The Sealey Challenge: Soft Science

a white hand with dusty purple nailpolish holds a soft-toned book with an android woman holding up a series of hexagons in front of a soft-toned flower and surrounded by highly allergenic grass
Franny Choi’s Soft Science

Franny Choi’s Soft Science, despite its title and its soft-colored cover, is anything but soft. It is thorny and angry and demanding, aching and vulnerable, filled with desire and defiance. Soft Science is built around the Turing Test and the concept of what makes one human and what makes on a cyborg, yet ultimately Choi tackles what it is to be human, as cyborg becomes more humane than the humans in her life.

“Making of,” the third poem in Soft Science, explores constructions and, as much as “Glossary” and “Turing Test,” the first and second poems in the collection, sets the tone for the rest of the book. “When a cyborg gets down / on her knees, it’s called // behavior. When a cyborg says want, / she’s barking // up the wrong— / Let me clarify: // when I say cyborg, // I mean what man made,”1 Choi writes, and that theme of creation coupled with violence and denial (why should the cyborg want? she isn’t allowed) runs throughout the poetry of Soft Science, a cold, furious reminder of the ways in which our societal constructions are themselves acts of violence.

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be? Soft Science exists in this modern world, looking toward a future in which the cyborg might well be more humane than the human. Chat rooms and violent artificial intelligence cycle through its pages, a reminder of the horrors we as humans have created out of new and supposedly neutral2 technology. There’s porn there, because the internet is for porn, we all know that. But porn is surely the most neutral of the vices that stalk throughout Soft Science. The Nazis, the smarmy, low-key vile men, the hate-filled chatbots3—they’re far darker than PornHub.

It seems important to note, since he was everywhere last year, that Christopher Columbus isn’t in Soft Science, at least not directly. Indirectly he’s here, of course: this violent America of which Choi writes is the world Columbus created. Hate slithers through the poems in ways large and small, sometimes coalescing into one, as in “The Cyborg Watches a Video of a Nazi Saying Her Name to a Bunch of Other Nazis,” as Choi writes: “pockmarked : bitter : & hard : o too / hard : for his kind : to pronounce”4 How many microaggressions went into the making of this beautiful, awful line of poetry? How many more have filled it, in these years full of anti-Asian violence?

Soft Science is miles away from soft, an exploration of the intersections and constructions of gender and identity and race and technology. Its poems hit as hard now as they must have struck in 2019 when it was originally published, a reminder that though two years have passed, and though those two years may feel like a thousand, we’re still caught in the same racist, sexist traps Choi portrays. It’s a beautiful, difficult book, an important book, and certainly one I’ll be reading again.

I mean, I’ve already read “Perchance to Dream”5 like three times, and I only read Soft Science for the first time today.

1 p. 4

2 Yeah so obviously I don’t think it’s really neutral, and there are lots of books to be read about that, including Algorithms of Oppression.

3 The racist, sexist, neo-Nazi chatbot was a real, and horrifying, experiment in AI. It’s discussed in this article from The Verge

4 p. 56

5 p. 30

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