Golem are the ultimate expression of humanity’s ability to treat any form of life, even those we are responsible for, as a resource to be used, exploited and disposed of.
Inspired by Jewish folklore (on the understanding that even those myths which are nearly completely detached from the extremities of the hidden possibilities that our impossible world allows have an insight into some form of truth) the existing golem to whose existence I can speak are, if anything, more incredible than that first mythic and divinely-powered guardian. The earliest examples of these golem were created in the 1920s and are generally believed to have been based off the research of Jewish-American scientists, though the details and specifics are a source of much speculation - most of it appearing to be quite baseless. Nonetheless in certain circles and for certain tasks, the golem have become a recurrent fixture of the twentieth century.
The process of building a golem and imbuing them with an animus is called “a making”, more a linguistic nod to the mystical than an accurate representation of the detailed art of the reality. Like the golem of legend, they are crafted by hand; the difference being that in reality a golem’s bones, internal organs, musculature and other systems must be accurately and expertly moulded as close to life as possible, then assembled in a painstakingly slow construction. In place of clay this process requires a substrate of gene-coded retroviral RNA fragments suspended in a thaumatologically-activated aluminium phyllosilicate, the creation of which is itself a protracted and delicate blend of common and only half-understood sciences and arts.
Once this work is done, checked and rechecked, golem must be matured in culture chambers; glass coffins in which the still-lifeless simulacra float inert, immersed in a dark water filled with chemicals. Their inorganic nature is still apparent at this point, their skins mottled and patchily miscoloured, pale greys and terracottas, some almost ebon in places, too roughly hewn and too smoothly polished by turns. After several weeks in these chambers the golem grow increasingly similar to the humans they have been designed to live as, whether as replacements or unique beings, and they are ready for the catalysing spark of what their creators refer to as a pseudo-life and the implantation of memories and instructions.
I believe that this euphemistic distinction is an attempt to absolve those who create golem of their responsibilities, to make themselves their engineers and technicians rather than something closer to the parent-gods of our infancies. As you might have surmised from these descriptions of their making, golem are ruinously expensive to create and relatively few governments and organisations (and even fewer individuals) have the resources, let alone the requisite knowledge, to produce them even on a limited scale, despite advances in the automation of the process. As a result golem are created and treated as highly specialised tools, ideal for spy- and state-craft as completely untraceable agents or perfect and programmable replacements for disagreeable opponents whose deaths or disappearances might garner unwelcome suspicion.
While golem can be injured as easily as any human and have bodies with a similar capacity for self-repair, these mechanisms are more task-oriented and only activate in response to damage. As a result, the outer layers of a golem’s skin are not sloughed off and replaced with the same frequency as those of humans and, since dust is largely made up of dead skin, golem leave less evidence of their presence and passing. This, clearly, is an asset when they are set - usually unwillingly - to unsavoury, even murderous purposes, because their masters do not have to concern themselves with the same preponderance of trace evidence that human operatives leave in their wake.
Golem can maintain their cover, or the implanted belief in their own humanity, over protracted periods due to the fact that they age; though in their case ageing is the result of a weakening of the thaumatologically-activated bonds holding their substance together. This evinces itself similarly - albeit more rapidly - to the ageing process in adult humans but, crucially, only the ageing process of adults. Uncommon as any golem are, those designed to appear as children are even rarer - usually programmed to carry out timely and specific tasks before their deterioration has to be explained away (either as a late-onset variant of progeria or some similarly unlikely condition).
Also, in spite of the necessary effort put into recreating the anatomy of the human body as precisely as possible, several of a golem’s autonomic functions become entirely cosmetic one they have been granted life. Both the circulatory and pulmonary systems are quite unnecessary for golem to continue to live, though the control and determination needed to consciously stop either through force of will alone are tremendous. For golem who are programmed to believe that they are humans the cessation of one or both of these functions - their apparent deaths - will usually trigger some secondary, limited personality driven by instructions to extricate themselves from whatever circumstances they are in and make their way back to their creators for debrief and, eventually, a deconstruction which salvages some of their raw materials for reuse.
The unceremonious, utilitarian extinguishing of their lives is not, however, a forgone conclusion. In my investigation of the stories of these remarkable beings I found mention of free golem, an underground group of those who - by chance and happenstance - had escaped the limits of their programming and implanted memories and come to both an understanding and an acceptance of their nature. Their stories varied, but those who once believed that they were human shared a typical trauma, the existential shock and accompanying somatic sicknesses of an anamnestic decompression: an acute and sometime near-fatal cascade of all their real and repressed memories being unlocked and experienced simultaneously.
Reconciling their unwanted double lives is not easy, with many having to leave behind everything and everyone they had known and loved in their human lives. Others - a lucky handful - had managed to hold onto those connections, with partners and friends accompanying them into their new lives and helping the loosely-organised group liberate and hide others of their kind. Still, I felt no small amount of shame when speaking with the free golem. They do not share the questions we have about our creators and our grander purposes; they have met their gods and we are, by and large, a disappointment. Nonetheless they bore me no ill will, and I write of their existence and their work with their blessing; a grace and generosity of which I am not sure we are deserving.