I’m surprised by how little I get to talk about robots on this blog.
This novel, like the first winner of the Clarke award, The Handmaid’s Tale, generally fell under most people’s “literary fiction” rubric – which meant that the other science fiction prizes ignored it. Regardless of both this fact and Piercy’s own efforts to distinguish herself from the genre, it does exemplify some of the trends of the era while making some classic sf observations.
The novel takes place in 2059. Global warming and pollution have ravaged the Earth (it’s like we’re back in the 70s!) making most of the planet’s surface unlivable. Corporations control a few domed livable spaces, there are a few utopian “free towns” with their own domes and socio-political structures, and then there are dystopian hellholes of rampant poverty like “the glop” that sprawls over most of the East Coast of North America. The central character, Shira Shipman, resigns from one of the corporate domes after a nasty divorce and retires to her home of Tivka, an idyllic little Jewish free-town in what was once Massachusetts. Once there, she learns that her grandmother Malkah has become involved in a project to construct a powerful and detailed humanoid robot (called a “cyborg” in the novel) known as Yod. Unfortunately, the creation of so humanoid a cyborg is illegal, and it also draws the interest of corporate saboteurs from Shira’s former employers. When Yod develops romantic feelings for Shira, things get even more complicated.
It’s a very nice character piece that creates a very rich environment for Shira. She has troubled or complicated relationships with her mother, ex-husband, ex-lover, her ex-lover’s father, her mother’s lover, and her son, and all of these come into play in interesting and believable ways as the novel goes on. Piercy gives us intermittent chapters narrated by Malkah that tell the story of a golem in Prague circa 1600 AD, and this story is a nice contretemps to Yod’s while being quite good in itself. The emotional world of the novel feels very real. I would say there’s a bit of romance wish-fulfillment in Yod – a strong, heroic, dependable, and devoted man who loves Shira and will always love her without wavering. Considering how often typically male fantasies have dominated sf, I don’t think I have any right to complain, especially since Piercy shows an acute awareness of this aspect of the novel.
It’s a good novel, but I’m not sure it’s as good a science fiction novel. I’m not trying to draw arbitrary genre lines here, but I do think the novel is good at examining its characters and not nearly as good at examining sf concepts. The people have texture and complexity; the ideas not as much. While the rapid environmental deterioration seems exaggerated and Piercy avoids the technological details of the simulated computer environments into which characters can readily slip, all of these aspects of the world are still richly realized. Honestly, I’d rather avoid the Stephenson-style explanation of virtual environments if it’s not a major plot point. But, I’m still left with the question of what this dystopian world does other than provide convenient challenges for the characters.
A larger problem in the same vain is with Yod himself. The question of whether a sentient robot has rights is one of the sf classics, from Capek’s invention of the concept to Asimov's stories in the 1940s to Star Trek’s Data in the years just before this novel came out. This novel doesn’t add to this debate – Piercy’s position seems to be “of course Yod is sentient because I say so and any of my characters who question his rights are stupid jerks.” That’s fine, I guess. She’s not doing a remake of an Asimov story; she’s telling Shira’s story. Still, I expected Piercy to have more to say about gender, especially considering the title. This is considered a work of feminist science fiction, but other than early depictions of the corporate world’s dismissal of Shira’s talents and rights as a mother, it’s much more about the politics of sex. There’s a lot of discussion of who’s had sex with whom and why, but not much of an examination of what that all means in this speculative world. There are even some references to Yod’s feminine aspects that seem somewhat reductive – being sensitive and wanting to be held are feminine aspects attributed to Malkah’s programming while we can blame Yod’s propensity for callous violence on his male builder, Avram. There’s not much discussion of how these roles are culturally constructed or how Yod’s existence changes our understanding of them.
In summation, it’s a strong tale with some of the finest character work you’ll find in sf, and I would recommend it. I just couldn’t escape the feeling that it could have been so much more.