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
Malorie thought the hardest thing she was going to have to face was dealing with her pregnancy and impending single motherhood. She thought the warnings about seeing something that makes you go crazy and become violent was just the news blowing things out of proportion, or at least just hysteria. Her sister believed in it, but not herself.
But that was all years ago, and now Malorie is alone in a house with her two children. Children who have never been outside without blindfolds on. She only leaves the house blindfolded, tapping the ground with a stick to find the well. But now it is time for her to be brave and to take a boat on the river, just she and her two children, blindfolded, in the hopes of finding salvation.
I was drawn to this book for two reasons. First, the mere thought of a mother and two young children boating down a river blindfolded had me intrigued. Second, it’s set in Michigan, which is where my husband is from, and honestly I can’t recall the last time I saw a book set in Michigan. These two elements came together to tell me this book is probably unique. So when I saw the kindle version on sale on Amazon, I snatched it up. What I found was a chilling tale that could easily fit within the Lovecraft mythos.
The order the story is told in helps build the suspense and keeps it from being a same old apocalypse and survivors’ tale. The book opens with Malorie and her two children living alone in the house. It opens post-apocalyptic. Through flashbacks we learn various things such as who used to live in the house with Malorie, why there are certain parts of the house she doesn’t like to go to, and why neither she nor the children leave the house without blindfolds on. From here, the reader is then taken forward into Malorie’s action onto the river, going down it trying to find a safe haven of other survivors that she knows used to be there years ago. It’s a nice combination of flashback and plot progression forward that keeps the suspense interesting.
It is no spoiler to say that what caused the apocalypse is something that causes people to go stark raving mad when they see it. This is included in the official book blurb. What was interesting to me was how Malerman kept this from being purely straight-forward. Some characters believe in the mysterious creatures right away, others don’t. Some think that merely believing it will cause you to go crazy makes you go crazy. Some think that some are affected and others aren’t. Some wonder if animals are affected too, and no one knows where the creatures came from or, if you don’t believe in the creatures, how the phenomenon started. The lack of clear-cut answers reflects reality. In general, with large-scale catastrophes, it’s hard to know exactly what happened or what is going on. This lack of knowing made the situation read as real, even if the exact situation is an absurd sounding one at first.
I was also struck by how well Malerman wrote a female version of experiencing the apocalypse. Malorie is both focused on surviving for herself and her baby but also distracted from the apocalypse because she is having normal hormonal reactions to pregnancy. Similarly, while some characters embrace her as a symbol of hope, others see her as a burden. Malorie was a refreshing change from the young, virile, kick-ass heroine often seen in post-apocalyptic books. She is strong, yes, but not in a kick-ass way. She is strong in a she’s doing her best to be a good mom and still survive type way. And that’s a nice thing to see in post-apocalyptic horror fiction.
The book naturally ends up pondering “madness” a lot. The creatures drive any who see them into near-caricature depictions of madness. Sometimes the person becomes violent against others. Sometimes the person turns on themselves, killing themselves or self-injuring to the extent that they die. There are a lot of questions about what the human mind can handle. There is a lot of argument in the book for agency against all odds.
It’s better to face madness with a plan than to sit still and let it take you in pieces. (loc 4034)
On the one hand, I appreciate the argument for agency and fighting for your sanity and humanity. On the other hand, I’m not sure how I feel about a metaphor where madness happens to people who just aren’t careful enough or don’t have enough of a plan. While it’s valid that a mental illness must be fought every day and some have more natural resiliency than others, there’s a tone of blame to the theme that strikes me the wrong way.
At one point, it is postulated that perhaps the only ones immune to being driven mad by the creatures are those who are already mentally ill because they are already mad. There is no science behind this thought. There is simply a character who appears to have paranoid schizophrenia who firmly believes the creatures are not actually dangerous because he has seen them and is fine. Yet he is a character who ends up instigating an incredibly violent scene. While it is true that there are violent extremes of mental illness, there are also those that are not. The book fails to bring out the subtleties and varieties of mental illness. Imagine the power that could have been from a character who had, for instance, OCD and was able to see the creatures and interact with them without harming anyone and able to understand that others cannot see them safely. Imagine if it was simply that seeing the world differently already, being abnormal, protected one from being driven truly mad by the creatures. What an interesting direction that could have taken the story.
Thus, in general, while I appreciate the more unique and interesting things the book did, such as focusing on a pregnant woman and then a young mother as the main character and telling the plot in a non-linear way, ultimately the book did not push the boundaries or the ideas far enough to truly enrapture me. Recommended to horror, Lovecraft, and post-apocalyptic fans looking for a read with a young mother as the focus.
4 out of 5 stars