Episode 100 – “I Sing the Body Electric”

An electronic data-processing system in the shape of a woman capable of giving loving supervision to your children. That’s the claim of Facsimile Limited. It fits the bill for a family of five, reduced to four by the death of the mother. This is the early sixties, and a family without a mother is incomplete, and something must be done. At Facsimile Limited the kids get to choose the parts – the eyes, ears, hair, and other body parts. They are thrown in a hopper and sent to the factory where “Grandma” is assembled.

The title “I Sing the Body Electric” is from a Walt Whitman poem of the same name. In that poem Whitman celebrates the human body – all human bodies. Whitman critiques dualism:

And if the body does not do as much as the Soul?
And if the body were not the Soul, what is the Soul?

It’s not a simple matter to see how the story and the poem align. One connection may be that Grandma is somehow the sum of her bodily parts. Her eyes – chosen by the boy because they are the same color as his marbles – form an essential part of Grandma’s character. But Grandma is also an electronic data-processing system who will survive her own bodily dismantling. Will she still be Grandma, without a body, or with a different body?

When Grandma appears at her new suburban home, she earns the loving appellation when she demonstrates that she can essentially do what amounts to magic. The younger two children accept Grandma immediately. The older child, still reeling from her mother’s death, is the skeptic. She says “You make believe, father, that’s what you do. You make believe, that she’s real. But she’s just an old machine.” The machine responds with a declaration of love for the child who rejects her. A moment later she proves her love by readily putting her “life” on the line for the child.

Grandma celebrates the ways in which she is not human. She can’t die. She can’t leave the family. She’s not a living thing. “That’s my job: To live forever!”

When the children are grown-up and headed off to college, Grandma leaves. She describes what will happen. Her mind, her soul, will continue to exist, even when her body is disassembled. She’ll go into a room of voices with the other machines. Grandma is describing her immortality. Does she become a disembodied mind in the room of voices, or is it just that her bodily shell is removed, and her core computer is networked to other computers to enable high speed uploads and downloads of data?

At the end of the episode Grandma says that if she’s really lucky someday she’ll get the best gift of all, the gift of life. But what would life give her that she doesn’t already have? Maybe there’s still a burden in being different, even when different appears better.

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