Why I Chose Franny Choi’s Soft Science for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club

By

The term “soft science” is, in my experience, usually used in a derogatory way, whether talking about the sciences themselves or about science fiction. In the sciences, the term has been used to describe fields of study that are considered by some to be less mathematically rigorous—if physics and chemistry are the “hard sciences,” then sociology and psychology are the “soft sciences.” In literature, the division between “hard” and “soft” science fiction is that hard sci-fi is supposedly more interested in science and soft is more interested in emotions. If you note sexism in both instances, that’s because it’s plain and obvious. So how does Franny Choi’s new collection, forthcoming from Alice James Books on April 2nd, connect to all this?

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Soft Science, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Franny Choi, you’ll need to subscribe by February 20!

The collection is separated into sections by poems titled, in part, “TURING TEST,” after the test devised by World War II-era mathematician Alan Turing, which was created as part of his research into artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence seems, to me, to live in that space between the notions of hard and soft science—mathematics and consciousness connected.

Many of the poems in this collection are in the voice of a cyborg, including the poem “The Cyborg Wants to Make Sure She Heard You Right.” Choi composed this poem out of tweets that were sent to her, which she then ran through multiple languages in Google Translate, then translated back into English, thus illustrating, among other things, the blurry space between humanity and machine for all of us. Again, to return to the collection’s title, you can think of this kind of cyborg as the hard science covered by a soft skin meant to make her seem more human.

Choi works in that blurry space throughout this collection. Many of the poems are written from the perspective of an emerging AI, but there are also many from the point of view of a person with a significant online life, which also qualifies as a cyborg. (Did you know that by most reasonable definitions, we’re all pretty much cyborgs now?) The poem “Chatroulette” is a formally exquisite chain of sonnets in the latter voice, which starts by calling the online world “dirty church” and “two-way periscope,” and casting the speaker as a spider in her web. Here’s an excerpt from the final sonnet:

It was the web I wanted all along:
A face to spin from air with spit and hands.
A sticky picture luring meals to leave

untouched. To be a girl untouched, alive, who sees,
and comes. Who brings herself online.

There’s a desire for control in this poem, and in many other poems in the collection, and an attempt to discern the limits of power and humanity within this artificial space we all inhabit, at least to some extent.

Please join me in March as we read and discuss Soft Science, first together and then with Franny Choi in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by February 20 to make sure you don’t miss out!


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is Senior Poetry Editor at The Rumpus. More from this author →