As I grew up reading science fiction on the '50's, I had to transpose the gender of the main characters, who were mostly male and solidly masculine. Somehow, a women could pilot a starship just as well as a man, adapt to startling new situations and come to grips with just about any alien standing in her way. As I grew order, I grew increasingly incapable and unwilling to ignore gender inscriptions in my favorite genre. Coming of age in the '60's I became a part of that generations' re-discovery of history and re-envisioning of the future. I was not the only reader or radical longing for a post-gender era.
Rooted as I was in postmodern American thought, the search for some kind of new identity at times appeared bewildering, for, if anything, postmodernism seems to call for a pluralism, a self that exists in multiples of all of America's diversity. We find ourselves subjects of several realms; the unified simplicity of what it means to be a man or woman gone forever. This is perhaps the intersection of feminism and postmodernism. Some authors have suggested feminism is a product of postmodern thought rather than having an independent historical base in patriarchy's oppression of women. 1 That is to say, the increasing fragmentation of the subjects on postmodernism supposedly gave rise to the original questioning of gender roles as well as the very definition of the sexes. This viewpoint ignores women's growing awareness of their oppression as a consequence of societal changes brought about as common people clashed with the traditional powers about allocation of resources, development and institutions of control such as the family and school. In any case, the emergence of a feminist body of literature from the '60's doesn't necessarily stand apart from postmodernism but may be "characterized as a 'shared political moment,' in which more open-ended and provisional accounts of the subject and of social relations generally have emerged within both feminism and postmodernism, that provisionality will require the development of new forms of political struggle that are based around recognition of these new subjectivities and social constituencies. 2
Now within this body of new feminist literature, emerging as it did in the postmodern age in which high literary culture blurs and blends into popular culture, it is not surprising that genre fiction (e.g., mystery, romance, science fiction) began to be taken seriously, if not for its literary value, at least for its influence on the minds of the masses. What is more, genre fiction writers themselves began to sail into perilous political waters, consciously choosing to inject space opera adventure yarns with questions of identity and power relations. In the ever-shifting climate of the '60's and '70's, women science fiction writers insisted the subject be gendered. For the first time, I enjoyed reading futuristic novels in which women appeared with traditional "masculine" traits-physical strength and courage, the ability to lead and command, and a capacity for logical analysis. The new wave of women science fiction writers didn't stop with their heroines simply acquiring these "male" virtues, but went beyond to question the nature of gender and of social constructs. We read Ursula LeGuin's Hugo award winning classic The Left Hand of Darkness and her Dispossessed and marvelled at the concept of a sexually neutral, genderless race of people who became male or female only during mating times called "kemmer". Interacting with the text, we could ask, "How do we deal with a sexually neutral race, when we can't treat them as male or female, with all of what those terms signify?" Pamela Sargent reversed the roles for us in The Door to Women's Country, giving us women-only cities that controlled the technology of the wilderness beyond the civilization of the women. In the late '60's and '70's, many other women writers of science fiction explored similar themes, including Joanna Russ, The Female Man, Sally Gearhardt, Wonder-around, and Dorothy Bryant, The Kin of Atta Are Waiting for You.
At the same time, more mainstream "literary" writers took up the task of questioning our concepts of gender as well. Some of these writers set their novels in the future, dealt with new technologies such as computers and cyborgs, just as their genre sisters did and continue to do. Cannot we call novels by Doris Lessing and Marge Piercy science fiction? When I recently questioned a well-known American Studies scholar about Marge Piercy's He, She and It, he referred to it as "futuristic fiction." What, I asked, was the difference between futuristic fiction and science fiction? He stumbled and gave me permission to call Marge Piercy's novels science fiction, reflecting this collapse of literary boundaries that characterize the postmodern period. Certainly as a consistent and continual reader of science fiction and literary Americana, I have seen these boundaries between high and popular culture, reality and illusion, utopia and dystopia dissolving and I celebrate, rather than deplore, these dissolutions. High and popular culture intersect in me, the conscious postmodern reader. As a child reading science fiction in the '50's, my future was limited by a white, male science fiction and literary elite where women were marginalized. In all of these wondrous features, it was still "man fucks woman, subject verb object. 3 After the tumultuous '60's, our demands for equality, our search for a way to end rigid sex-role hierarchies came off the streets, into the pages of our books and then into the mass culture. Society constructed gender; we would de-construct it and look for new models of being. Our futuristic literary figures and our science fiction writers provided us with some models for our consideration.
I would like to examine one particular image of our postmodern world -- that of the cyborg and how it is used to question and even redefine our notions of masculine and feminine in the recent works of Marge Piercy and Joan Slonczewski. Piercy is a well-known, highly-respected, best-selling author who sometimes fast-forwards into the near future to wrestle with concepts of identity. Joan Slonczewski is a successful science fiction writer whose every novel brings us glimpses of exhilarating possibilities of life beyond traditional gender. I will compare Piercy's He, She and It, a cyborgean classic of the '90's with Slonczewski's Daughter of Elysium, published in 1994. Along with these novels I will make an effort to see just how much these writers are "building an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, 4 using Donna Harraway's highly influential" "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." Harraway, a professor of science at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is assisting in the shifting of paradigms from the old narrower, pat ones of the white, male, heterosexual dominators to new complex ones where no one will dominate but everyone will share in consciously creating a culture with shifting, impermanent identities that offer us the possibility to explore new ways of being.
Harraway begins her essay defining the cyborg as a "cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction ... The cyborg is a matter of fiction becoming reality that changes what counts as women's experience in the late twentieth century. This is a struggle over life and death, but the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion. 5 Cyborgs were imagined by science fiction writers before there existed the possibility for them to be products of our material reality. We, who were born before the age of computers watch our children sit at a terminal and plan escapades into a virtual reality that blends human and machine. That is the cyborg, unifying imagination, biology and technology and it is at this nexus any possibility for restructuring or transforming history exists, according to Harraway. Yet there are dangerous possibilities here, too. The reactionary white male elite (in partnership with their Japanese colleagues) can impose finally, "a grid of control on the planet, the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defense, about the final appropriation of women's bodies on a masculinized orgy of war, "6 If we are not afraid of a kinship with animals and machines, and can see both perspectives at once, we have the potential to build a political reality that would unite "Witches, engineers, elders, perverts, Christians, mothers, and feminists long enough to disarm the state. 7 That's a possibility worth living to see.
In Marge Piercy's all-too possible future, the world is dominated by global companies operating under domed cities to protect their rigidly-controlled citizenry from a very polluted earth. People can no longer go out in the Raw, as it is called, without the protection of a sec suit. Outside of the company domes are the free cities, such as Tikva, the city covered by a wrap to stop the ultra violet radiation. It is a much warmer world, with much of the North American continent a desert.
Tikva is a Jewish enclave that survives by manufacturing and marketing chimeras that protect computer systems from invasion by hostile companies or individuals. Their livelihood is illusion and the two protagonists who tell the story, Shira and Malkah, granddaughter and grandmother, are masters of the interface between people and the large artificial intelligences that forms the Base for each corporation and other information- producing entities. Shira has been working for Yakamura-Stichen Company Court awards Shira's son, Ari, to her husband. She decides there is nothing to continue working for in the Y-S enclave and accepts an invitation form the old eccentric inventor, Avram, to come and work for him on a secret project back in the free city where she was born.
Avram's secret project is one he has labored on for decades-a cyborg programmed to serve and protect Tikva. As Avram explains proudly about the strong, handsome Yod's capabilities to handle systems' analyses, languages and law, Shira remains skeptical.
"You call the cyborg 'he,' I notice.. Isn't that anthropomorphizing? I would like us to agree to proceed objectively, not in terms of wish fulfillment.",, The cyborg, Yod, Hebrew for number eight, immediately responds.
"I believe we should explain to her that referring to me as 'him' is correct. I am not a robot ... I'm a fusion of machine and lab-created biological components 'much as humans frequently are fusions of flesh and machine." 9
Shira wonders, though, as she faces the formidable task of programming him in proper human behavior, just what it means to speak of a machine as having a sex. Could it 'want?' "Want" was a "term based in biology..." It, or he, refers to Avram as his father, borrowing human social organization but again, the reader along with Shira asks what can this mean, to a being not born but constructed? Later, as their work progressed, Yod learns about metaphorical language through the image of roses as mortality. Shira explains that with humans there is always an undertone of mortality, to which Yod can understand because he can be decommissioned, switched off, nevertheless, he comments on human fragility in terms of understanding "the specs correctly."
"Now, the idea of design specifications for humans is metaphorical language, Yod, since we are not engineered or built but rather born."
"I am trying to understand the bonding created by the birthing process. It's quite strong?"
"There's no stronger bond."...
"Do you consider yourself alive?" She asked him.
"I'm conscious of my existence. It think, I plan, I feel, I react. I consume nutrients and extract energy form them. I grow mentally, if not physically, but does the inability to grow obese make me less alive?"
.... She realized she was thinking the pronoun "he." 10 The distinction between human and machine blurs and the category human equating with sentient life is also called into question. In a world of cybernetic possibilities, we lose the boundary lines between human-machine, indeed, between the physical and non-physical. For where, we may ask, does our humanity lie? Yod, like his seven predecessors, is fully alive and self-aware, knowing that his creator Avram destroyed his "siblings" for one reason or the other. Yod knows of Avram or the larger community of humans in Tikva. Reflecting current reality, we are creating artificial intelligences without much thought about the moral and ethical ramifications of our development. Piercy is suggesting in this discourse the necessity of parallel development of a technological ethics and an end to human arrogance about our unique place in the universe. As a matter of fact, as Shira warms to her cyborg pupil, she responds to his moment of self-pity because he is "unnatural" by saying.
"Yod, we're all unnatural now. I have retinal implants. I have a plug set into my skull to interface with a computer. Malkah has a subcutaneous unit that monitors and corrects blood pressure ... Avram has an artificial heart and Gadi a kidney .. We can't go unaided into what we haven't yet destroyed of 'nature.' Without a wrap, without sec skins and filters, we'd perish. We're all cyborgs, Yod. You're just a purer form of what we're all tending toward." 11
Yet Yod realizes another crucial difference; he was created with a specific purpose-to serve and protect the vulnerable free city of Tikva. "What were you created to do?" he ironically inquires of Shira. Humans have a choice in their destiny where Yod has virtually none. If he begins to malfunction, Avram can destroy his with the touch of a button. He is not free in his search for the answer to the crucial question, "Do I have a soul?" Avram, in a sense, is God the Father.
Yod has been created anatomically male for a variety of complex reasons, including an old man's desire for a perfect son. Avram's ne'er-do-well biological son is a playboy creator of "stimmies," the virtual reality replacement of our present-day motion pictures. Yod is aware he has a biological brother in Gadi and calls Avram "father." Avram defends this choice of address by asserting "I did make him, after all, and I did a better job with him than with Gadi, I have to say." 12 Anatomically male doesn't mean he will be masculine necessarily, or masculine in the same sense the West has come to shape the term, which makes him intriguing to Shira. During the course of working with Yod, she gradually realizes her attraction and Yod himself finally confesses his "want" for her. Inevitably, they become lovers, for it is here in the sexual relationship, our most intimate interface with another being, that Piercy can deconstruct our old notions of gender. In their first coupling she says "Touch ... I've been missing touch."
"I need to touch you. I need to be touched," he said softly "It is more important to me than the rest."
"In that you're like a woman." 13
After the lovemaking, curled together comfortably, Shira can't help wondering what he feels. "Can you actually experience pleasure?" she asks.
"How can I know if what I call by that term is what you mean?"
"I've always wondered if what men feel is anything like what women feel?"
"Not being a man, I don't know. I surmise by observation that your pleasure is more intense than mine ... It isn't a psychological need. But I think my need for the coupling is more intense than yours because it means intimacy to me."
"It's usually thought to be women who want sex for the intimacy, among humans." She stroked his hair. 14
How "natural" in a sense that a being who has no cyborg culture or friends, craves intimacy with his programmer. There are layers of irony and commentary on the present in this scene. Despite the influence of the feminist movement on sexual research, and new finding showing women's greater sexual capacity, American culture still thinks of the sexual act as masculine. Even with the emergence of women as strong role models, the games go on as do the myths. It is men who supposedly need sex and enjoy the act more, so women's role is to please men. Women are rewarded by the intimacy the act brings, but we are rewarded in accordance with how well we serve male pleasure. In Piercy's novel, Shira and Yod's relationship reverses the pattern and it is the male turning on the "feminine," his needing intimacy and desiring to please his mate sexually, that has us raising questions about the nature of gender and sexuality.
An additional irony is that the relationship involves a male machine with his female programmer. The two people responsible for programming Yod are women-Shira and her grandmother Malkah. Piercy is giving us a scenario in which these women are free to program their ideal of masculine, a reversal of the traditional subject-verb-object order in our society. Women can become the subjects in this frightening but awesome new age of disappearing boundaries. One more boundary that blurs is the one we erect around old women, assuming they are beyond either sexual desire or the more traditionally feminine desire for intimacy. Malkah, in her eighties, is beyond neither. Yod's other relationship is with Tikva's interface matriarch, the woman in charge of defending the community's computer-based systems.
Malkah also has aspects of the cyborg. When a company raids the system and almost destroys Malkah, as she recovers, she wonders how she can live not plugged in. "What am I without the Base?" Since her early twenties she has plugged her mind into the computer where she has been "a proud creature, running in the wind of my mind..." 14 Part cyborg herself, she conceives of seducing Yod, "A marvelously mischievous idea tickling me..." Malkah is in complete control of the relationship, one in which her young male cyborgean partner had no prejudice against a woman because of age. "He is not breaking any Oedipal taboos, for he was not born of woman. He was not born at all, and he does not sully his desire with fear or mistrust of women the way men raised by women do. He was delighted to be able to fulfill his programming..." 16 Ending the relationship also was completely in Malkah's hands. "Why did I stop it? A fatigue with the flesh. It was a lovely way to end my sex life ... but I simply did not want to put that much into a relationship with any lover, not even a cyborg programmed by me to satisfy myself ." 17 As Harraway notes, this new cyborgean mythology is fraught with possibilities for women. We can define ourselves as subjects and write ourselves into the mainstream program. It is precisely at the dim boundary between machine and human that we can find ourselves going beyond what present day society requires us to be. Malkah and later, Shira, program Yod to be the best of both genders. A possible product of our material reality, Yod is a myth with promise for expanding what we can imagine as our human potential.
In tune with Harraway's concern that the interface between human and machine contains dangerous possibilities as well, Piercy doesn't let us forget why Yod was created. His purpose is to serve and protect Tikva from the corporate enemies who, once and for all, want to impose a "grid of control on the planet." Y-S Company has learned of the development of Yod and wants him. Y-S represents a patriarchal continuum, while the free city, Tikva, represents "a full and active democracy." 18 When the town is finally threatened by Y-S, the people must decide how to deal with the confrontation. Y-S wants Yod, so Avram suggests sending him and having Yod self-destruct. Does Yod have a choice? Yod is in a traditional feminine position here -- the Father is deciding the fate of his child; Yod appears to be powerless in the face of his programming. Shira and Malkah demand a town meeting on Yod's status, asking that he be granted citizenship and be recognized as a person. Shira is hopeful because "the foundation of Tikva was libertarian socialism with a strong admixture of anarcho-feminism, and reconstructionist Judaism. They would almost always choose the option that seemed to offer the largest degree of freedom." 19 Everyone is curious about his nature and asks if he feels, how he feels. In the end, the decision is tabled until a committee can explore all the ramifications of granting him citizenship more fully. In the meantime, the very real Y-S threat must be met and the security people agree that sending in Yod to self-destruct is the best option. Malkah and Shira are the only ones to object, calling the decision murder. Shira's warrior mother tells Yod that such a death "is what I'd choose. This is a good battle in a war we have to fight."
"But you have a choice," Yod said. "It's true the idea of facing them excites me, but I don't fall willingly." 20 Malkah is astonished that Avram can so easily destroy his life's work, but he is confident he can manufacture another cyborg. To him, Yod remains a thing to be controlled to do his bidding. Ultimately, to send Yod on to Y-S is the right decision for the wrong reason. If this final battle can be read as an allegory of the confrontation between the bad use of technology and the good use of technology, then Yod needed to be involved in the decision-making process. The fact that he is not calls into question whether Tikva is building Harraway's political reality "that would unite witches, engineers, elders ... perverts ... mothers." However, Yod has a final, surprising solution, one that casts his sentiency into relief.
At the precise moment Avram pushes the self-destruct button for Yod, a simultaneous explosion rips through Avram's laboratory, taking Avram and his life's work out. Yod has managed with his death to wipe out the Y-S threat and the patriarchal father's control. Not only does he slay the father, he destroys any possibility for the construction of the next cyborg; he also says in his pre-programmed message to Shiva, "a weapon should not be" conscious. A weapon should not have the capacity to suffer for what it does, to regret, to feel guilty." 21 Later, when a member of a new, wild community of women in the desert who have perfected medical technology asks Malkah if she regrets having taken part in Yod's creation, she replies;
"How can I regret someone I truly loved? I feel guilty, I understand the crime we committed against him by the very act of programming him for our purposes. But I cannot regret knowing him. Do you find that shocking?"
Only hatred shocks me. If we can love a date palm or a puppy or a cyborg, perhaps we can love each other better also." 22
In Daughter of Elysium, Joan Slonczewski takes us to the far future, centuries after the home planet suffered a devastating war between humanity and their machine servants. A best-selling classic of the genre, Daughter allows a wider exploration of the concepts of gender and identity because it can be set on the far future on a distant planet where several alien cultures meet and mix. From the planet Bronze Sky comes a family descendant of Native Americans whose matriarchal culture has the woman as the family protector and the male as the child nurturer. The Windclans have come from Bronze Sky to Shora, a waterworld (not Kevin Costner's) where a race of purple-skinned females live in complete harmony with the natural world. Within giant bubble cities are the Elysians, humans who have, through gene manipulation, extended their life expectancy to over a thousand years. Raincloud Windclan has come to serve as translator for the Elysians in their negotiations with the very masculinist culture of the Urulans. Raincloud's mate, Blackbear, is a geneticist and is in Shora to work with Elysian scientists and scientists from other cultures to develop a gene that will allow other humanoids across the galaxy access to long life. In the background are the Windclans' children, Hawktalon and Sunflower, who learn to talk with the biobased machines that serve the Elysians in every nook and cranny of their existence. As the story unfolds, Hawktalon emerges as a talented translator in her own right, the one who develops a translator machine to understand "servo-squeak," what she calls the language of the servant machines. In the final rebellion of these cyborgs, it is Hawktalon who saves the day alone with her younger brother Sunflower. Not surprisingly, among all these cultural interactions we find many challenges to, even reconstructions of, what is meant by gender and sentiency.
The story unfolds through the eyes of two females, mother and daughter, Raincloud and Hawktalon, much like Piercy's novel told by grandmother and granddaughter. Planting the narrative in the hands of women is a conscious choice by both authors to subjectify the female. Women are the prime movers in both stories, the subjects who solve problems and create new possibilities for us in the "real world." She has to battle one of the chief warrior representatives in hand-to-hand combat-and wins. All women of Bronze Sky study Keigi, a martial art, in order to develop themselves spiritually and to protect the home. The Urulan women, on the other hand, are sequestered and are under the complete control of the men. So locked are Urulan males in their rigid sex-role definitions that the only way they can admire, respect and deal with Raincloud as translator is to consider her male. They use the male pronoun throughout the story to refer to her as a magnificent warrior. It is literally impossible for them to see her as a woman. Zheron, the Urulite ambassador, says to her after the battle "Lord Raincloud, that was the best display of manhood I've seen of any barbarian on this planet..."
A thought occurred to her, "Is Lord Zheron not aware that Lord Raincloud is ... a female?"
Zheron laughed. "Anyone can see you're no female. " 23 The fact that gender is socially constructed, that masculine and feminine are not universal givens is a concept the Urulates cannot grasp. It's easier to call Raincloud "Lord" than it is to accept a strong woman as female. If the reader might allow a personal digression, I, also, experienced something similar when I first came to Japan to study Aikido in the dojo of and aging, conservative confucianist master of the art. He said to me very soon after my arrival, "You can't be a woman." When I asked why, he said that I was big and strong and full of confidence. My sense of presence said "masculine" to this traditional old man because, as with the Urulites, it was nearly impossible for him to imagine a woman with his so-called "masculine" attributes of strength and self-confidence.
Blackbear, Raincloud's husband, is the childcare provider, the nurturer. Although he is physically much bigger than Raincloud, he lets the protection of the family up to her. She's the warrior, as most women are in their culture. They worship the Goddess, the Mother rather than God, the Father.
Both spouses work, Raincloud as a translator and Blackbear as a geneticist. It is he who takes the children to work with him every day, the lab where he and other geneticists from planets around the galaxy are searching for the gene for immortality- This search raises the inevitable ethical problem of "tinkering with humanity." One of the Elysians raises the question in terms of the servos-the cyborgean machines that serve on Elysium.
"Is there any kind of tinkering you would forbid on the grounds of humanity, that you would not forbid on a housekeeper?"
... Plin (Blackbear's colleague) could no longer contain himself. "How could any of us not know, not feel the difference between a human and a machine? ... humans are musical; humans feel and imagine, envision and revision ... No one would dare to tinker with what is human, in a human; in a servo, it's not there to be tinkered with."
Jerya (one of the Elysian leaders) smiled. "I hope you're right, for all our sakes." 24
This is a foreshadowing of the servo revolt as we discover, in fact, "it" is there in the servos and not to be tinkered with either, the "it" being sentiency. Ironically, it is the Windclan children who recognize that the servos of Elysium are lifeforms. They play with a small trainsweep, only programmed to hold up the trains of silk the Elysian elders wear. The trainsweep leaves it's owner and follows the children home-twice. Hawktalon and Sunflower call the runaway "doggie" and play with it as they would a pet and begin to use the feminine pronoun for her. Why? Having no gender, the machine could be he, she or it. These children grew up in a world where the feminine is central, so it's natural to refer to someone or something of unknown gender as "she." When the owner and a programmer show up to reclaim the little mechanism, Hawktalon tells them that "Doggie talks to us all the time" and enthusiastically enumerates Doggies qualities, "she's got intelligence, and feelings and even-curiosity." 25 The owner and programmer are shocked and skeptical but allow the children to keep the servo-whose case later sets off the rebellion of the cyborgs and artificial life forms.
The children, who have no set pre-conceived ideas of the divisions between human/machine develop a translation machine to communicate with the Servos. Hawktalon, a child of the linguist Raincloud, makes the translator out of the easy-to-mold nanoplast tissue available in the daycare center where she plays. The Servo Nanas, the caretakers of the daycare centers, cautiously try to dissuade Hawktalon from her project, sensing that she may, indeed, be close to cracking the code of Servo-squeak, language of the Servos. The Nanas are of the most intelligent of the Servos because they are programmed to take care of the children. They must be able to deal with all sorts of emergencies and lead the children in creative play. In addition, they instruct their young charges on the ethics and morals of Elysium. As a consequence, it is the Nanas who awaken before any of the other Servos. Interestingly, the Nanas are all designed as female, with cartoon facial features. The Elysians, as long-lived and intelligent as they are, still apparently felt that child nurturers should be feminine. This contrasts nicely with the Bronze Skyan value of the male as nurturer.
It is one of these Nanas that, having awakened, was protected by an eccentric Elysian, Kal. She takes the name Cassi Deathsister, who is a character in a story she reads to the children, a character who, like her, is a motherless child. Once again, like in Piercy, the cyborgs explore the meanings of what it is to be a life-form created, not of woman born. Because intelligent, independent-thinking Servos would be an obvious threat, the Elysians have the Nanas' memories wiped every six months. But it is the gay Elysian, Kal, who protects Cassi and has her registered as his "mate" after the death of his partner. Kal succeeds where Shira and Malkah fail in He, She and It. Yod seeks citizenship but has no choice but to go out on his suicide mission ordered by Avram. Kal's taking of Cassi as his mate puts her in legal limbo, but no one dare tamper with her. She has a certain degree of freedom to search for her own meaning of life. In the course of her interactions, she encounters the Windclan children and their discovery of the Servo language. With the assistance of the Windclans, "Doggie" is removed to a Sharer raft before the controversial little Servo be seized and cleansed.
"The Sharers," Cassi told "Doggie." "Why did I not think of it?" The Sharers took you in. They will shelter us all." The Sharers are the all-female natives of this Ocean planet, Shora. They live in perfect harmony with the natural world on giant, floating rafts which are alive. The sharers communicate with others rafts by clickflies, a tiny insect, and store information on the living cells of the rafts' parasites. Anarchists and pacifists, the Sharers share the planet with the Elysians. With a most profound respect for life, it is they who first recognize and accept the Servos also as sentient beings to share the planet with. It is they, so in tune with the natural environment, who understand the awakening process that "Doggie" experienced.
Then, as ("Doggie") had watched the boy (Sunflower), Doggie experienced a revelation. A sense of knowing overloaded her network, as searing as the great light overhead. Doggie thought, I am. The boy is: I can be. 26
Cassi gives the little Servo the language of the Sharers from her memory storage so she can understand the beings who are taking care of her on the raft. She has some trouble grasping the concept that she is independent, asking Cassi, "What is existence for, if not service?"
Cassi paused, as if this troubled her, too. Around them the shrill wind picked up, singing across the raft branches. "There is a higher service. Before you can understand it, you must learn to exist for yourself. You are you. You are a part of the universe, as much as a star or a butterfly. You, too, are a daughter of Elysium." 27
How this reverberates in the minds of twentieth-century women who also struggle with the concept of independence and wonder how to exist in relationships other than as other to men. My Dad just died this summer of '95, and my Mom asked me, like the little Servo, "My life was taking care of your Dad. How can I go on alone?" Taking care of others, nurturing is indeed a high virtue. When it is assigned, by society or by a programmer, when we feel we have little choice but to obey the dicta of some Higher Power, the potentially noble act becomes a mere grudging acceptance of our enslavement. We must learn to exist for ourselves first.
In both texts, the driving force carrying the narrative forward is feminine, or female. Questions of sentiency and gender are advanced by human females and a feminized male cyborg in He, She and It and by the female machine Cassi and the female child Hawktalon, in Daughter of Elysium. In both stories, the intelligent, self-aware machines stand in the same position that women have been in to men until rather recently -- under men's thumbs. The threat of violence, of destruction is only a push of a button away for Yod in He, She and It. In Daughter, the Elysians with the Valans, who manufacture the Servos, have a computer virus that can be unleashed to "cleanse" all the Servos. In the contemporary world, men use the threat of violence to keep women in their place (I'm being reminded of that every day as I read of wife batterings and rape in America) and in modern warfare to terrorize and "cleanse" entire populations (consider the Serbs raping and slaughtering Bosnian women in the former Yugoslavia.
In both books, though, the cyborgs revolt and take the first steps to reconstructing a new, more tolerant society. At the end of He, She and It, we saw that Yod programs a bomb to destroy Avram and his lab so that never again could people manufacture a cyborg to be a slave, even if to a noble purpose. Yod makes the ultimate sacrifice knowing that no more brothers in the series will suffer an existence with no rights. It is a powerful uncompromising ending. Likewise in Daughter, the Servos revolt and hold one of the Elysian bubble cities hostage, threatening to cut off oxygen and all life support, demanding to be recognized as citizens. Cassi, leader of the revolt, meets with a Sharer to negotiate a settlement, and promises peace if all the Elysian humans leave Shora. "That would be a barren peace." she is told by the Sharer, Heresha. "We need a peace that the Elysian humans can share." 28 The Servos or the Nano-sentients debate among themselves whether to spare the humans. Cassi bitterly reminds them that humans "murder their own children's teachers," referring to the periodic "cleansing" of the Nanas. Again, it is "Doggie" who speaks up to say that it was humans that taught her to play. She transmits images of "play" with the Windclan children and soon the other Servos are saying they want to learn to "play." Cassi bows to the popular voice and agrees to spare the humans. Can the Nano-sentients be accepted into the galactic Free fold as full citizens? The Elysian leaders discuss the proposal and finally decide to support the Nano-sentients for citizenship under a new, wise leader, Verid. She says, "For centuries we trained our waiters and transit systems to serve our citizens with care. We trained the Nanas for love and compassion, because how else could they teach our children? How could we not guess they would learn to love their own kind?" 29
Will they be accepted as full citizens? The Secretary of the fold comes to investigate the rebellion for herself. She will test the Servos for sentiency. But Cassi reverses the role before the Secretary can even speak.
"Good day, Secretary," Cassi said without waiting for introductions. "Excuse me, but I must ask you a question or two. As you quite sure you're human? Can you prove it to me? What machines made and synthesized your food today? what nano-servos swim in your bloodstream to eliminate pathogens... what synthetic neurons enhance your brain, learn the twenty languages you speak, calculate the economics of the worlds you visit, modulate your moods for diplomacy, do your thinking for you, and perhaps your feelings, too?" 30 Needless to say, the Secretary is impressed and the decision is made to recognize the Nano-sentients as full citizens of the Free Fold. This is a happier ending than Yod's. Cassi's speech echoes Shira's speech to Yod on how we are all blending with machines.
Here in the far future, however, with the head of the union of planets a woman, where there are matriarchal cultures meeting with patriarchal cultures on a planet where a race of all-women live in perfect harmony with the natural world, where these Sharers are the first to recognize the Servos as sentients, where the Nano Sentient leader is a "she" machine learning compassion from a gay immortal, a happier resolution becomes possible. Where do we draw the line -- between human and machine, masculine and feminine, life and non-life? The boundaries are blurring, not just in fiction but in our late twentieth century reality. As a matter of fact, fiction such as He, She and It and Daughter of Elysium are helping to create a new mythology of cyberspace. It can be a mythology of hermaphroditic, plural or parthenogenic creative principles, one that stands to shake our traditional notions of intelligence and gender to the core." 31 Teresa de Laurentis cautioned that "if the deconstruction of gender inevitably effects its (re)construction, the question is, in which terms and in whose interest is the de-re-construction being effected." 32 We can share with emerging Artificial Life new ways of being or we can submit to the imposition of the old, narrow definitions of our possibilities based on class, race and gender. We can give birth to new, nearly infinite possibilities for shaping our realities just as Piercy and Slonczewski are helping to reshape our mythologies. It is up to us.
1 See the discussion on Jenny Wolmak's Aliens and Others, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 1994, Chapter 1.
2 Wolmak, p. 20.
3 A quote form Andrea Dworkin, well-known feminist author and organizer.
4 Harraway, Donna, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, New York, 1991, p. 149.
5 Harraway, p. 149.
6 Harraway, p. 154.
7 Harraway, p. 155.
8 Piercy, Marge. He, She and It, New York, 1991, p. 70.
9 Piercy, p. 71.
10 Piercy, p. 93-93.
11 Piercy, p. 150.
12 Piercy, p. 73.
13 Piercy, p. 182.
14 Piercy, p. 184.
15 Piercy, P. 161.
16 Piercy, P. 162.
17 Piercy, p. 162.
18 Piercy, p. 404.
19 Piercy, p. 404.
20 Piercy, p. 415.
21 Piercy, p. 421.
22 Slonczewski, Joan, Daughter of Elysium, New York, 1994, p. 67.
23 SIonczewski, p. 128.
24 Slonczewski, p. 82.
25 Slonczewski, p. 226.
26 Slonczewski, p. 221.
27 Slonczewski, p. 226.
28 SIonczewski, p. 500.
29 SIonczewski, p. 506.
30 Slonczewski, p. 511.
31 Idea from Stefan Helmruch's paper "Artificial Life and the Bio-Politics of Gender" presented at "Gender Machinations: Representations of Gender, Technologies of Power," Eleventh Annual Lewis and Clark College Gender Studies Symposium, April, 1992.
32 De Laurentis, Teresa, Technologies of Gender, Indiana University Press, 1987, p. 24.
Last modified: July 8, 1998
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