Fairly Major Spoilers Below
As you may imagine, people recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. So for a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. I decided I needed to be a little more lenient on that one. So I started a new list from which to pick, of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.
A friend loaned this to me, telling me one of her profs had told her it was cyberpunk, and she hadn't been enthralled with it. I've read at least one other Marge Piercy, and for the most part, enjoyed this one, although there were some issues that I've seen in both books so far that I'll get to in a minute. But first of all, let's address genre. Is this really cyberpunk? I would tend to fall on the side of no, not really, although there are some elements of classic cyberpunk in there. But instead, I would classify as a late entry into that genre of feminist science fiction that flourished in the 1970s and 1980s. In this case, Jewish socialist feminist science fiction. It's an interesting mix.
Why am I bothering to split hairs over this one? Because I think cyberpunk is used too thoughtlessly, applied to books that I don't think it belongs with. It's a lazy box in which to chuck things. Body modification? Must be cyberpunk! Big evil corporations? Must be cyberpunk! And both of those things are undoubtedly features of cyberpunk. But they aren't exclusive to it.
And what I keep coming back to is the punk part of the equation. There's a feel to cyberpunk, a sort of gritty cynicism. The world is fucked, and nobody's trying to make it a better place. Are you kidding? They're all trying to scrape by in a world beyond their control. There are variations on this to be sure, but that feeling of a punk reaction is something that I think is definitive about the genre.
And so, a book like John Varley's The Golden Globe has body modification, sure. Transhumanism, even. But it's this exuberant book about the theatre, about an actor/conman on the lam, and his lifestory. It's sometimes heartbreaking, but it's got none of the feel of cyberpunk. And in He, She, and It, we have the big evil corporations, but we also have little enclaves trying to experiment with socialism, and working with inner-city groups to fight the power, bring down the corporations, make real change in the world. That's not cyberpunk either, by my lights.
In a world not that far ahead of our own, corporations do own most of everything, although there are small enclaves of small alternative societies, and a huge mass of humanity in slums like the one in the middle of North America called The Glop. Shira works for one of the major corporations, but when she is stripped of her custody of her young son, she leaves and returns to her home, a small Jewish socialist enclave on the East Coast. There, she finds that her grandmother and the father of her childhood lover have been dabbling in forbidden cyborg technology. This has yielded one that finally seems to work and be stable - Yod. The parallels to the golem of Prague are overt, as Makva, Shira's grandmother, tells Yod the story of the original golem over the course of the book. As their small town comes under increasing attack, Yod must juggle what he was made for, the protection of the community, against his own desires.
For the most part, this is pretty good. There are some thoughtful things here, and the story was well-told. But Piercy has to stop writing these staggeringly naive characters into her science fiction. They bug the hell out of me. In Woman on the Edge of Time, I excused it because Connie wasn't a science fiction reader, and had been plunged into an entirely new society. So if she had weird and dumb assumptions, you could kind of understand.
Shira has no such excuse. She grew up in this world, went through the corporate hierarchy, knows how things work. So, after the computer systems of her village were attacked by the corporation she'd just left, nearly killing her grandmother, after knowing that the corporation would be very interested in this cyborg technology that Yod contains, knowing everything about this, to then respond to a corporate request for a meeting with her with "Maybe they have no ulterior motive! Maybe it's utterly unconnected to everything THAT JUST HAPPENED 24 HOURS AGO! Maybe they're just going to give me my son back, and presumably milk and cookies!" is mind-numblingly stupid.
I hate it when characters are written as theoretically smart, but then do incredibly dumb things just to advance the plot. It's lazy plotting, and infuriating.
This is frustrating, because there was little else I didn't like about the book. I just hated it when the author decided to rely on character idiocy instead of clever plotting or writing. Shira could have been a bit naive. That would be fine. But no one is that naive. Certainly no one who has been through what she's been through.
I'm also a little ambivalent about the ending. It becomes apparent through the book that much of this is about parenting and wanting to control your children, what they do, who they become. Yod suffers most from this, because Ari, his creator, literally thinks he owns Yod, his time, the products of his labour, not to mention what he thinks. And that he should have the power to destroy Yod if he deems necessary, something he actually laments not being able to do to the son he begot in the usual ways. Makva is a better parent to her granddaughter, as she doesn't try to control Shira or who she is.
Huge Spoilers Dead Ahead
So at the end, Shira's choice doesn't sit well. She decides not to create another cyborg because she will want to control him into becoming her perfect lover and husband. She can't envision making a cyborg in circumstances in which she wouldn't try to control him the same way Ari did Yod. Which, if you extend it to the parenting metaphor that the book is heavy with, is sort of a cynical thing to say about having children, and isn't borne out in how actual children are raised. If you have accepted that a cyborg like Yod has consciousness, why not create and let him find his own path? What is it about machinery that makes that inconceivable? That part of it is insufficiently explored, and so, her final conclusion seems as short-sighted as everything else she does in the book.
So, in summation, there were things I really liked about this book, although one of the main characters annoyed the hell out of me when she suddenly decided not to know anything about anything. Repeatedly. But it's not cyberpunk.