My September book of the month is Marge Piercy’s excellent Woman on the Edge of Time (1974) published by Women’s Press.
Thirty-seven-year-old Hispanic woman Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, recently released from forced detention in a mental institution, begins to communicate with a figure that may or may not be imaginary: an androgynous young woman named Luciente. She realizes that Luciente is from a future, utopian world in which a number of goals of the political and social agenda of the late sixties and early seventies radical movements have been fulfilled. Environmental pollution, homophobia, racism, phallogocentrism, class-subordination, consumerism, imperialism, and totalitarianism no longer exist in the agrarian, communal community of Mattapoisett.
This is a really fantastic piece of science fiction, set firmly in the utopian tradition. It is easily the best SF I’ve read all year. Not sure how this languished on my shelf for so long, especially with all of the quotes noting its similarities to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.
Luciente’s utopian world is at once recognisable as anarchist-inspired, and touches on many of the anarchist fictional tropes, including war, production, political and social organisation, as well as giving answers to some of the more immediate, common questions posed by critics of anarchism (laziness, murder, luxuries &c).
The contrast between Connie’s 1970s dystopian hell in the two oppressive scenarios, first as an unemployed woman, and then as an institutionalised mental patient, compared with Luciente’s near-paradise future society is as stark as it is satisfying, and whilst at times it seems a little too good to be true, Piercy is less interesting when she explores the practicalities of her utopia than when she is comparing the two wildly different lives Luciente and Connie lead. The similarities to Le Guin are appropriate – both coming from similar radical 70s movements, but Le Guin’s anarchist utopia is gritty and often harsh – where, despite the presence of a distant war with the remnants of capitalist statism, Piercy’s utopia is similar to Morris’s News from Nowhere; it doesn’t really come off as realistic.
Still, despite these flaws, this is a gripping book with some interesting politics, a strong plot, and a nice dose of soft SF.
Interestingly, Piercy opts for the genderless pronoun ‘per’ throughout the dialogue set in the utopian Mattapoisett. In my own novel, The Watcher, I went with the singular ‘they’. Both jar somewhat at first, but I did warm up to Piercy’s choice by the end of the book.
There are plenty of juicy quotes in Woman on the Edge of Time. Here are a few of my favourites.
On class consciousness:
“Tell me why it took so long for you lugs to get started? Grasp, it seems sometimes like you would put up with anything, anything at all, and pay for it through the teeth. How come you took so long to get together and start fighting for what was yours? It seems as if people fought hardest against those who had a little more than themselves or often a little less, instead of the lugs who got richer and richer.’” p. 177
“’The powerful don’t make revolutions… It’s the people who worked out the labor-and-land intensive farming we do. It’s all the people who changed how people bought food, raised children, went to school… Who made new unions, withheld rent, refused to go to wars, wrote and educated and made speeches.’” p. 198
“’There’s always a thing that you can deny an oppressor, if only your allegiance. Your belief. Your cooping. Often even with vastly unequal power, you can find or force an opening to fight back.’” p. 328
“The poor and the weak die with all their anger intact and probably those angers go on growing in the dark of the grave like the hair and the nails.'” p. 51
“’Our notions of evil center around power and greed—taking from other people their food, their liberty, their health, their land, their customs, their pride.’” p. 139
“’You have wonderful faith in other people.’
“’Without that social faith, what a burden it would be to have children! The children are everyone’s heirs, everyone’s business, everyone’s future.’” p. 183
“’Ever hear of being lazy? Suppose I just don’t want to get up in the morning.’
“’Then I must do your wok on top of my own… Who wants to be resented? Such people are asked to leave and they may wander from village to village sourer and more self-pitying as they go. We sadden at it.’” p. 101
“’Power is violence. When did it get destroyed peacefully? We all fight when we’re back to the wall—or to tear down a wall. You know we kill people who choose twice to hurt others. We don’t think it’s right to kill them. Only convenient. Nobody wants to stand guard over another.’” p. 370
On social & political organisation:
“’We think art is production. We think making a painting is as real as growing a peach or making diving gear. No more real, no less real. It’s useful and good on a different level, but it’s productions. If that’s the work I want to do, I don’t have to pass a test or find a patron. But I still have family duties, political duties, social duties, like every other lug.’” p. 267
“’There’s no final authority… We argue till we close to agree. We just continue.’” p. 154
“’Maybe always some cooperating, some competing goes on. Instead of competing for a living, for scarce resources, for food, we try to cooperate on all that. Competing is like… decoration. Something that belongs to sports, games, fighting, wrestling, running, racing, poemfests, carnival…’” p. 174-5
I’ve picked up several second-hand copies of Piercy’s other works since reading this (none of her work is available digitally in the UK, much to my chagrin), including He, She, and It. I’m very much looking forward to ploughing through them over the next couple of weeks.
Go buy it from your local indie!