancy that I think is rare to find.
Relationships are central to this book, relationships of family, of parent and child, of community, of spousal partnership, of professional collaboration. Although many readers may centre on the romantic relationships portrayed in the book, these make sense only in the context of all the other relationships that are part of the tapestry of this book. They do not exist in a vacuum or in isolation from the rest of the story.
We follow Shira’s point of view as the dominant protagonist, although Yod and Malkah’s point of view features as well. The worldbuilding for this story is deft. We start with a picture of an enclave, such as we might imagine in any future science fiction city, perfectly coifed and artificial, everything manufactured – the suggestion of control and surveillance is everywhere. We are then introduced to the free city Tivkah, resisting the multi-corporations and having enough skill and leverage to hold onto tenuous freedom and the city’s prized democratic community. Upon losing custody of her son, Shira flees the multicorporate enclave she is employed by and returns to Tivkah, her childhood home. She takes up a position with the scientist Avram to assist him in the socialisation of his cyborg creation Yod.
I didn’t fall in love with Shira at first, and in fact it took me a very long time to warm up to her. Instead, I was drawn to Malkah, matriarch and storyteller, scientist and programmer with a formidable intellect. I took a long time to warm up to Yod too, but I think that is by design from Piercy – as Yod’s experience with personhood grows and expands, so to does the reader’s ability to recognise and appreciate Yod’s personhood. We are invited to mirror Shira’s experience in working with Yod and his socialisation, although her qualms are always situated as her own foibles, and not so much larger moral questions for the reader to ponder. Those questions come more from Yod himself, as he reads Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The crux of the book is the creation of Yod, a cyborg. A story that parellels the creation of a golem in the 1800s. Both created to protect, but as weapons with innate violence in their nature. This is something both the golem Joseph and the cyborg Yod struggle with. My take on it is that this is profoundly to do with existing in the world, regardless of being a human person or not. You cannot erase lived experience, you cannot unlearn compassion or empathy readily – even if you did not come to then naturally and were created whole, as with golem Joseph and cyborg Yod.
I keep coming back to the richness of Tivkah as the locale surrounding the story. A community, built on socialism, collaboration, and fierce anarchic independence. Tivkah is a Jewish city, the days and rituals and experience of the inhabitants within centre the normalcy of their daily lives as Jewish people. This is given further depth by the story Malkah tells for Yod about Joseph the golem. When Nili, a cybernetically enhanced woman from once-Israel, now a dead zone joins them for a time in their city and helps them to defend it, further layers to women, surviving, climate change, resistance, feminism, family and purpose are revealed.
The resolution of this book is one I found deeply satisfying, although it wasn’t an ending as such. Instead it felt like a change, where the people whose lives I’d followed for some time were about to embark on a new era of their lives, but the chapter for this part was over and it was time to part. I valued that and it is a significant part of the poignancy that I observed as part of the book. There is hope and optimism amidst the realism of living in a dystopia. But people live their lives, they do the best they can with what they have, they value the people and ideologies that are important to them. As do we all. Perhaps with less grace than those in the free city of Tivkah.
I had begun to think maybe I had lost the ability to appreciate deep books that you must read slowly, over a several days and sittings. This book is a compelling read, but it needs breaks – time to think between putting it down and picking it up. Life has to be lived in between reading pages, because it is a book that is about the everyday, about living life, the constraints and difficulties we all face – small and large. I learned in my reading of this book, that in depth, more demanding books are not lost to me, merely I must simply find the stories that are stories for me – and not dwell so much on stories that other people loved and I did not.
He, She and It is profound and I firmly believe one that will yield much more upon rereading. I loved the abiding feminism in this book where there were so many female characters and relationships between women in all kinds of ways. Women performed all kinds of roles, from the familial and maternal, to great scientific works, piracy, and military defence. The breadth of capability, of choice and recognition of both was startling and wonderful to me. And this is why I don’t think that this is a book of romance, despite that it is one of the plot arcs that is used to contextualise so much of the story. It is like having a spine in the human body – our spine does not define us, but it is critical and unique. Complexities surrounding relationships between parent and child, family in general are also similarly critical to the telling of this story – they are not less important than romantic relationships.
I loved this book, I count it among those I loved best in my reading this year. Although first published in 1991, He, She and It tells as compelling and profound a story in 2016 as it did when it was first published. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who loves a really good science fiction novel. Unlike many dystopian stories, this book is not at all grim, there is no constant sense of doom. Instead, this book is about life, living and problem-solving as well as possible in a future where technology is rampant and equal parts the solution and the problem to the climate change-ravaged future portrayed.