in review: Soft Science
by Franny Choi
Publication Date: April 2, 2019
Publisher: Alice James Books
Franny Choi’s Soft Science offers not only an exploration of what defines humanity, but ways in which to question, redefine, and reprogram our natural responses to the term human. In some ways an evolution of her chapbook Death by Sex Machine, Soft Science masterfully takes poems and themes from Choi’s previous work and combines them with an elevated organizational structure to bring into being a more fully realized organism, much like the cyborg persona Choi creates for herself in the collection.
Beginning with a “Glossary of Terms,” Choi presents the reader a language with which to navigate the work, but we must figure out for ourselves how to use these words and what definitions fit into certain situations. In her series of “Turing Test” poems, which open each section of the book, Choi’s cyborg is asked questions in order to prove her humanity. Simultaneously, Choi forces the reader to engage with the idea of how all humans are taught certain responses, parroting rote answers instead of fully engaging with questions that they are asked—exactly what Choi’s cyborg persona is trying to do.
At the end of “Turing Test_Empathetic Response” Choi writes, “if you’re happy & / you know it / if you know it then / what / what then.” Anyone who knows the song referenced in this poem knows what they are supposed to say and do. The real question becomes, “How does a human actually react to happiness?” Or perhaps, “Who decides the correct response to any emotion?”
These responses, as we find out, vary from moment to moment. The narrator exists in multiple forms, sometimes as cyborg and other times as cephalopod, containing within herself eight distinct personalities. It is when she transforms back into her base, singular self that the desire to be human is actually harder. Sometimes she hates the reminder her body provides of her own and others’ mortality, as in “Perchance to Dream,” when she writes, “I hated my body for loving what could only die. / I hated it for forgetting,” or earlier in the poem, when her body reverts “to being something almost-tamed.”
Yet this fragility is also a necessity; at times she requires the memory of herself as human—not ghost, not cyborg, not sea. In “Turing Test,” her response to the question “do you believe you have consciousness” is to say “sometimes / when the sidewalk / opens my knee / I think / please / please let me / remember this.” If this refers to pain or blood, the antonym offered for ghost in the “Glossary of Terms,” then Choi wants to remember herself at a time when she knew herself as fully flesh, as human.
Throughout the collection, Choi plays with language, manipulating typical definitions, sentence structures, and grammatical rules in order to reject what we have come to think of as the norm. This opens up options for how we choose to view ourselves and the world around us. In several instances, Choi juxtaposes opposing elements, particularly in “A Brief History of Cyborgs,” in which “The scientist called me hard, and I softened my smile. The scientist called me / soft, and I broke sentences to prove him wrong…” By allowing her cyborg self, and by extension her actual self, to exist in many forms and to encompass many labels at once, Choi—herself a queer, Korean-American poet--provides space to explore multiple forms of expression, identity, and sexuality.
The final section of the book explores the idea of reconstruction of history, or of a history. “Turing Test_Weight” focuses on the question of one’s country of origin, which is interrupted by a series of quandaries posed by the cyborg herself, who makes it clear that such a question is loaded with its own set of baggage and exceptions. “Introduction to Quantum Theory” follows, contemplating the existence of other universes, and finally the collection ends with Kyoko, the android servant from the film Ex Machina, trying to reassemble her language files after having them erased. By ending the collection as she does, Choi calls readers to examine their own history and language in order to explore and question other possible realities. As she gives her cyborg/cephalopod personas power and agency, she graciously gifts the reader the freedom to imagine other worlds, though still cautioning which universes we choose to claim.