Friday, November 30, 2018

Feminist Futures: Woman on the Edge of Time

Dossier: Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time [Knopf, 1976]

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary: After attempting to protect her niece from an abusive pimp, Connie Ramos is brutally beaten and then institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital where she is frequently medicated and not believed that *she* is the victim and not the aggressor. Connie has a history of mental illness, drug abuse, and had previously lost custody of her child. 

It is as part of that mental instability that Piercy reveals Connie can see and hear Luciente, a woman from the future who wishes to show off that nearly utopian future as something Connie needs to aspire to because it is women like Connie who can help make that future come true. 

Traveling somehow to 2137 Connie is introduced to a possible future that has solved pollution, racism, classism, sexism, and has upended every social and political structure in order to build a better world than the one Connie knows.

Feminist Future: From the opening scenes of the real world dystopian hellscape of 1970's era poverty, mental illness, and sex trafficking, Marge Piercy paints a damning picture of instutionalism and the social politics of poverty and mental health. It rings all too true and echoes the horror stories many of us have grown up reading.

That part of Woman on the Edge of Time isn't the feminist future. At the time Piercy was writing, that was telling the truth through contemporary fiction. The feminist future is Connie's initially inadvertent time travel to the year 2137. This is a vision of the future offering a return to a more pastoral and cooperative society. As mentioned in the Executive Summary, that future has solved the problems of pollution, racism, classism, sexism, greatly reduced crime to almost nil, and the nature of the community is so foreign to Connie that she can barely accept how it could work or that, despite the hell she is traveling from, it could even be desirable. 

On the surface (and a bit deeper), it is a utopian future. There is still conflict, but that conflict is far away. The ruined Earth is not fully healed and restored, but it is well on its way. The society of Mattapoisett has eliminated hierarchy. Everyone contributes based on their skills and inclinations. There is widely available mental health care without stigma. Oh, and children are raised by three non biological mothers, some of which are male.
"How can men be mothers! How can some kid who isn't related to you be your child?"

[. . .]

"It was part of women's long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up, too, the only power we ever had in return for no more power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth. Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we'd never be equal. And males never would be humanized to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers. Every child has three. To break the nuclear bonding."
Piercy envisions a far more equitable society, balanced and harmonious in all (or most) ways. That Connie is Mexican-American (her full name is Consuela) is completely unremarkable in the future she visits. Mattapoisett is a comfortably mixed race community where gender and sexual preference is unimportant.

Hope for the Future: Marge Piercy presents an ultimately hopeful future, but offers no promise that it will be achieved. One of the central points to the scenes set in the future is that Luciente is hoping that Connie will be one of the change agents to help move society a step closer to making that future a reality. On the surface, the idea that a lone individual forcibly locked into a mental hospital and non voluntarily undergoing experimental treatment could be a focal point for change seems somewhat absurd.

On the other hand, the bestselling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks details how the cells of a poor woman, taken without her knowledge or permission, became vital to the development of vaccines and other advances in medicine. So, whether from an act of resistance or a violation of Connie's autonomy, perhaps Connie could be that change agent. Perhaps there is a future where she is out of the facility and her actions spark a movement. 

There's no way to know, of course, because Woman on the Edge of Time ends with ambiguity. Not only do we not know if that future was true, we don't know if Connie's resistance put humanity on the course of positive change or if it will move to the corporate hell that she glimpsed in a different visit to the future.

Legacy: Consistently mentioned among the most notable feminist science fiction novels of the 1970's, Woman on the Edge of Time has maintained its status as a major feminist novel for the last forty years. It may not be in the first tier of novels mentioned (for that, you would consider works like The Female Man or The Dispossessed), but it is pretty firmly in that next list of titles discussed.  

It is notable that when Wiscon included a Retrospective Award when presenting the James Tiptree Jr Award in 1995, Woman on the Edge of Time was included. It is also notable the novel has remained in print and a new edition published in 2016, marking the novel's 40th anniversary. Not many otherwise classic works can say the same.

In Retrospect: To the point that we consider "literary" fiction as its own genre rather than a false marker of quality, Woman on the Edge of Time is arguably more of a "literary" novel than it is a speculative fiction novel. 

I'm a "big genre" reader, meaning that if a novel has speculative elements it's part of the genre. So, by no means am I pushing Woman on the Edge of Time out of the genre. It's stone classic and there is no question that it is an integral part of the genre. One of the more interesting aspects of the novel, though, is whether Connie's time travel is all in her mind or not. 

If it is all in her head, this is a straight up literary fiction novel detailing the horror and barbarism of experimental mental health care when the novel was written in the 1970's.

More than forty years later, it holds up. Perhaps some of the details of institutionalism have changed, and hopefully for the better, but the presumed lack of humanity of the poor and the ill is something we see all too often today. The power and pain in Piercy's storytelling is just as strong today as it must have been when readers first encountered this novel in 1976. The portrayal of Connie's medical "treatment" after being involuntarily committed is incredible in its raw alienation.

Whether readers accept the future setting of Connie's time travel as something that really happened or if it is viewed as part of Connie's mental illness (or drug abuse), the simple fact is that Woman on the Edge of Time is a straight up gripping novel that has stood the test of time.


For its time: 4/5
Read today: 4/5.
Wollstonecraft Meter: 8/10

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.