sufficiently advanced technology

Presumably we're all familiar with Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." (If you weren't familiar with it before this class, the facts that a) it's on the syllabus and b) we discussed it at least twice in class already should at least make it recognizable.) To see what's ogin on there, we have to first recognize that "technology" is a name that we give to those practices that are, so to speak, "disenchanted" -- even if we don't understand them at present, we are pretty certain that given the correct preparation and training we could understand them. Technology is in principle rationally comprehensible; no faith required, just something wholly mundane and worldly. Magic, on the other hand, implies something extra-rational, supernatural, not capable of being understood by everyone. The Force is magic, in that only special individuals can do anything with it; warp drive is technological, in that anyone with the proper mathematical and physics and engineering training can build a warp core.

Clarke's Third Law, however, disturbs that sharp demarcation. Once technology gets sufficiently far ahead of our experiences and our contemporary science, Clarke seems to suggest, it might as well be mystical. We have as little hope of understanding it rationally as the ancient Sumerians or Egyptians might have had of understanding extraterrestrial aliens (this is the basic idea of, say, Stargate). What is the practical difference between the alchemical transformation of lead into gold, and the replicators on Star Trek producing food and drink out of thin air? Not much, except that the replicator occasionally breaks down and is fixed not through incantations and faith, but with cool-looking luminescent tools. Hence, what makes something "technology" is not what it does, but how we understand what it does -- and beyond a certain point, the distinction becomes meaningless.

Piercy plays with that, I think. Among other striking things about the novel is her juxtaposition of the story of Joseph the Golem with the story of Yod the Cyborg. one is "magic" and one is "technology," but as she is at great pains to point out, both are in a sense created through the power of words. And both pose similar ethical dilemmas for their compatriots and companions.

Here's what I wonder: does it matter that Yod is a technological creature? Would it make a difference if Arvam were a gifted rabbi who prayed Yod into existence? Would the story really be any different if it were, in many ways, no longer science fiction?

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