Reviews: “Breaking the Binary of “Softness”/”Hardness”: A Book Review of Franny Choi’s Soft Science” by Maya Williams

Soft Science by Franny Choi
Alice James Books, 2019
Pages: 95. Paperback $15.95

As a nonbinary person, finding work that resonates with me is often difficult. Reading Franny Choi’s Soft Science gave me a sense of relief, and it didn’t take me too long to find poems that transcend constructs of gender.

There are often strict definitions of what gender is supposed to be. For instance, in popular culture, a non-human entity in service to a human is often portrayed through a generalized femininity (e.g Ex Machina, The Good Place, Her). Choi’s collection goes beyond these generalized and strict definitions by discussing how socialization impacts our reality, through the eyes of a cyborg, while also showing there is more to gender roles than what is perceived.

Part of a series of “Turing Test” poems that begin each section of Soft Science, “Turing Test_Empathetic Response,” opens the second section of the collection. I admire how this poem gives insight on the science of complexity — in the way humanity thinks of itself — and in the way humanity reckons empathizing within itself and others, regardless of gender, through the lens of a robot:

//have you ever questioned the nature of your reality

stop me if you’ve heard / this one / once / upon a nation / everyone got what
they / were asking for



// and how does that make you feel

amygdala / thalamus / hypothalamus / having been hurt before / subgenual
cingulate / cingulate gyrus / i guess a / little insecure / a little embarrassed haha
/ serotonin / torn / i’m turning / into my mother oh / god reading the news
/ the noose / tryptophan dopamine / if you’re happy & / you know it / if you
know it then / what / what then



//how can we know that these are not simply simulated emotions

the nurse missed / my vein / & dug for it / it was a white light / a tin flame in /
the forearm / fluorescent / sick vinyl / what else can i sway / i opened/ i cried / &
the needle / drank

The alliteration makes me resonate with the question of which emotions are our own and which aren’t. Are our emotions real, or have other people taught us what we should feel; including our parents, who may have been taught similar instructions about emotions for “boys” and “girls”? Or is it a mix of both? If so, how mixed is it?

Choi’s poetry collection is a narrative of cyborg and woman. Choi uses the frame of Turing Tests, also known as the technology used to test a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligence, to further break these binaries. Moreover, Soft Science relies on this double entendre of livelihoods of machines and women.

An ongoing theme in Soft Science is how easily the collection breaks the binary of gender between “softness” and “hardness.” Often in literature, “softness” is placed under the confines of femininity, unfairly equating to fragility. “Hardness” is correlated with masculinity, equating with strength.

The phrase “soft science” has often been used as a pejorative term towards studies that are not taken seriously due to their “feminine” nature. Social work is a field that many will not take the time to study because of the emotional labor it entails, hence the common “feminine” connotations and frequent dismissal as a “not serious” field. Contrastingly, I appreciate how Choi unpacks soft science. I love how she reclaims it by holding space for the humanity of the feminine, rather than rejecting it, in poems, such as “The Price of Rain”:  “Look at how free I am. Dowager Slut. Queen Regent. / Turns out, there are no synonyms for King.

“Hardness” also has a way of equating with the patriarchy, due to its need to overpower anything “soft” that appears to be a threat to normative masculinity. It is framed as a positive connotation of a solid dynamic over a fragile “softness,” especially for people of marginalized genders and identities. However, in “Sturgeon Moon,” from “Perihelion: A History of Touch,” Choi’s speaker describes the hardness of one man and how she “grew plump for him.” Interestingly, these acts within the poem dismantle the idea of femmes “required” to maintain a western normative idea of thinness for their lovers. He “Laid [the speaker] out in the sun. / Opened [her] down the/center. Scraped every dead daughter from [her] silly maw,” thus subverting the usual tropes of gender.

Moreover, Choi discusses the gentleness of the hard presence in “I Swiped Right on the Borg,” which further questions what it means to be human versus machine. In this poem, the speaker and the borg are similarly forced to undergo the trial of robotic performative dating: “Its profile: six of the same photo.” The gray text of the following lines points to this robotic ritual, and invites questioning speaker’s identity as borg or human: “We smiled and said thank you We took the plate with both handsWe / pushed food down our throats and stood in line andwere applauded.” An intriguing volta occurs at the end of the poem as well: “sohappy   we turnedwetook  a bowandthenofcoursewedied,” thus solidifying how both beings can disappear now that the “required” ritual is over.

Choi also reveals the capabilities of violent softness in her attention to what meets the eye of some forms of softness versus the gut feeling of how to react to what we see in it. For instance, although “Turing Test_Love” contains a tender nature, Choi’s speaker juxtaposes this with nuanced and instructional language:

              one / look the human directly in the eye / imagine it is someone you care deeply
for / imagine it is returning this gaze / at you / try to tell yourself / you are covered / in
smooth skin / a face it can trust / smile / even as you sense it / trying / not to blurt out /
monster

She doesn’t portray this violence as inherently purposeful or wrong, but instead, further builds the persona that meshes the seeming divide between human and cyborg.: “three / remember / all humans / are cyborgs / all cyborgs / are sharp shards

Building on the above themes, the collection also discusses the increased misogyny and racism on the Internet before and after the 2016 election. In “A Brief History of Cyborgs,” before girls are faced with sexual harassment from Internet trolls, the trolls “[rub] their soft hands on their soft thighs” to fill the girls with “swastika and garbage.” We are reminded how often girls become vulnerable to violence, especially sexual violence. It is not because of girls’ willingness to trust, it is because of how perpetrators use tools of misogyny to take advantage of them. In some cases, some perpetrators start off with a familiar gentleness before using their power to hurt them.

In one stanza, Choi writes

If tenderness is any sort of currency

maybe I don’t want what it can buy

The speaker refuses to use softness as malleability . The speaker refuses to use softness as a payment for protection that won’t allow her to be her full self.

In “It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Gains Consciousness” the cyborg defends herself against a human. This violence opens the poem: “When the human lunges for my hand, my face / is a perfect solid screen.” The reader then questions the humanity behind the “perfect solid screen” with the lines that follow, which emphasize that physical violence isn’t the only kind of violence: “The human professor shrugs — I’ve been told / it’s not PC to say this anymore but — // Chrome exterior.”

In dismantling the dichotomy between softness and hardness, Choi’s book reveals how humans can decide beyond who/what they are required to please, along with actually being pleased in living. “The Cyborg Meets the Drone at a Family Reunion and Fails to Make Small Talk” is a stunner poem that solidifies this concept: “i guess / we speak the same language ; my namesake ; my namespace ; set up automatic / payments ; tapshare ; squarespeak ; everywhere i swipe :: death…” We can’t just be taught how the world works, we need to know what makes us feel good in the world and how to get it.

Further, we need to learn how to access the proper autonomous sexual healthcare as human beings and simultaneously learn how care can be safe and pleasurable. In C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides, Snorton recounts how medical professionals often prod and pathologize Black women’s bodies as an animalistic/alien in contrast to white women’s bodies; he then analyzes how Black trans people’s bodies are often disregarded through the process of misgendering and deadnaming unless they have gone through “the surgery.”

Historical and present-day accounts continue to display how people of color aren’t seen as “real” in their bodies and their humanity. The historical and present-day accounts continue to disregard how people of color can experience different forms of pain the same way white people can.

Therefore, Choi’s collection is especially relevant to queer and trans people of color who, regardless of their gender or gender expression, are not acknowledged as real — are not worthy of pleasurable bodily autonomy, and ought to be controlled like a machine.

Breaking the binary of gender may be seen as a “new” idea in contemporary life, but the fluidity of gender has been around for such a long time. It is going to continue to live on, and Choi’s book commands that we live in recognition of the ways we desire.

About Maya Williams

Author photo of Maya Williams smiling at the camera with a white door behind em.

Maya Williams (ey/they/she) is a Black Mixed Race suicide survivor and poet. Ey is currently the 7th poet laureate of Portland, Maine. They have book reviews currently and forthcoming in The TempestBlack Girl NerdsThe Rumpus, and more. You can follow more of her work at mayawilliamspoet.com