[Book Review] He, She and It

He, She and It / Marge Piercy

Shira Shipman has worked hard to build her life within the corporate-run society she lives.  But when the multi she works for awards custody of her son to her ex-husband everything falls apart and she returns home to the town she grew up in with her grandmother, a gifted programmer, to work for a friend of the family on a secret project.  As Shira fights to regain her son and to rebuild her life she explores what it means to be human, and what we use to define ourselves.

He, She and It was the November pick for the Virtual Speculation Bookclub.  The book mixes a futuristic story with fable to explore a multitude of themes including environmentalism, gender, and identity.  This is actually the second "golem" story of the year, not a deliberate choice, but one that also matches up well with some of the other trends of this year's picks exploring identity and trans/post human existence.

Discussion Fodder:
  • Did Shira's actions actually hurt Josh?  Was the downfall of their marriage an interpersonal issue, or was their relationship guided all along by Y-S?
  • What do you think of the parallel stories of the Golem in the Jewish ghettos of 1600's Prague and Yod in the future town of Tikva in conflict with Y-S?
  • A golem traditionally is a man made of clay imbued with life by words.  Yod is a cyborg constructed with both artificial and biological components, imbued with life through code.  Do you consider him a golem, a robot, or other?  What prevents him from being human?  Is Yod alive?  How different are Yod and Nili?
  • What do you think about the gendering of Yod?  Does Yod read to you as gendered beyond his physical attributes?  Shira comments at various points that, at least in regards to sex, he's more "female."  What do you think about Malkah's virtual relationships in different genders?  How does one shape their gender in a virtual or artificial environment?
  • When Shira asks Yod if he feels any kinship to a sweeper bot he responds that "You're as closely related biologically to that fish as I am to that cleaning robot."  Do you think that is an accurate description of the "kinship" between a fully intelligent and functional cyborg and a automated robot?
  • Gadi compares Yod to Frankenstein's monster. Is that an apt comparison?  Was it a cruelty to Yod?
  • On the virtual assault on Y-S the must change form and substance to survive, including into fire.  Is this reminiscent of the classic shape-changer's battle?  How does the needs for adaptation and blending reflect on the larger story?
  • Yod is programmed to enjoy and seek certain activities, but as he brings up, so are humans.  How does the 'programming' we receive from society and family differ from the programming of a truly sentient AI?  How do we try to program the people around us?
  • How does the sense of ownership and belonging effect how we form relationships?  Shira wonders how seriously she can take her relationship with Yod as long as is the property of Avram, but how does the 'belonging' of a person effect the relationships you form?
  • One common issue with automated weapons is the inability to make human or moral judgements.  What, then, are the ethical issues that arise when you imbue a machine with a conscious and order it to kill?
  • Did Shira make the right choice in ultimately not re-creating Yod?  What reasoning is most important in deciding this?

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