Marge Piercy: Science Fiction as Prophetic Vision

[Marge Piercy's novel He, She and It (Knopf, 1991) appeared almost 20 years ago. My review appeared in Tikkun magazine in 1992. During the years, since, many aspects of her novel have loomed more prescient –- even prophetic in the sense not of prediction but of accurate warnings spoken by the Spirit.

[Anyone concerned with corporate domination, with global scorching, with feminism, with Middle East peace, with the renewal of Jewish peoplehood and Judaism, with the deeper meaning of computer technology and "artificial intelligence," with Kabbala, with the nature of humankind -- will be drawn to think and feel more deeply by reading her novel. And as I wrote then, it is a novel – joy and sorrow in tales of love and failure, moral conflicts embodied in four-dimensional human brings.

[After the review itself, I have added a note on my own relationship to the book that I did not discover till years later. My review follows.]

Androgyny and Beyond: He, She and It by Marge Piercy

I began to read science fiction when I was twelve years old, just a few months after the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima, and I've never stopped. It wasn't gee-whiz gadgets that attracted me; it was the dark visions and the rainbow cloudbursts of imagined social transformation, dystopian and utopian. My commitment to healing the world has been shaped as much by science fiction as by those other Prophetic writers whom I discovered much later -- Isaiah, Marx, Buber, Heschel.

All that time I have been waiting for Marge Piercy's new book. Not quite consciously waiting, you understand. Not even in my dreams could I have created this book, but in my heart and kishkes, I've been waiting.

Nu, what is so delicious? First of all, it's Jewish science fiction. Feminist Jewish science fiction. Feminist Kabbalistic Jewish science fiction. Feminist Kabbalistic kibbutznik Jewish science fiction.

Not just casually Jewish, but rooted in a sardonic version of Jewish mysticism and in the profoundly Jewish spiritual wrestle about what social justice means in a world where the Messiah is ever-coming, ever-vanishing.

Feminist, yes, like all of Piercy's work. The story of the Golem of Prague – that famous artificial "human" being clumsily created by a great rabbi five centuries ago -- is at the heart of Piercy's tale. But the Golem takes a different form when his tale is for the first time told by a woman, Malkah, one of Piercy's heroines. The communitarian ethos of the kibbutz is the air that Piercy's story breathes, but the kibbutz is a different place when it is transformed by a feminist politics and culture. And the science of "artificial intelligence" is transformed by a feminist outlook.

Piercy's kibbutz arises not in Israel but on the surviving hills of what we know as Boston. Surviving because much of the American coastline has been inundated by a new Flood, a surge of ocean from the melted ice caps, the result of global warming. It's the mid-twenty-first century, and a lot we take for granted is gone.

The United States, for instance. It collapsed, like the -- what was it? –oh yeah, the Soviet Union. The world is ruled by several gigantic corporations that have divided it into feudal fiefdoms. There are a few free cities, and the free Jewish town of Tikva (Hope) is one of them.

The Middle East has also vanished. Not just a government or two, a sovereignty or two, but the entire region, oil fields and fig trees and mountain goats and peoples. It's the Black Zone now, an empty blotch on the map. Jerusalem is a wilderness of fused green glass, the thermonuclear casualty that set off a totally ruinous bio-chemical-nuclear war.

It turns out that there may be secret survivors -- is anybody as stubborn and tenacious as Israelis and Palestinians? As women? But that's a thread for you to follow when you read the book.

Piercy does give us some gee-whiz gadgets: computer networks deft enough to create planetary virtual realities, through which the corporations can struggle to invade Tikva, through which Tikva can struggle to defend itself, and through which people who explore them can transform themselves -- and die. And cyborgs -- cybernetic organisms, fusions of computer programming and biology, real live quasi-humans, with intelligence for sure, and maybe, just maybe, with free will. Or maybe not.

Can a cyborg be a citizen and vote in the town meeting of Tikva? Can a cyborg be a Jew and count in a minyan? And here is the neat and powerful question posed by Piercy's fusion of feminism with science fiction: Who or what is a creature that is programmed with both a woman's and a man's mentality? Can a spiritual androgyne be a human? Or is the real question whether anyone who is not androgynous can be fully human?

Piercy's androgynous cyborg may be the only fully human creature in the world. His name -- in outward anatomy this cyborg is fully male, though inwardly also the He/She/It of the title -- is Yod, the name of the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (This model was the tenth in a series of attempts to build a useful cyborg.) But "Yod" is also the first letter of God's name, which is sometimes written as Yod-Yod. And it is close to the Yid that in Yiddish is the generic word for Jew.

Note the wonderful linguistic problems that Piercy introduces. Yod is the newest model of a cyborg, like the latest car, clearly an invention, a machine. Yet Yod has overtones of the ultra-human, much more fully in the Divine Image than anyone since the original Adam, who was made in Our Image, said God, in the Image of God, male and female, androgynous as God is androgynous. He, She and It.

This is a novel of ideas, but not only of ideas. By introducing a being who is both male and female, both human and machine, Piercy has jiggled and joggled the relationships of all the characters. Not only the ideas, but the people, are delicious. They make love, they get jealous, they fight for custody of their children and for control of their creations, they rebel against their bosses and comply with the rules, they take risks and die and go half-mad with grief.

The book is told from the alternating standpoints of Malkah, a tough and gentle grandmother who is sexually alive and technologically ingenious, and Shira, her bright and frightened granddaughter who is relearning her way toward love and a sense of her own power in the world. It is Malkah who has made sure that Yod has a full womanly as well as manly programming, and who searches for some way to tell him of his own ancestors. (Notice how Jewish is this desire: "Tell it to your child on that day," says the Passover Haggada.)

But who, or what, is the ancestor of a cyborg? Malkah decides it is the Golem of medieval Prague, that doomed subhero to whom, in Jewish legend, the great Rabbi Judah Loew gave life and a mission to protect the Jewish people from pogroms. The story enters Yod's consciousness at a level quite different from computer programming, a level that involves what seems to be free will; and after hearing the story, Yod assumes the triumph and tragedy of carrying the Golem's being to a higher level.

This transmutation of the Golem story becomes a metaphor for Piercy's own work. If the Golem is Yod's ancestor, then the Golem story is ancestor to Piercy's novel. Piercy in effect both locates the Golem story as a kind of early Jewish science fiction, and places her own work in the stream of mythic Judaism.

The Golem story operates at a philosophical-existential level as well as at a social-political level. Philosophically, it puts the human race in the role of Creator God -- shaping a quasi-human creature as God shapes humans in the divine image. By confronting our thoughts and feelings about the quasi-human Golem, we face, in a profound way, the question of what it means to be human. Are we merely robots programmed by the universe, by billions of years of chemical and biological and social evolution? Do we somehow replicate within us the grandeur of that process? Are we free and sacred, or are we mere blind products of that blind production? Piercy's book, with its Golem beyond the Golem, its quasi-human who may even be ultra-human, poses an even sharper question. Do we, facing Yod, feel admiration? Fear? Disgust? Love? Laughter? How, then, do we look to the infinite, ironic Eye of all the universe?

For powerless medieval Jews, the story of the Golem served as a wish-fulfillment fantasy of a world in which Jews could defend themselves. Similarly, He, She and It is a fantasy of a world where women can shape society. Such works can become more than a wistful fantasy; they can serve a political purpose, pointing the way toward action. He, She and It provides that inspiration; along with the rest of Piercy's fiction and poetry, this novel is a constant encouragement toward the repair and healing of the world. In the past fifteen years, a number of such works have emerged from the feminist ferment, so many that Marleen Barr, the critic and scholar of science fiction, has suggested that they constitute a new kind of writing that she calls feminist fabulations.

Piercy has worked in this genre before: Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970), written before the Weatherpeople existed, imagined the joy and the disaster that the emergence of a million such people would bring upon America. And Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) spoke from the standpoint of a Chicana who is experiencing three worlds simultaneously: the oppressive present in a New York mental hospital, a glorious feminist future, and a nightmarish ultra-male-fascist future.

What is new about He, She and It is the organic fusion of these themes with a Jewish consciousness that is both cultural and spiritual. I say organic because Piercy does not just plunk down the Jewish and the feminist alongside each other. Her depiction is more complex.

See it this way: If her novel were a photograph, feminism and Jewish re- newal could be seen side by side, and therefore could be cut apart to create two separate photographs. But the kind of image that comes to a reader's eye as it takes in Piercy's work is more like a hologram than a photograph.

In every section of a hologram, information is encoded about the entire picture. If you cut up a hologram, each part can replicate the whole. What you see will be a fuzzier image, since some information is lost; but the missing elements will consist of fine detail throughout, rather than a section in its entirety.

In Piercy's picture, we do not simply see feminist Judaism over here and Jewish spiritual renewal over there. Feminism has suffused the new spirituality, and the new spirituality has suffused feminism. And this is true about the wider society as well as its Jewish microcosm. Tikva's feminism is presented as the sort of feminism that would speak not only to Jews but also to Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, or secularists; not only to women but also to men.

Why? Because Tikva's feminism has been infused with an earthy spirituality that has itself been infused with feminism. The very fact of Tikva's Jewish specificity is seen as earthy and rooted rather than imperial and ethereal. The Jewish concern for what is intimate, communal, practical, celebratory, now enriched by feminism, beckons to the larger society to create its own earthy, rooted, feminist spiritualities.

In Piercy's science fiction, the Utopias and dystopias exist alongside each other; they are, indeed, intertwined. It is the computerized corporate feudalism of the global-warming world that has given rise to Tikva. This is perhaps more like a messianic than a Utopian vision, for Messiah is always in flow: As the dreadful danger changes, it gives rise to a transformative alternative. So her worlds are neither prettified nor merely apocalyptic. Always, there is both the Flood and the Ark, both a need for change and space for change.

In this sense, Piercy's approach recalls the two-sided mission of Jeremiah: to uproot and tear down, to build and to plant. But she tries to in-spirit the building and planting in a way that Jeremiah and most writers of science fiction do not: she speaks in the idiom of everyday life. Her poems and novels celebrate the most intimate matters of bedroom and kitchen and workplace. She knows that these private places both embody in the present and give rise in the future to tikkun olam, the repair and healing of the public world. That is why this novel of ideas is also a novel of relationships, bodies, and people.

What effect does this have upon readers? In most science fiction and in most prophetic writing, the life experience of the readers is deeply distant from the lives of the actors in the story; but not in Piercy's work. Her characters are recognizably human, not Wonder Women with magic bullet-deflecting bracelets or prophets fortified by God's walls of brass and iron. Piercy lets her readers see people like themselves, who can make change happen, so her readers can come to see themselves as agents of change.

It is precisely when Piercy's work is at its earthiest that it is the most political. If politics is the process by which people are moved to change society, then Piercy's approach lets her reach out with a loving political touch to those who read her work.

Many readers of the 1990s will recognize in this approach the feminist teaching that the personal is political. But Piercy's vision is more communal, and less individual than most feminist thought has taken the personal to be. In this way, Piercy's world echoes the history of Jewish life during much of the last two thousand years, the ghetto life of a shared communal practice in the private, everyday spheres of home and neighborhood. She acknowledges that world with her free Jewish town of Tikva and her tale-within-a-tale of the ghetto of Prague.

But just as Yod the cyborg is the Golem-with-a-difference, so Tikva is the ghetto-with-a-difference. For the ghettos of the Middle Ages had no hope of transforming the world. That ancient Jewish vision, the prophetic vision, had been turned inward: in the face of Rome, the Church, Islam, it is hopeless for us to change the world; let us build a decent society of our own, within the ghetto walls. But Tikva sees itself as a ghetto with a mission, a part of a world struggle, not only vulnerable to the feudal corporations, but challenging them as well.

How can Piercy dare to see a tiny Jewish town in such a bold light? I think it is because her Jewishness and her feminism fuse into a new vision. The Jews are too few to shake the world; women are many. Women are too diffuse and too diverse to make a counter-community; Jews know how. Counting noses on the face of the earth, the Jews are just about the tiniest imaginable community with a transformative vision; women could be the largest. But they cannot transform the earth alone, and they cannot transform it if they work alone, as individuals.

Piercy is saying that women must create communities of women and men in conscious connection with the earth, communities that are intimate and participatory, that so thoroughly share an approach to work, sexuality, money, and spirituality that they can stand together against the powers that be.

The struggle to heal the world may well take generations, Piercy warns, during which time even more of the world may be deeply wounded. An ancient Jewish wisdom for a wider human future: Only painful birth pangs can give birth to the days of Messiah.

Years after the publication of this review, years after Piercy had taught several summers at the Elat Chayyim retreat center where Phyllis Berman (not yet a rabbi) was the director of the summer program, Phyllis and I had Marge as a visitor for dinner. The conversation turned to He, She and It, and I said again how much I loved it.

Marge said, "Did you ever notice that at the end of the book, among the Acknowledgements, I thanked you?" "Yes," I said, "But I never understood it. It said something about my having clued you into some aspects of Kabbalah, but I can't remember doing that – or even in those days, being able to."

"Yes," she said. "Do you also remember that way back in the mid-'60s, I was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where you were a Resident Fellow?"

"Yes," I said, scrunching up my face to recall. "So?"

"You asked people at IPS to look at about 50 pages of a novel you were trying to write. It began with a nuclear attack that destroyed Jerusalem and led to the collapse of both the USSR and the USA, and it included the creation of an independent Jewish commonwealth in New England."

"Oh My God! Yes, it was around 1965. I was trying to write a novel in the form of letters from and to a future me. I called it "Notes from 1999." I remember I imagined my grown-up daughter killed in Jerusalem. I never got anywhere with the book."

"I know. But I kept the idea as a seed in my head, and it sprouted into He, She, and It."

"Ohhh. Oh. My. God.

"Thank God you wrote it. I couldn't write a novel. You could. You did. Thank God!"


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