In story of future, the past is more interesting

February 02, 1992|By Judith Wynn

HE, SHE AND IT.

Marge Piercy.

Knopf.

446 pages. $22.

Novelist-poet Marge Piercy admires intellectual achievement. Her best novel so far -- the World War II epic "Gone to Soldiers" -- started out as a story about the Jewish cryptanalyst William Friedman, who broke Japan's diplomatic code in 1940. Gradually, that story grew into Ms. Piercy's specialty: a well-researched, multi-plotted braidwork of (mostly young) people's lives, filled with plenty of action and lively plot twists. She seems most at home writing about small, semi-bohemian enclaves of artists and thinkers, like the pro-war propagandists of "Gone to Soldiers" or the musicians and craft workers of "Summer People."

"He, She and It" -- her first science fiction novel since "Woman on the Edge of Time" (1976) -- takes place about 60 years from now. Twenty-three mega-corporations run the few habitable zones left planet earth. Global warming has raised the polluted oceans so much that swimmers risk impaling themselves on submerged buildings. Most North Americans live in "the glop," a hellish slum triangle bounded by Chicago, Boston and Atlanta.

Computer expert Shira Shipman has just lost custody of her child to her ex-husband, who outranks her in their corporation. Shira retreats to her childhood home, a Jewish "free town" called Tikva. Tikva survives by pirating information back and forth among rival corporations.

Shira is startled to find that her cyberneticist-genius grandmother Malka has created an illegal cyborg named Yod to protect Tikva. But the reader is not surprised when Shira gets romantically involved with Yod, who has an Arnold Schwarzenegger body and Alan Alda soul. Yod helps Shira get her son back and defends Tikva in long, flat-footed episodes that feel as distanced as Dungeons and Dragons replays.

"He, She and It" plods along too colorlessly, considering what an ingenious structure Ms. Piercy has given it. Interspersed with Shira's adventures is Malka's tale of her clever historical male counterpart, Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of 17th century Prague's Jewish ghetto. Like Tikva, the ghetto needs a protector against the menacing gentile community that it services. So the Maharal creates a golem named Joseph out of clay -- "a one-man army," like Yod -- to fight off anti-Semitic mobs.

The Prague setting is so interesting that one turns reluctantly back to the cyborg chapters, which take up two-thirds of "He, She and It." Shira's tiresome triangle with Yod and her childhood sweetheart, Gadi, is pale soap opera compared to the dramatic plight of the Prague Jews.

By locating evil offstage -- on corporate-run space platforms, or in cliffside castles perched high above Prague -- Ms. Piercy has short-circuited much of her novel's energy. The members of her select little communities are too bland to hold one's interest for long, Tikva's most unforgettable character being a computerized house with a feminine voice and an uppity attitude.

Ms. Wynn is a writer living in Somerville, Mass.

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