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….
I picked this up because of how incredibly moved I was by Woman on the Edge of Time (review) by the same author. While I found this interesting and unique, it didn’t move me in quite the same way. I imagine it would probably move a reader more if they are Jewish or a mother.
The book is richly steeped in Jewish culture and history. All of Earth is either a slum or run by corporations in basically corporate states except for a few free towns which manage to exist due to their value in trade. Tikva is one of these, and it’s made clear this is partially so because the founders were concerned about maintaining Jewish culture in a world being overcome by just a few corporations. The corporation Shira works at before returning to Tikva judges her in her performance reviews for staying too attached to her home culture, including things like naming her son a traditionally Jewish name. So there is this very interesting thread about how minority cultures can maintain themselves in the face of economic threat and assimilation. When Shira gets a divorce, the corporation grants majority custody to her ex-husband and ultimately essentially full custody when he is sent to work off-world. Overcome with grief, Shira moves home to Tikva. Here we learn that Shira’s grandmother Malkah raised her and see how differently her own mother approaches motherhood than Shira does. This is one of the key threads of the book.
The other key thread is personhood and what makes us human. One of the residents of Tikva has succeeded in making an illegal cyborg. There are periodic chapters where Malkah is telling him the story of the Jewish myth of the Golem (a human-like beast made of clay to protect the Jewish people from persecution. More info). Very clear lines are drawn between the golem and the modern-day cyborg, who was made to protect Tikva and keep it free. Of course people start to have mixed feelings about the cyborg and asking not just what makes him human but also if he can be Jewish? (He himself identifies as Jewish and attends synagogue). I particularly enjoyed that Malkah isn’t just the story teller to the cyborb but she’s also one of the most important and most intelligent programmers in Tikva. The programmers essentially are what keep Tikva free, and an elderly woman is one of the most important ones.
Even though it’s a topic I’ve read a lot in scifi, I always enjoy the exploration of what makes us human and at what point does intelligent technology gain personhood, and the way it was explored here was different from what I’ve seen elsewhere. In particular, I thought the not just female but female Jewish lens was new and great. But I will admit that I had trouble relating to Shira and her struggle with motherhood and types of motherhood. I think motherhood can sometimes be overly thought about and held up on a pedestal in our culture and in feminism too. While mothers who choose to mother differently are acknowledged in the book, women who choose not to mother are not. It’s as if mothering is a natural part of womanhood, and that was not something I felt I could connect to in the book.
Overall, though, this was a wonderfully different take on the scifi exploration of cyborgs and artificial intelligence. Recommended to scifi readers, but particularly to those seeking a Jewish lens or an exploration of motherhood in addition to cyborgs.
4 out of 5 stars
In an alternate late 20th century, the Allies are still at a cold war with the Soviets. The Allies’ best scientist, Martino, is working on a secret project called K-88 when there is an explosion. The first rescuers to him are Soviet. The norm is for Allied prisoners to ultimately be returned across the line. But the Soviets claim that Martino’s skull and arm were badly damaged and return him with a metal, robotic head and arm. Is this man really Martino, or is he a Soviet plant?
I was excited to read this book because the idea of a transhumanist/cyborg American made that way by the Soviets has a James Bond like appeal. Unfortunately, it feels a bit more dated than I was anticipating, as well as compared to other older scifi, and doesn’t fully address some questions it raises.
Immediately, there are a couple of plot holes that aren’t addressed until close to the end of the book, which made it a bit frustrating to read. First, why did the Allies put their best scientist in a lab on the border with the Soviets? The answer to this, given at the end of the book, is pretty flimsy, and only works if you are willing to believe the Allies are very stupid. Second, it makes sense that they can’t verify Martino’s identity with his fingerprints, because the Soviets could have taken off his remaining arm and put it on someone else. However, why can’t they verify who he is with DNA? Presumably, he has some living relatives somewhere they could compare to. DNA was discovered in the 1860s (source) so to never even address why they don’t use it is a bit bizarre. The book mentions toward the end that Martino’s parents and uncle are dead, but you can conduct kinship tests using dead bodies. It still baffles me that the government in the book didn’t simply dig up Martino’s father and run a DNA test. Even if DNA testing wasn’t widely known of when the book was published, one would hope a scifi writer could see its future implications, imagine the applicability, and address the scenario. The fact that DNA wasn’t addressed at all, and Martino’s place near the Soviet border wasn’t satisfactorily addressed really removed a lot of the intensity and interest one should feel from the situation.
Another way Budrys showed a lack of imagination for the future is in the strict gender roles and lack of women in the military or the sciences in the future he has envisioned. Women are only seen in the book in strict 1950s gender roles. As wives and mothers and not once in the military or in the sciences. People in the sciences are referred to as the “men” not even leaving room for the idea of a woman in science. I know this is a symptom of the times, but I also know that more progressive and forward-thinking scifi was written in the same decade. It was a bit jarring to me to read a scifi that excluded women so much, when I’m so used to women being present, at least nominally, in scifi.
All of that said, the writing of individual scenes was quite lovely. Budrys evokes setting and tensity well. I particularly enjoyed the scene of Maybe-Martino running through the streets of New York City, which reminded me of an old noir film. Budrys also shows a good understanding of what it is like for people who are incredibly highly intelligent. He writes Martino at a young age as both brilliant in science but also dumb in interpersonal relations. The fact that he got this and demonstrated it in the 1950s is to be commended. There is also some solid commentary on the American education system and a desire for it to encourage more independent thought.
Look–these guys aren’t morons. They’re pretty damned bright, or they wouldn’t be here. But the only way they’ve ever been taught to learn something is to memorize it. If you throw a lot of new stuff at them in a hurry, they’ll still memorize it–but they haven’t got time to think. (loc 9163)
Overall, this is an interesting concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out nor the possible weaknesses fully addressed. It is definitely a scifi of its time, with its hyper-focus on the Soviets and the Cold War that could almost feel kitschy today. A short read with an interesting premise, albeit a lack of female scientists, soldiers, or government workers. Recommended to scifi fans who enjoy some old-fashioned red scare in their reads and don’t need the science to be perfect.
3 out of 5 stars
I have always been accident-prone. It’s a running joke in my family, in fact. I shattered more dinner dishes than I’d care to mention. I was assured that walking into walls would go away with the end of my growth spurts. It did not. In fact, I’m currently sporting a bruise from walking into a wall last week. I also managed to snap my leg in half on a swing-set when I was 11 years old. Odd accidents are nothing new for me. So it should come as no surprise that I managed to knock out one of my two front teeth this weekend.
The short version of the story is that it was Sunday afternoon/evening. I had just mopped my kitchen floor. I walk/jogged from the bedroom area of my apartment to the kitchen area in my bare feet, forgetting momentarily that I had just mopped. And I managed to face-plant on the kitchen tiles. Goodbye front tooth.
Now, when I was growing up the vast majority of the time we didn’t have health insurance. Emergency care, therefore, is ingrained in my head as only for “real” emergencies. Thus, in spite of multiple friends’ pleadings for me to go to the ER that night, I declined and said I would wait for the dentist’s office to open in the morning. After friends helped me get cleaned up and tucked in, I popped some tylenols and went to sleep.
I probably should mention at this point in time that I had an exposed nerve. Yet I was unconvinced this was an emergency. I woke up Monday morning, waited until 8:30, which is when I believe doctor’s offices should open, and called my dentist. The phone informed me he wasn’t opening until 10am. Ok. At this point I was in pretty bad pain, so I called the emergency number and left an incredibly apologetic voicemail explaining that I wasn’t certain if it was an emergency, but could he please call me back so we could discuss it.
My super-sweet dentist, who speaks with a lilting Arabic accent, called me back about 20 minutes later. I lispingly told him one of my front teeth was gone, but the root was still intact so maybe it wasn’t an emergency. I then started to half-laugh, half-cry at how much like a hillbilly I looked. My dentist calmed me down and promised me he could fix my smile, this definitely was an emergency, and please come as soon as possible.
My wonderful friend Nina drove me to the dentist’s where I was greeted with shocked looks from everyone in the office. To sum up all their comments, “Sweetheart, this is so bad! You must be in so much pain!” To which I responded, “Well, I’m a tough broad.” The first thing they did was to numb my mouth, part of which included putting novocaine directly into the exposed nerve. That is the only point at which during any of these procedures I cried. They then drilled around, did things to the infection, and put a temporary tooth on. They explained to me that the infection needed to go away before they could do the next step, so I walked out with prescriptions for codeine and antibiotics. Let me tell you, that codeine has come in handy.
The next step was on Wednesday, and for the entire procedure I felt like I was suddenly in a scifi movie. They popped off the temporary tooth and drilled around some more. Then they informed me that today they were putting in the post and the cap, taking the molds for the new tooth, and then putting on another temporary tooth. Post? I thought. What the heck is a post? The next thing I know, the dentist is shoving a metal rod into my jaw. He pauses for a moment, and the rod is literally extending from my upper jaw all the way down to my lower lip. My immediate thought? Haha, Ah’m a vahmpiiiire! Then they pulled it back out, put another one in, and it was suddenly miraculously tooth-length. Then suddenly I hear the dentist asking the hygeniest for the torch. Say what now?! Yup, she had a torch that glowed blue flame, and he placed the tip of one of his tools into it and proceeded to burn part of my gum/teeth. I was truly horrified/terrified and wide awake. Also the smell of your own skin burning off at high temperatures is one I doubt I will ever forget. At around this point in time they took the mold for my new tooth. The gunk in the mold reminded me remarkably of what I’ve always imagined biting into flesh would taste like. Haha, now I’m a zombie. Braiiiins I thought. Then the dentist got this thing that looked like a glue gun, but actually shot out tooth-colored putty. He applied this to my tooth area, and then the hygeniest used a laser–ya, a motherfucking LASER–to solidify it into my new temporary tooth. Then the dentist checked the color of my teeth against a chart for the color of my new tooth. He sweetly informed me that it’s going to be very awesome and ready in 2.5 to 3 weeks.
All I could think while I was walking out of the office was that my mouth now has a metal rod in it, and lasers were used on me, and when my new tooth comes in, I’m totally gonna be part cyborg.