By Melody Xu
Collage by Alex Hanson, using the cover art from He, She, and It
The year is 2059. After the Two Week War of 2017 which nearly destroyed human civilization as we know it, the world is now run by twenty-seven enterprises — commonly referred to as the multis — which have formed their own social hierarchies and standards of living. However, most of the population lives in the barren and nearly destroyed world (the glop) that exists outside of the multis’ enclave, a place that is overrun by poverty and crime. Despite the huge gap between the rich and the poor, technology has never been more advanced. People in this new world communicate by plugging themselves into machines and projecting themselves into Cyberspace. This is the world of He, She, and It.
In this 1991 cyberpunk novel by Marge Piercy, the story starts with artificial intelligence expert Shira, who lives in one of these multis, Yakamura-Stichen (Y-S), losing custody of her son Ari to her ex-husband in an emotional custody battle. Afterwards, she decides to live the heavily controlled confines of Y-S in order to return to her hometown of Tikva (which means hope in Hebrew). Tikva is one of the few last “free towns” left in the world, remaining unallied with any of the twenty-seven corporations. However, in Piercy’s future world, where information is even more precious than gold, Tikva has been under the attack of “information pirates”, dangerous computer programmers set on unlocking the secrets of the town’s mainframe. The cyborg Yod was illegally created for the single reason of combating these attacks. However, before Yod can protect the city to his full capacity, the cyborg must be able to pass as a human and Shira is tasked to help it with its socialization. During their time together, they eventually fall into a romantic relationship and become allies in both fighting to protect Tikva and for custody of Avi again.
However, this is far from just a simple cybernetic love story. He, She, and It packs a punch. Yod is the tenth cyborg in a line of failed experiments at creating such an entity and the book’s constant mentions of his feelings and actions constantly bring up the same question that is just as relevant now just as it was when this book was published: What makes us human?
In the book, Shira tells Yod, “We are all made of the same molecules, the same set of compounds, the same elements. You’re using for a time some of earth’s elements and substances cooked from them. I’m using others. The same copper and iron and cobalt and hydrogen go round and round and round through many bodies and many objects” and his smile in response was just as human as any other character’s, “warm, complex, … with a hint of sadness” (page 185).
Apart from the existential crisis that reading this book invokes, it also examines the idea of gender roles quite thoroughly. The heroine of the novel, Shira, comes from a matrimonious town, where the tradition is that the grandmother is responsible for caring for the granddaughter. Halfway through the novel, we encounter the brilliant (excuse me if I’m gushing but I promise that it’s 100% worth gushing over) Nili, who comes from a now nuclear-devastated Palestine, a society consisting solely of biotechnologically enhanced women. Shira spends the length of the book relearning how to love again and gaining a sense of her power and position in the world. Her grandmother, Malkah, who plays a prominent role in the protection of Tikva and had a major role in the creation of Yod, is a tough woman who is sexually active and technologically brilliant, remaining a constant pillar of strength and admiration throughout the novel.
The main plot is interwoven artfully with Shira’s grandmother, Malkah, telling stories about Jewish ghetto life in the seventeenth century to Yod. The stories involve the creation of the the golem Joseph, created from clay by Rabbi Judah Loew in order to protect the Jewish community from Christian attacks. In giving Yod the history of its “ancestor” in Joseph, Malkah is able to connect the story of man-made life to her own role in creating an artificial life, invoking in the reader the question of what it means to be human in two equally illuminating and thought-provoking narratives.
While the novel can be confusing at times, jumping from past to present in chapter and introducing new terms and details with every page, it is these same qualities that allow the reader to be fully absorbed in Marge Piercy’s brilliant world. Piercy’s vivid and complex future, as told through the alternating female narratives of Shira and Malkah, is one that keeps you spellbound from the first word to the last.