Marge Piercy, “Woman on the Edge of Time” (1976) – Damn… this fucking ruled. A classic of seventies feminist science fiction, “Woman on the Edge of Time” advances multiple visions of the future with daring only rivaled by its vision of its present, the hungover, pessimistic seventies. Consuela Ramos, a middle-aged Chicana woman, starts seeing visions around the second time she is committed by the state to an insane asylum. These visions, however much Connie is annoyed by them at first, are unusually consistent: a person named Luciente, unfailingly polite and positive, telling her about a future, the year 2137. Eventually, Luciente is able to pull Connie’s consciousness into something that is either that future, or a very convincing vision thereof.
Piercy, a major feminist poet of her day as well as a novelist, is unsubtle without being at all cliche- people often conflate the two, but they don’t deserve to be put together. The contrast between Luciente’s future in the village of Mattapoisett (on Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts, not far from Piercy makes her home) and Connie’s present in the asylum might seem like obvious contrasts, but Piercy makes it about more than “good versus bad” or even “free versus oppressive.” It really is life versus death, or human versus machine. The asylum claims to heal, but really just warehouses the poor, sick, and obstreperous until they’re finally utterly disposable, either dead or drooling, passive zombies. Mattapoisett is the product of a successful revolution. The inhabited parts of the world, after decades of ecological catastrophe, now live in confederations of small communities that practice socialist economics, small-scale democratic governance, and generally a lot of “person-centered” culture.
Here’s the deal: the world Luciente presents to Connie is a good deal more hippie-dippy than I’d both think realistic, or even prefer, for a near-utopia. I don’t fetishize smallness, I certainly don’t fetishize nature, and it sounds like these people go to a lot — A LOT — of meetings, for everything from figuring out land use to interpersonal conflict. I’m more of a “fully automated luxury gay space communism” guy. Connie, even once she gets over the disbelief in what she’s seeing, is a little skeptical, too. Everyone has to work on farms? No flying cars? What kind of future is this??
Well, two things. First, Piercy is smart enough to not make it too hippie-dippy. It’s not a full utopia. There is conflict, and the people aren’t always great at dealing with it. Yes, people work on farms- but with profit and rent removed, everyone in general has more leisure time, and most people do other stuff, too, including advanced science, art, etc. Specialization is, in general, less of a thing in this future (again, not totally to my taste, but it’s not as dystopian as some back to the land fantasies). And there is technology- people have what amount to Apple watches, there’s advanced biotech, etc., and, eventually, you see something like flying scooters. That leads to the second thing- Piercy’s sheer power of description, and the wholeness of her vision, make you believe it, and if not necessarily want that future — at least not as much as I’d want Banks’ Culture future — you can see it as a thing of beauty, both reflective of its own time (and how!) and with meaning for ours, and for times to come. You come to know the inhabitants of Mattapoisett, see how they live, work, love, raise children, and die, and there’s a weight to it, a realness even in spite of the utopianism, that you don’t get with just any hippie bullshit. Among other things, I think it’s pretty important a woman wrote this- there’s sexual liberation aplenty, but the real kind, not the stylized sexual assault that countercultural men were often after.
I said that Piercy realizes her time as fully as she does Mattapoisett in 2137. She does- its grit, its grime, its exhaustion, its hopelessness, the many, interlocking ways it can beat people down, the way people learn to accept, even love, their oppressions (and oppressors). Connie isn’t, in any meaningful sense, crazy. She has had just enough hope — hope for education, hope for love, hope for societal progress — that when those hopes were dashed, by family, money, and bad luck, she had few places to turn. If she were more beaten down, she wouldn’t be where she is (she needs to pretend to be more beaten down for plot reasons later in the book). She’s not a plaster saint. She’s cantankerous, and she did something hard to forgive: after the love of her life died, she got drunk and depressed and hurt her little daughter. She paid endlessly for that, but still feels the guilt. Part of her attachment to the ghost of Luciente is seeing her daughter in this future-person.
Like I said- not subtle, but never cliche, and always powerful. Fuck subtle. The man comes for Connie’s head. A group of hotshot doctors (another point of divergence between me and the viewpoint of this book is I’m slightly more pro-psychiatry- but hell, it was the seventies) are cutting open the heads of “violent” patients like Connie and putting hormonal control switches in there. As her own day on the table comes closer, Luciente’s future starts to fade out. It becomes harder and harder for Connie to see. A few times she slips into another future, a cyberpunk avant-la-lettre (William Gibson honors Marge Piercy as a godmother of his genre) hellscape of destroyed nature, inscribed gender roles, and corporate control. If Mattapoisett is going to survive, not only will its inhabitants and the rest of the post-revolutionary future have to fight for it- so will Connie, in her own time. Maybe that’s what seals why I can admire this future, so far in many ways from my own aesthetic- the people earned it through organization, solidarity, courage, the will to fight and risk all… and it is never a certain accomplishment.
This is a singularly beautiful, intriguing, and readable book. But… if I’m going to be as honest as the future Piercy wanted for us, as honest as Piercy is herself here… I did the thing I always wind up doing when I read a second wave feminist author, and upon googling, found Piercy signed off on some bullshit anti-trans public letter. All of the commentary I saw on this was profoundly disappointed. You might see it coming from JK Rowling or Mary Daly or whoever. But among other things… all the Mattapoisett people use gender neutral pronouns! All children have three mothers, some of whom can be men, and are grown in vats before being implanted in one of them! Connie witnesses a man breastfeed! At first, she’s repulsed by the whole setup, she has fairly essentialist ideas, but she rejects them by the end, sees the beauty of it! What gives, Marge?! Anyway, I’m not about to “cancel” Marge Piercy or decide I don’t like — love is the right word — this book. It’s not about “separating art from artist.” It’s about appreciating both as what they are, and aren’t. Both are profoundly human, here, for better and for worse. *****