Body of Glass by Marge Piercy

Penguin, 1992, 590 p.

Body of Glass cover

In a post-environmental disaster, post-nuclear war world dominated by commercial multis Shira Shipman has returned to her domed home of Tikva after Y-S, the multi she worked for, awarded custody of her son, Ari, to her husband. In Tikva she finds that Avram has created a(n illegal) cyborg, Yod, named for the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (He – Piercy depicts Yod as male and to all intents and purposes fully human – has had nine less successful predecessors.) Shira’s grandmother Malkah has helped Avram to construct Yod’s persona as the previous efforts had lacked, for want of a better word, humanity. Complicating Shira’s return is the presence of Avram’s son, Gadi, Shira’s first lover and a producer of computer generated entertainment, but who is constitutionally incapable of keeping himself to one woman. There is an ongoing effort to keep Yod’s nature secret within Tikva, always under threat of attack by information pirates, and to prevent Y-S from gaining control of him for itself.

Paralleling this narrative and taking up one out of every three of the book’s chapters we are treated to the story of the golem of Prague (called Joseph,) created by Rabbi Loew to protect the Prague ghetto’s inhabitants from their gentile neighbours. This is presented as if Malkah is telling it to Yod and is interesting enough but is really meant as a counterpoint to Tikva’s situation – though there are perhaps too many similarities between the two strands of the book (the would-be independent woman in Prague, Chava, is what Malkah considers herself to be) – and also to act as an illustration of the struggle against the perennial prejudice Jewish people have suffered throughout history. The inhabitants of Tikva seem all to be Jews but that is more or less incidental to the plot in those sections, whereas in Prague it is the central consideration.

The contest between Shira and Y-S for custody of Ari and of Tikva with Y-S makes up the meat of the plot and provides most of the science-fictional interest – she and Yod themselves undertake what is in effect a cyber attack on Y-S, very William Gibson – but these are in many ways the least satisfying aspects of the novel as Piercy is considering what it might mean to be Jewish (Jewish words and customs are liberally sprinkled through both strands) and, in the characters of Yod and Joseph, interrogating what it means to be human. While Joseph and Chava do not, Yod and Shira become close and eventually lovers. Yod is of course more accomplished than either Gadi or Shira’s husband ever were – or could be. In one of their conversations Shira tells Yod telepathy is a prominent human fantasy – usually of women, who wish they could understand what men want and tell men what they want. Not that their relationship, and that of Shira with Malkah, is without complication. This is a fully fleshed out narrative, more intricate than I have room to set down here. It’s easy to see why it won the Clarke Award in 1993.

I noticed the phrase, “my wee installation.” Is there perhaps a Scottish influence on Piercy there?

Pedant’s corner:- The publication date given is 1992 but the author information tells us this won the Clarke Award in 1993, so it must be a later reprint. Otherwise; Fernandez’ (Fernandez’s,) hung (several times, hanged,) “a epiphenomenon” (an epiphenomenon,) “conveyer belt” (conveyor belt,) “Each people has their own road, their own destiny” (has its own road, its own destiny. People is treated as singular two lines below this!) “If she were Gadi, she would not be careless in turning his back to Yod” (if she were, then she would not be careless in turning her back,) “a group of Jews … follow after” (a group … follows after,) “the doctor yanks it free as she streams, the blood spurting out” (as she screams,) “to staunch the rush of blood” (stanch.) “Malkah shuffled after here” (after her.) “Because the house disapproved of him so strongly she wondered sometimes if an occasional message did not get lost” (she wondered sometimes if an occasional message got lost,) “eighteen hundred point fifteen hours” (eighteen hundred point one five hours – especially as this is an AI [the house] speaking,) plasticene (plasticine.)

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