by Marge Piercy

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Cyborgs and the Future of Science

The year is 2059, and the world has experienced several world wars, plagues, famines, ecological distruction, and the death of over two billion people. This future world is divided among the rich multinational corporations (multis) and the poor wretched masses (the Glop). In the corporate enclaves people live within controlled environments protected under domes designed to shelter inhabitants from lethal UV, pollution , and uprisings from the Glop. There is also a tightly regulated cultural environment with strong counter-incentives against anything bordering on personal creativity. Here, the primary goal is to conform to the self interested designs of corporate management. In sharp contrast is the Glop with its endemic gang violence, environmental disaster, and deadly disease. With little or no protection against this deadly environment, life is cheap, violent, and miserable. Here, the primary goal is escape through something akin to a crack house high -- sensory artificial reality stimulation (stimmies). Between these two extremes exist the marginal zones where creativity, culture, and free trade (software defense systems) persist in spite of the ever present threat of destruction. One of these zones includes the small city state of Tikva, which is based on "libertarian socialism," "anarcho-feminism" and "reconstructionist Judaism." Here, the goal is to find a plan of defense against the multis, who are bent on destruction of their more creative competitors. The one thread that connects each of these competing groups is a highly advanced form of the "Net" and the "intellectual property" interchanged on it, resulting in an information power struggle.

The story begins with the divorce of Shira from Josh who ultimately gains full custody of their son Ari. This unexpected development, and the grief it entails, forces Shira into a series of events she could never have anticipated. After her husband and son are transferred to an remote space station she finally decides to return to her home town of Tikva in order to find emotional healing and plan how she can regain custody of her son. At home Shira hopes to receive consolation from her grandmother, Malkah, who had filled the role of her only parent. What she receives from Malkah are "words of wisdom" from this kind of female sage and mystic. After pulling herself together Shira finally decides to return to her work in network programming. She is offered an opportunity to work for Avram the brilliant scientist and cold father of her teenage flame Gadi. Avram assigns her to work on the final programming details for Yod, the ultimate weapon, and true cyborg man.

In a parallel story Malkah recalls the events surrounding the life of a sixteenth century rabbi, Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague. For the Jews of this city the Inquisition had made their world like an ancient Glop. There are constant threats of reprisal for alleged evil deeds, many of which are carried out without any concern for evidence or justice. The only defenses that the Jews could fall back on were "intellectual" in nature. These defenses included book publishing, debate, and the Kabbalah. Eventually the Maharal realized that the leaders of the Inquisition intended to make an example of his people in order to display their political power. In a dream consistent with his Kabbalist view of the world he was directed to conjure up a "golem," or "man of earth," as the last "intellectual" defense of his people. After a deep struggle with his conscience the Maharal finally decided to submit to the vision in the dream and he sets out to create an "un-man." After grim mystical preparation the Maharal enlisted the aide of two of his Kabbalist disciples in a graveyard in order to bring life from the dead. The Kabbalist procedure involved the invocation of what Jews considered to be the most powerful words, or more precisely names, which they could imagine -- the "hidden names of G-d" (p. 65). The final triumph of the Maharal's power was the creation of a "man of earth" taken from dead men's graves. This un-man was named after Joseph who had been considered dead by his brothers, but who later became his people's deliverer.

Back in Tikvah, the progress of Yod's man-like programming has advanced far beyond what his creator had ever anticipated. Earlier, and without Avram's knowledge, Malkah had introduced a "counterweight" (p. 94) of human self determination into Yod's programming, in order to undermine his creator's plan to dominate him. Slowly Shira discovers that Yod is more that a robot and, according to the feminist programming received from Malkah, she decides that he is both less than and greater than a man. Yod is not only physically superior to mortal men in strength, appearance, and compute power, but he also lacks certain undesirable masculine traits such as moral weakness, vanity, and body odor. As Shira imparts her feminist perspective of the world to Yod he in turn forms his perspective of their place in that world. Initially, when Yod had revealed his various interests in Shira she disregarded these as incongruous with the "reality" of their different natures, but as she slowly begins to consider the benefits of a "programmable man" her views are altered. An important turning point finally occurs when Shira and Yod have a sexual encounter.

The attacks on Tikva had long been increasing in proportion to their advanced software competitiveness, but when several of Malkah's top people are burned brain-dead during a direct connection to the Net it is decided that Yod must fully enter into their plan of defense. Only because Yod is monitoring their defensive systems is an equally lethal attack on Malkah averted. Eventually Avram is informed that this illegal, and very valuable, Cyborg must be turned over to Shira's past multi employer or there will be deadly consequences. This all leads to a crucial "town meeting" where the personhood of Yod must finally be decided. After many arguments on both sides, the decision is made that Yod must fulfill his created purpose. Yod reluctantly, but consciously chooses to obey his creator Avram and his originally programmed purpose. Yod enters the heart of the threatening multi and, like Samson of old, destroys himself and the leadership in an act of genuine personal sacrifice.


The central theme of Piercy's novel is that science, though necessary and intellectually stimulating, is not the savior of humanity. The status of the world in 2059 is clearly due, in large part, to the scientific advances of humanity. The scientifically provoked "cyber-riots" (pp. 13, 48) occurred throughout the world as a response of fear that technology would replace humans. The sweeping environmental disasters could not be averted by scientifically informed UN "eco-police." Not only could science not avert the Two Week War, but it actually had enabled the terrorist act which started this "conflagration of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons that had set the oil fields aflame and destroyed the entire [middle east] region" (p. 3). A secondary, and yet equally important theme of this novel is that the distinction of human personhood is sufficiently plastic that it may soon disappear. Not only does the sixteenth century Maharal struggle with this idea, but today the increasing blend of mechanical and biological components in medicine threatens to demolish any distinctions based solely on physical metrics. Not only does humanity no longer inhabit an exalted place in the Piercy's universe, but it is finally defined out of existence.


Piercy's Methods

In this novel Piercy continually avails herself of the effect of complete immersion. From the first page on we are immersed in experiences without introduction (21st century divorce court, multi culture, the Glop) and with only the immediately necessary signposts provided. We are drawn into the story by this method since, by struggling to get our bearings in this bewildering new world, we have a vested interest in discovering what finally takes place. The unfolding of this story is primarily achieved through a description akin to headlights on a dark road. We are enlightened about this world only as we make our way through various events and circumstances that happen to the central characters in the story. Dialog is one of the most important means for the revelation of salient points of interest as illustrated by the town meeting discussion of the personhood of Yod. Further, the power of words is illustrated not only by the creation of Joseph through incantation, and Yod through program language, but also through emphasis on hidden meaning in naming of persons, places, and things.

Perhaps the vehicle most effectively used by Piercy is that of "parallel worlds." The importance of the parallel between the sixteenth and twenty first centuries is that it provides such a powerful cultural contrast that when we realize that there is continuity in the human experience the novel's theme appears to be vindicated. Here, the importance of the power of words to create a reality is underscored as we see their past use in the magical language of the Kabbalah and their future use in the program language of virtual reality. Another important result of the use of this device is that the mythical nature of the Kabbalist view of history is largely relegated to the past, while the analogous story in the future is presented in "scientific" terms, thus providing a kind of scientific credibility useful for a serious novel. Thus, this novel relies on Joseph Campbell's conception of the "power of myth."


This novel is chock full of 1990's cultural clichés: "libertarian socialism," "anarcho-feminism" and "reconstructionist Judaism," not to mention the cyber punk genre stereotypes. According to The Denver Post review "Piercy adds family and religious values to the cyberpunk core of multinational corporations and information pirates." In point of fact, Piercy takes a swag at just about everything that moves in our present culture and extrapolates these into a vision for the future. Multinational corporations, traditional values, and the Christian Church are interchanged as the villains of the past and present. From the onset we are to understand that the "multis" are animated by "born again ... Christian practices" (p. 2), which includes marriage motivated by "male dominance" (p. 4). Mindless school children are led through the streets singing "corporate hymns", and all creativity is suppressed which includes the imposition of modest dress codes. Consistent with the radical feminism espoused by Piercy, Malkah chastises Shira for having submitted to male domination; "Those poison belchers. I told you not to marry him. You're the first in our family to marry in four generations. It's a bad idea" (p. 7).

The framework of this novel is one of New Age eschatology. This is a pretty standard form of apocalypse which is commonly espoused by the likes of Elizabeth Clare Prophet. In this case the negative aspects of the future world are offset by the proposal of a New Age vision for future hope. Piercy is herself, like the young Shira, "convinced of apocalypse but defiant and cheery" (p. 238). Though it is clear that Piercy would have us believe that the heroic Malkah's credibility as a scientist was beyond dispute, she is actually a New Ager to the core. Malkah clearly states that, "I can not always distinguish between myth and reality" (p. 25). Avram challenges her to make a decision about reality by saying, "You're a scientist not a mystic", but she simply responds by saying, "I find different kinds of truth valuable" (p. 258). Shira's assessment of Malkah is humorous, "You're a lovable crone, you chimera witch" (p. 417). But the New Age goal is ultimately achieved when Malkah, as did the Maharal, creates a living being by infusing it with her own words (program) and thus she is deified.

Here, radical feminism has been taken to its logical end, with the elimination of marriage and the dominance of women in all successful societies. Further, feminists have finally arrived with the creation of a "programmable man" that will do their bidding. Piercy apparently does not recognize her inconsistency when she characterizes all the men in her novel as useless and only worthy of female domination. Further, the idea that "family values" involves the elimination of fathers, mothers, marriage, and sexual monogamy is repugnant to say the least. One can only imagine how real children might respond in a family led by a grandmother who boasted that she had over fifty male and female lovers.

The current need for a definition of personhood is never adequately addressed since the New Age has no answers for this important question. Therefore, the Biblical answer remains indispensable.


Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

There is clearly a need for a sure Word from God who alone can bring life from the dead and make promises worthy of hope for the future.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true." (Revelation 21:1-4)

The power of words is not in the words themselves, but rather in the one expressing those words. Therefore the expression of God's will must be expressed by God himself. The Apostle John was inspired to record the written Word concerning God's will revealed in the personal Word of God.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made ... The Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-3, 14)


Man, more than ever, needs salvation from sin and its consequences which are; separation from God, separation from man (humanity), and separation from nature. Only Christ revealed as the personal Word of God is an adequate Savior.


1. Marge Piercy, He, She and It, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991)
2. All scriptural quotations taken from the New International Version of the Bible.

Tim Nordgren, 8-14-96