Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time is either a utopian fantasy or a horrific recognition of the limitations of human evolution, depending upon the reader's perspective. It's a dark and violent novel in which the protagonist has no real hope of salvation, yet the fate of the world may rest within her unsettled psyche. We meet Consuelo Ramos in the midst of a family crisis that ends with her admission to a mental institution. Impoverished and abused, misdiagnosed and tortured, she has every reason to go crazy. Yet she seems perfectly sane until the day when she begins to see visions of people living in the year 2137, who claim to have contacted her because she is "receptive" to them. The citizens of Mattapoisett want Connie to visit their era because if things aren't changed in her present, the future may cease to exist.
Connie is a very unlikely heroine. She appears to be a sociopath to her doctors, who cite as evidence of her instability the fact that she has had a broken marriage, a love affair with a blind pickpocket and a conviction for child abuse. They know nothing of the desperate family and financial crises that have shaped her life, nor can they understand the prejudice to which she has been subjected as a Mexican-American woman. The social workers consider it lucky that Connie has lost custody of her daughter Angelina for the child's sake. They refuse to understand that if Connie is insane, their own cultural failures have made her that way.
Still, when she is first brought to the peaceful future of 2137, Connie reacts with confusion and horror. Mattapoisett seems rural and backward to her. Nearly everyone is required to participate in farming and cleaning; the chores of transportation, public welfare, defense and other necessities are also shared among all members of the community. Citizens receive the option of pursuing higher education, yet careers are distributed on a rotating basis and nearly everyone is involved in public service. Art is produced communally. People may choose to identify with any ethnic or religious group regardless of their genetic backgrounds, but everyone is expected to pray and celebrate together, regardless of affiliation.
And gender, the most intractable difference among human beings, has been eliminated. Children are conceived in laboratories through random selection of genetic attributes and raised to viability in artificial wombs. As members of communities die, groups of three "co-mothers" (who may be male or female) are selected to parent. Hormones stimulate milk production in parents who want to breastfeed, men as well as women. Every child is a wanted child, and all infants and toddlers are housed together in large nurseries. Members of both sexes receive maternity leave just as members of both sexes engage in all forms of physical labor. In the absence of sex-specific activities, gendered language goes out of currency. The word "father" disappears; the word "mother" ceases to be sex-determined. The phrase "sweet friend" replaces both "friend" and "lover," for monogamy, sexual exclusivity and the nuclear family are considered archaic strictures. The unnecessary terms "he" and "she" cease to exist as the term "per" ("person") replaces both.
Connie believes upon first glance that the citizens of Mattapoisett have little personal freedom. The men of the future seem effeminate and weak to her, nor can she relate to her guide Luciente, who is so boyish that Connie believes her to be male (and probably gay) after their first several meetings. Disappointed by the ruralism that reminds her of the backward parts of her native Mexico, she shakes her head at the lack of luxury and expresses disgust with the prevalence of human failings -- insanity, illness, death -- which have not been eradicated in Mattapoisett. People seem to waste a lot of time studying, producing "childlike" art, and celebrating the land. Technology that could be used to remove drudge work like trash collection from their lives instead takes away from women the one task that always defined them and made them essential to human survival -- childbearing. This is not anything Connie has ever imagined when she has dreamed of a better future for her descendants.
But as Connie questions the choices made by Luciente's community, she begins to question her own culture as well. Mattapoisett was founded upon the ashes of Connie's own civilization and has had to make sacrifices to achieve peace and prosperity; among the sacrifices have been synthetic food, animal products, mass entertainment and non-recyclable materials. The political and social commitments of these futuristic socialists and environmentalists come into sharp contrast with American capitalism, with its roots in human and environmental exploitation. The 20th-century hospital where Connie is incarcerated reflects the marketplace; wealthy white male doctors take advantage of minority staff workers and underpaid nurses who cooperate in order to survive financially, treating patients as objects for research. These patients -- largely women, gay men, minorities and lower-class individuals with a history of rebellion against the status quo -- are kept drugged and passive.
While Connie is struggling with this present, Mattapoisett is at war with an alternative future in which a select few wealthy capitalists enjoy long life and affluence on space platforms. The rest of the human population lives on a decayed Earth, kept acquiescent with drugs, selling their sexual favors and later their organs to the rich until they die before reaching forty. The technological bureaucracy supporting this system is attempting to maintain control by influencing the past -- specifically, Connie's era. As she watches people from her own century destroy the environment, silence radical voices and empower centralized forces to kill off opposition, she witnesses independent, intelligent Luciente, "the light-bearer," transmuting into sex-stereotypical, vacuous Gildina, a futuristic prostitute who expects to die selling her organs so that some faraway rich woman can live forever.
The battle that Connie witnesses in the future inspires her to act in the present, by means of a shocking act of violence that ensures her own destruction and holds no guarantees for the protection of Mattapoisett. She throws off her victimization to become a revolutionary, realizing that she has little left to lose: she sees herself as "on the edge of time," defending a future that belongs not to her but to her lost daughter and descendants. Ironically, Connie's decision to take personal action comes from her fear of "losing her mind" -- not to her visions, but to the hospital that is supposed to protect her sanity -- for she is scheduled to have an experimental operation that will numb her feelings and destroy her individuality.
Woman on the Edge of Time is hard to place into any genre. To call it "utopian fiction," "magical realism" or a "women's novel" requires a conscious ideological choice. Is the book an optimistic story of human agency triumphing over oppression? Or is it an upsetting endorsement of violence as a means for social change? The answer will depend on the perspective of the reader. Connie's gender, ethnicity and social class are integral to her disenfranchisement. She makes the decision to turn the weapons of her culture back upon their wielders, to seize power by the sole means available to her. But is Connie sane, and what standards might one use to decide? She is never certain that she is not hallucinating Luciente and Mattapoisett; she distrusts her own imagination, which has been manipulated, medicated, and mocked in the past. Does Mattapoisett even exist -- can it exist, and it is worth the sacrifices? Even if it is a dream, is Connie wrong to lash out at the corrupt scientists and bureaucrats of her own era?
The novel offers no easy answers to these questions. Like Thelma and Louise, Connie's insurrection can be read as either escapist triumph or social tragedy, though in this case there are more victims, even if none of them are innocent. But it's hard to determine who should be defined as a victim versus a collaborator. Those on Connie's ward who cannot conjure a hopeful future either become addicted to the "high" from their neural implants or commit suicide. Piercy is careful to toe the subjective line between freedom fighter and terrorist, not to allow innocent nurses or patients to die from Connie's actions, but it is difficult to view Connie as a role model nonetheless.
Woman on the Edge of Time is an angry text. The utopian yearning cannot disguise its rage; there are no idealized heroes and the villains come a bit close to stereotypes like Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Yet the prose, in both the science fiction segments and the fatalistic present, has the compelling flow of poetry, and the bluntness of Connie's self-expression keeps her grounded even when she questions her own sanity.
Like her main character, Piercy labels the effort to transform the world a war. Known for her radical political activism in the 1960s -- particularly for her involvement with groups which advocated armed struggle -- Piercy favors violent insurgence in many of her poems and novels. Yet she chooses writing, not violence, as her means of insurrection. Connie's violence may not be able to safeguard the future, but Piercy's unshrinking commitment to finding radical solutions to age-old problems itself offers hope for the strength of the human spirit.
Green Man Reviews