Solving sexism and racism, eliminating class lines and poverty, reaching an ecologically sound balance between technology and limited energy sources? What’s not to like? Well, it depends on whether the author can pull off all that without being heavy handed. It’s not easy. Woman on the Edge of Time isn’t just a feminist example of agenda-driven science fiction as Motherlines and The Handmaid’s Tale are; its central character is a Latina on welfare, who’s been (re)committed to a mental hospital because she broke her niece’s pimp’s nose. We’re talking multiple agendas here…and yet Marge Piercy pulls it off, in my opinion. I don’t much care for agenda driven fiction as a rule, as the authors I’ve come across thus far seem to spend too much time belaboring us with the Point Of The Book, as if to club a clue into our brains1. In no small part, I think this is because Piercy handles it with more humor than others; this is the woman who brought us Attack of the Squash People, after all. This book isn’t perfect–it’s still quite obviously an agenda driven novel–but it’s the most bearable one I’ve found so far.
The plot isn’t terribly complicated: Connie Ramos is contacted by Luciente, a plant geneticist from one possible alternative future as she’s at a pivotal point in time, and may have the power to affect which future becomes reality. At first, Connie believes she’s sinking back into the insanity doctors have convinced her afflicts her, but as the two continue contact, and she manages to travel both to Luciente’s future, and to the dystopian alternative they’re seeking to avoid, she comes to believe in its reality. The novel ends when Connie takes action by poisoning the doctors who seek to perform a mind control operation on her. The novel does not make clear whether this will decide the future one way or another as, by doing so, she’s closed herself off from communication from either future. We can only hope it has helped.
The book is very much a product of its time, though still enjoyable2. The utopian potential future is an interesting mix of agrarian “back to the land” lifestyle and advanced scientific and technological techniques. This is in no small part an effort to make the best use of limited resources: the locals raise their own food as much as they can but hazardous or tedious tasks, such as mining and weaving, are mechanized. People ride bicycles for short trips, but use light rail for longer trips. And so on. Children are “born” as bottle babies, reminiscent of Brave New World, but given to a trio of adoptive parents to be raised, and both men and women nurse infants. People have private rooms but eat and live communally in many respects; this isn’t true communism as people do own some things, but wealth is spread equally to ensure that everyone has all they need. Call it an alternative community straight from the 1970s, but with advanced scientific techniques. The utopian future is very much a sensual future; people dance, sing, eat, have parties, and [clears throat delicately] enjoy relationships. Indeed, I’d move there just for the food: Piercy’s descriptions of what is, essentially, a vegetarian commune meal of salad, bean soup, and cornbread with honey left me drooling.
I think what saves Women on the Edge of Time from sinking into the Morass of Agenda Entanglement is partly the humor and partly the amount of detail Piercy pours into the book. It’s half again as long as Dreamsnake, so Piercy can include considerable detail, though the old saw of members of the alien society explaining to an outsider (Connie) how their society works gets a trifle wearing. On the other hand, I appreciate one character commenting “Luciente can show you government, but no one is working there today.” as well as Luciente’s trenchant summary of the medical combine’s attempts at selling us drugs by labeling every effect they don’t want to use as a selling point as a “side effect”.
One conclusion that could be drawn from this book is “No society designed and used by humans will be a perfect Utopia. They’re just the best we can come up with.” The message I’d also take away from this novel, though, is a slightly chastening one: if members of an oppressed group want true equality, they must be prepared to give something up. In the future society, color is separated from culture by retaining the genetic diversity in existence today…but ensuring that a mix of colors comprises each cultural group: the group which Connie visits in the future is culturally Wamponoag Indian, but there are black, Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian members of the village, and a similar mix at the neighboring town, which is “Harlem”. Black pride exists, but not exclusively amongst people of black skin color. Women must relinquish the sole right to bear and nurse children if they want to be on a par with men.
1or why I never returned to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and deeply regretted attempting Oryx and Crake
2translation: it’s dated, but not irredeemably so