He, She and It: My favorite science fiction novel

He, She and It by Marge PiercyHe, She and It by Marge Piercy

He, She and It by Marge Piercy is my all-time favorite science fiction novel. Though Marge Piercy is not considered a science fiction author, this work is clearly one of science fiction, particularly in the sub-genre of cyberpunk as it was shaped by William Gibson and other writers classified as “cyberpunk.” Piercy, after writing Woman On the Edge of Time, was told that parts of that novel anticipated cyberpunk; when Piercy asked what cyberpunk was, she was pointed in the direction of Gibson. Piercy writes: “I enjoy William Gibson very much, and I have freely borrowed from his inventions and those of other cyberpunk writers. I figure it’s all one playground.” She also acknowledges a debt to Donna Haraway’s fascinating essay “A Manifesto for Cyborgs.”

That Piercy borrows from Gibson and others does not make her work derivative in any way. He, She and It is an incredibly ambitious novel that is a compelling read even though it’s a complex blending of genres: Piercy touches on horror by rewriting Frankenstein, she works in the tradition of the Jewish-American novel by foregrounding Judaism, she continues to write feminist novels in keeping with her own work in the 1960s and ’70s, she incorporates an historical novel within the fabric of a futuristic fiction, she borrows from mass market romance novels aimed at women while blending it with the largely masculine world of mass market cyberpunk fiction, and she combines both utopian and dystopian literature used frequently in science fiction. I’m sure I could identify other literary and theoretical strands that she weaves together to create this intricate tapestry, but I think I’ve given enough to make clear how brilliant Piercy is in writing this novel.

The main character is Shira Shipman who, as the novel opens, is getting a divorce from her husband, Josh, who is granted custody of their only son, Ari. Shira, in depression at the loss of her son, leaves the dystopian space of the Y-S dome and travels home to the less oppressive, more environmentally-friendly Tikva to live in this more utopian world with her lively grandmother Malkah.

In Tikva, Shira eventually learns of the secret project being run by her childhood boyfriend’s father, Avram, the Frankenstein-figure of the story. It turns out that Avram, with the help of Malkah, has created an illegal cyborg named Yod. Yod looks so much like a human being that he fools Shira until she’s allowed in on the project to assist Malkah with the social side of Yod’s programming.

There are a number of other characters who matter, but what is most important is that Piercy sets up a series of oppositions: the masculine space of Y-S versus the feminine space of Tikva; Avram, Yod’s father-figure versus Malkah, his mother-figure; Shira versus her ex-husband Josh; and Shira’s childhood boyfriend Gadi versus Yod, Avram’s other son.

Through the interactions of these opposing characters, Piercy explores what it means to be a man and to be a woman, to be old and to be young, to be homosexual and to be heterosexual. And while she makes many arguments about these subjects in the course of the novel, her arguments are not didactic, a word I reserve for books that make simplistic arguments.

He, She and It is not a simplistic book: Piercy doesn’t come up with answers that are a product of dichotomous thinking. In other words, she doesn’t simply suggest that Man is bad and Woman is good or even that masculine is bad and feminine is good. Instead, she looks at a variety of qualities that contribute to any person’s identity and considers which of those qualities are good or bad for anybody be they male or female or IT. In fact, Piercy questions the entire concept of these binary oppositions upon which her thematic interests seem to be based. In other words, for every opposing He and She, there is an IT that suggests the opposition can’t be understood in a simplistic manner.

Let me explain by giving a concrete example: I’ve already mentioned the utopian space of Tikva and the dystopian space of Y-S. But there’s a third space in the novel (other than virtual reality): The Glop. The Glop is the place for all those without the money to live in a nice place: They are ones who do not fit in places like Y-S or Tikva (and we meet a wide variety of these characters, some good and some bad). The Glop is dangerous and it’s polluted. One doesn’t go to the Glop if one can help it. So, at a first glance, Y-S looks like heaven compared to the Glop, which would make the Glop the most dystopian space in the novel. However, as Piercy shows us, the Glop is the place that has the most revolutionary potential. Y-S, on the other hand, has eliminated that potential within its dome. In terms of plot, then, the Glop plays a role in the tension between Y-S and Tikva, preventing the story from being merely one about Y-S versus Tikva. All the other oppositions I’ve mentioned are not as simple as they first appear, and this example of these three spaces should serve as a representative example for all the others.

This book review is the hardest one I’ve ever written because of my history with it: I read this book first because it was recommended to me by my English professor when I graduated from college. I kept returning to this book over the next few years, and it found its way into my dissertation. Then, after mentioning this book to the professor who taught the SFF course at the college where I now teach, I was asked to guest lecture on it for ten years in a row until she retired. It’s been a few years since I’ve taught it now, and I thought it might be safe for me to write about it in a review, but as you know, the hardest book to write or talk about is the one you love best.

Let me end my review by repeating myself: “He, She and It is an incredibly ambitious novel that is a compelling read even though it’s a complex blending of genres.” But let me emphasize one part of that assertion: It’s a compelling read. If I’ve made the book sound too theoretically ambitious to be enjoyed at the level of plot and character and dialogue, I apologize. I never would have read this book more than once if I had not been pulled into the narrative. He, She and It moves me emotionally, and the end of the novel is extremely powerful. He, She and It will always be my six-star book in our five-star rating system. I hope you read it. I know you’ll enjoy it.

Published in 1991. In the middle of the twenty-first century, life as we know it has changed for all time. Shira Shipman’s marriage has broken up, and her young son has been taken from her by the corporation that runs her zone, so she has returned to Tikva, the Jewish free town where she grew up. There, she is welcomed by Malkah, the brilliant grandmother who raised her, and meets an extraordinary man who is not a man at all, but a unique cyborg implanted with intelligence, emotions–and the ability to kill…. From the imagination of Marge Piercy comes yet another stunning novel of morality and courage, a bold adventure of women, men, and the world of tomorrow.

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BRAD HAWLEY earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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5 comments

  1. Sandy Ferber /

    Well, Brad, based on this superlative review, I went to my local Barnes & Noble during lunch yesterday to look for this book. The store had NO (as in ZERO) Marge Piercy books whatsoever. Could this author be out of print, or just sold out? Hmmm….

  2. Brad /

    That’s great that you plan on reading it! I’m not surprised that you couldn’t find it or any of her work. I would bet most of her readers are long time fans of her poetry and fiction. Some of her earliest novels are out of print but easy to get used. She still has ten to fifteen works in print, including He, She and It, but you will have to get your bookstore to order it or use Amazon.

  3. Or (shameless plug) check with your local second-hand bookstore, Sandy. I looked at her novels the other day in our store and we had four, including He, She and It. (About an hour later, in a startling incident of synchronicity, a customer bought that one along with three of her poetry books.)

  4. This is a great review, Brad, and now I’ll have to re-read it. I remember really liking the homage to golem folklore in the book.

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