As you can probably surmise from the huge collection of tags I've attached to this book, there is A LOT of stuff going on here!
Even the structure of t...moreAs you can probably surmise from the huge collection of tags I've attached to this book, there is A LOT of stuff going on here!
Even the structure of this book is complex and multifaceted: two stories, told by two narrators, in alternating chapters. The first narrator is Shira Shipman, a young, upper-middle-class Jewish woman who has recently become a wife and mother. Her life is also almost completely controlled by her employer, a huge biotechnology corporation, not only because they have a very strict, conformist corporate culture (there are even rules, unwritten of course, dictating how women of varying degrees of seniority within the company should dress), but also because Shira lives in what is essentially an upscale version of the company town: it's like a sealed-off, climate-controlled suburb/office park where everyone in the middle and upper ranks of salaried workers and management lives and works. Shira's narration, especially in the early chapters, is therefore suffused with nervousness, and a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, since her husband has recently been promoted and their family moved into a bigger, nicer house. Shira is certain there must be a catch, since she knows she's not exactly a team player, and not exactly in her bosses' good graces.
When the other shoe does drop, Shira packs up and leaves, heading to a place that's the polar opposite of the stuffy corporate-controlled environment she's just fled: it's a free Jewish settlement out in the middle of nowhere, unaffiliated with any of the major corporations that dominate this denuded, radiation-spoiled future Earth. Her grandmother (who brought her up) lives there, and she soon learns that her mother, who left her when she was born, is also coming to stay there. She also soon finds that her grandmother and the father of one of her childhood friends are working on something mysterious and fantastical: a robot that looks, talks thinks and feels exactly like a person, but has superhuman physical and mental abilities.
This robot, who is named Yod (a letter in the Hebrew alphabet; Aleph through Tet were his predecessors, all but one scrapped because of horrible, sometimes deadly, flaws), might be the most interesting character in this novel. That's saying a lot, because this novel is stuffed to the gills with interesting characters. Unfortunately, Shira Shipman isn't one of them --- that's the biggest thing that disappointed me about this book, that practically all of the real-time narration is done by the most boring character. (The other narrator, Shira's grandmother Malkah, spends almost all of her chapters telling the story of the seventeenth-century Rabbi Judah Loews --- also called "the Maharal" --- who created the Golem to protect his people, living as they did in the ghetto of Prague, where Christian mobs could attack them at will. This story is also hugely interesting, but because it's all very external to Malkah herself, the reader doesn't spend as much time in her mind as they do in Shira's. And that's a pity, because Malkah's mind seems like a fun place.) Yod owes his moral and emotional complexity entirely to Malkah's programming; her involvement may well have been the thing that saved Yod from the fate of all the failed attempts before him.
(And now, a random note on terminology: Yod is not a cyborg. There are some cyborgs in this book, but Yod is an android. Cyborgs are people who have been technologically augmented; androids are humanlike technological constructs. Carry on, then.)
Chaos ensues once people outside the tight circle of people who've been working on "the project" learn about Yod and his abilities. There's a lot of corporate-espionage type stuff, amped up by both the apparent absence of laws in this future world (assassination raids, abduction and hostage-taking are apparently standard practice), and the immersive nature of the "cyberspace" the denizens of the free settlement must navigate to earn their livelihood, since they specialize in cybersecurity. (Cybersecurity being very important in this world, what with all the aforementioned corporate espionage.)
This conception of cyberspace --- a three-dimensional "space" that you, virtually embodied as an avatar, move around in to talk to other people, download data, build firewalls or "patrol" existing firewalls looking for signs of intrusion --- is pretty much ripped from the pages of William Gibson's novels, as is the anarchic, impoverished megacity in which Everyone Else (i.e., the poor and the non-corporate) lives. "The Glop" (from "megalopolis," which is one of my favorite science-fiction neologisms ever, and one of the minority that seems like real people might use it) looks a lot like a lower-tech version of the Sprawl from Gibson's novels; Marge Piercy even acknowledges this debt in an afterword.
Derivative as all this is, I still found the worldbuilding in this book to be pretty solid. It helps that Piercy spends most of her time developing settings that aren't the Glop or corporate bubbles: her most original, most interesting "world" is the small, tight-knit community of Tikva, which marries freedom and openness with airtight security and a technological specialization that basically buys them their autonomy. (As in, every major corporation wants to buy their firewalls, so they all tolerate the upstart little city-state's existing outside any one of their control). It's a really interesting, well-realized picture of an intentional community, with a sharp focus on day-to-day survival in an uncertain world.
Another juxtaposition this settlement (and the book as a whole) tries to embody is that of future and past. Everyone in Tikva is a practicing Jew, and Jewish religious and cultural identity are just as integral to the place's cohesion and survival as its cutting-edge technology.
But the best thing, in a novel where everything is done amazingly well, has got to be the characters. I did not find Shira very interesting, but almost every other character who was in the book for longer than a scene or two was absolutely fascinating. And even Shira, though boring (to me), was well-developed, believable and even relatable. She evolves over the course of the book, and we see a lot of different aspects of her character: her feelings of confusion and betrayal when she has to confront her mother for the first time, and her slow metamorphosis from a closed-off, emotionally stunted, timid woman to someone bold, spontaneous and loving, which coincides with her finally moving past a schoolgirl crush on another character. And Yod! Yod is an absolutely masterful work of creation; he's not human, exactly, and he's also not male in the way that a man is male (psychologically, that is; physically he's quite male), but he is certainly a person, and despite the title he is not an "it." (His ambiguous status comes up when he wants to participate in some ritual, I forget which, that is restricted to Jewish men. He wants to be considered, not just human, not just a man, but specifically a Jewish man). His emotions were about half familiar to me (as an autistic person, I am well acquainted with the angst of wondering whether one is really human or not) and half alien (he was made for violence, and takes a predatory delight in it that bothers the moral and relational parts of his psyche), and all beautifully described and conveyed through his confused-but-eloquent speech and his halting, work-in-progress manner. He's definitely one of my favorite non-human characters I've ever encountered.(less)