Editors’ Note: Julie Rea’s work has appeared in several places, including The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Nude Bruce Review, BLYNKT, and Halfway Down the Stairs. She lives in the Philadelphia area, where she teaches and writes about life in a wheelchair and other fascinating subjects. You can follow her on Twitter @phillylitgrl. Her story “Lela and Bat” will be appearing in issue 10 of Broadswords and Blasters. If you’d like to submit an article, send us a pitch. Payment is one digital copy of your choice of any issue of Broadswords and Blasters.
He, She, and It by the amazingly prolific Marge Piercy (a poet and memoirist in addition to being a novelist), is a cyberpunk novel set in the near-future. It was originally published in 1991 and won the 1993 Arthur C. Clarke prize for the Best Science Fiction novel.
The book explores ethical issues related to artificial intelligence, anticipating ethical issues related to the rights of sentient machines raised in the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica and the current television series Humans. Woven through He, She, and It is the tale of a creation of a golem to protect a persecuted Jewish community hundreds of years ago. The golem’s position parallels that of Yod, a cyborg designed to protect a twenty-first-century community threatened by one of the multi-national corporations that controls most of the wealth in the future. Yod is more than a protector; he is also a romantic interest to the protagonist, Shira, and the two have an intensely sexual relationship. Yod acts as a father figure to Shira’s child, but his instincts are maternal in nature. Yod’s relationship with Shira provides much of the drama of the book.
Yod’s internal conflict is quite fascinating: his sentience and his maternal and erotic instincts are at war with his other programming, which is to be a weapon to protect the community. Ultimately, Yod concludes it is morally wrong to strip free will from a sentient being. Something with consciousness should be able to object to labors asked of it on moral grounds. This point, of course, goes beyond the arena of AI.
This book rocks some feminist themes pretty hard. Almost all the characters in the novel are women. The few biological male characters play minor roles. And all of these women characters have extraordinary characteristics. Shira and her maternal grandmother are sophisticated computer programmers. Shira’s mother and her mother’s companion are pretty much bad-ass ninjas intent on overturning the massive wealth inequality that leaves most of the people on the planet suffering.
It is also notable that Piercy clearly had climate change on her mind when she wrote this book; the environmental horrors described are mostly due to the depletion of the ozone layer and nuclear radiation, as opposed to consequences of carbon emissions. Nevertheless, Piercy thirty years ago in this novel anticipated human society greatly adversely affected by climate change and considered how those who are less well-off suffer more in such circumstances.
As is maybe obvious by the above, the book is rich in themes. Piercy doesn’t skip on detail either. Perhaps as a consequence, the book is not a quick read. There’s plenty of action in the book, but the action scenes come and go rather quickly; what seems to linger are questions about what loving a cyborg means and other ethical issues. Definitely worth a read.