The kind of science fiction that’s easiest for a mainstream writer to write is the utopia or dystopia, because it’s a genre that started off as mainstream satire. The most famous twentieth-century examples, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four were both written by mainstream writers (though I prefer to see Orwell’s career as that of someone coming towards SF) and are the examples to which any science fiction novel the literary establishment notices are most likely to be compared. Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) is both utopia and dystopia, it’s amazingly well written, it has characters you could draw from memory, and it’s just brilliant. Piercy later in He, She and It tried to write a cyberpunk novel and was much less successful. Her historical novel City of Darkness, City of Light has the same problem. Piercy’s real strength is characterisation, and she’s best at that when writing about people from her own lifetime and experience. Woman on the Edge of Time is the only book where she manages to make her strengths work for her with something wider.
Marge Piercy is an American feminist poet and novelist. Unlike Atwood, whom I discovered entirely because she wrote a book that won the Clarke award among controversy sufficient to make me read it, I discovered Piercy’s SF via her mainstream work. The first thing of hers I picked up was Braided Lives, a terrific novel about a working-class girl from Detroit growing up and going to college and becoming a poet. It’s about relationships in a realistic way that blew me away when I was seventeen, and it was the first thing I read about American left-wing politics. It was one of the first contemporary American novels I read that wasn’t SF. I read it because I was in Greece where English-language fiction was available in limited supply. (It was odd. On the one hand, I had far better access to American books than I’d ever had—I bought Le Guin’s The Beginning Place (UK title: Threshold) and Compass Rose literally years before they had British editions. On the other, books were very expensive and there wasn’t a great selection.) I read Braided Lives because someone had left it in a hotel room. It led me immediately to try other US college novels, The Group and The Last Convertible, and when I got back to Britain, all the rest of Piercy.
I didn’t realise at the time how unusual Piercy is—she’s not just a feminist, she’s an American who was involved in the 1960s “New Left” and who writes about class in the US and community organization. (I hope I’m not putting you off.) She’s so far to the left of the general right-libertarian trend of US SF that I doubt H. Beam Piper (who sits beside her on my alphabetical bookshelf) could have seen her from where he was standing. But her books are always about people and their lives—an older woman getting divorced and falling in love again, with community organization and arson (Fly Away Home) or the way the women coped with World War II (Gone to Soldiers) and they all have vivid memorable characters. They’re American women’s fiction with the focus on the characters and the relationships, but with a surprising sensibility. Orwell wanted children’s stories where the sympathy was with the anarchists escaping instead of the police pursuing. These are really the literary women’s fiction equivalent of that.
So, I loved Piercy, and I read everything I could of hers, and I knew about Woman on the Edge of Time and that it was science fiction, but for a long time I couldn’t get hold of it. It wasn’t in print and I couldn’t find it. I have a US paperback I bought second hand in Hay-on-Wye. I found it in a basement, in one of those “Am I dreaming?” moments of sheer delight. I glowed. There were choruses of angels singing. All the same, the first time I read it, I didn’t like it at all.
Woman on the Edge of Time is about Connie, a Mexican-American woman who has very little and loses even that. I said it’s both a utopia and a dystopia, but the dystopia is the real world of the US in 1976. Connie’s life has sucked. She’s thirty-six, she’s been in a mental hospital for child abuse, and her daughter has been taken from her. The book starts with her living on welfare, but in the first chapter she is sent back to the mental hospital after attacking her niece’s pimp who is trying to force her niece to have a backstreet abortion. The book is written entirely from Connie’s point of view and we hear all about her life, which has been almost all awful, even the good bits are pretty awful, and yet she’s managed to wring what joy from them she can. And what makes it worst of all is that it’s all real—Connie isn’t real, but there are people just like her, and their lives really are that bad. Some things have improved since 1976. Mental hospitals have, and it’s just as well, because the mental hospital Connie goes to is as horrific as anything I’ve ever read. The experiment she’s forced to have, to use electrodes in the head to control her violence, is very much the superscience of the time. But it’s horrible, and the general effect is pretty much unbearable, though beautifully written.
Below in the street evening hummed to the rhythm of high and low drums, a rising tide of dealing and hustling, a push of the young and the not-so-young to score, to get laid. At a simmer, the slow bubbles rising through the thick air, sex and traffic quickened El Barrio. In thousands of meetings—accidental, accidental-on-purpose, clandestine, dating and courting—men were picking up women on corners, on stoops, in the family apartments, couples were going down the rotten stairs shoulder to shoulder, to restaurants and movies and bars and dancing. Women with no money were working magic in front of dim mirrors, frowning with concentration as they waited for men to arrive. Couples climbed into cars and shot off into the night. Couples picked up barbecued ribs and chicharrones, couples carried packages of Chinese-Cuban takeout upstairs to their rooms. Men met their pushers and their dealers, or missed them and turned to ash. On the roofs pigeons were released to fly, to circle together fluttering like clean handkerchiefs among the chimneys where kids turned on and shot up and packages and money were exchanged.
All this is contrasted with the future utopia of the Mouths of Mattapoisett, whose people reach out to Connie in the past to get her to help their future become the real future. Their utopia is very interesting, with a number of unusual features. Connie does tend to wander around asking how this works and how that works, but Piercy writes so much better than most people doing “visitor to utopia” stories that this hardly a problem. The utopians live very simply and ecologically—though global warming wasn’t a noticed problem yet, they’re trying to get the earth back in balance from pollution and abuse. It’s surprising how green they are and in what directions, and how much our perception of what green is has changed.
They live communally and make polyamorous families, but the oddest thing about them is that they have abolished live births—all babies are born from the “brooder,” a uterine replicator as in Bujold and Cherryh, or of course, Brave New World. Every child has three “mothers” (of either gender) who are genetically unrelated to the child. As a kind of side effect, skin colour has become detached from culture—they’re making sure to increase the proportions of black and hispanic genes through the population, but they want to avoid racism so this randomness, where colour is entirely aesthetic. I suspect in 1976 this read as entirely positive (it did to me in the eighties)—and the two villages we see have Native American and “Harlem Black” cultures. (You can move, and there are people of all shades in both the villages we see.) This reads very weirdly now, and you have to wonder about the first generation of people doing it. I find this whole “ethnicity divorced from genes and colour as purely aesthetic” potentially problematic now, but within the novel it’s part of the same thing as women giving up the right to have children—the powerless giving up the power they do have, to share it all as equals.
Mattapoisett isn’t perfect. They’re at war with the last of the rich, and people die in the war. They have limited resources, which they share as best they can. They make decisions consensually, and spend a lot of time in meetings arguing. They have “wormings” where people who aren’t getting along have to talk it through in front of everyone. There’s a lot of the sixties and seventies commune about them, and a lot of the kind of ideas that were around in seventies feminism. There are odd little things like the rite-of-passage for the kids, the way they change names casually, the way they learn all the time. They’re communicating with dolphins and aliens. The characters are very much the product of their environment—this is where Piercy gets science fiction right. They couldn’t have grown up anywhere else and be who they are. She’s taken types of character that people were trying hard to be in the sixties and seventies and reimagined them as if they were like that naturally and happily, and this really works. The characters are great. They belong to their world and their story belongs to them. Not that they have a story, really. There are no stories in utopia, there’s just life puttering along. The story of Woman on the Edge of Time is the story of Connie in the mental hospital.
When Connie has electrodes in her head and thrusts herself forward, hoping to reach them, she finds herself in a different future, one where poor women are surgically enhanced whores, old at forty, rich people live several hundred years on space platforms, and everything is horrible. The time travel project that causes Luciente to contact and recruit Connie in the first place is the attempt of the utopians to prevent this future and ensure their own. The air is yellow and the sky is grey and everyone is on drugs all the time. Once she’s seen this, Connie wants to prevent this and bring the other future into reality. To do this, she tries to escape, and eventually she acts.
There will be real spoilers from now on!
This brings me to why I read the book again now. I always welcome a new way of reading a book I’m very familiar with, and Daniel Abraham suggested one in the thread on The Handmaid’s Tale.
Woman on the Edge of Time is one of those books that makes me very uncomfortable because it had one detail in it that can’t quite work its way out from under my skin, and how I interpret it changes the rest of how I see the book. It’s like one of those face/vase illusions where the whole book keeps flickering from one book to a different one. I read it in college lo these two decades ago, and it *still* bugs.
The name of the doctor Connie is trying to kill is the same as the future-world verb for “to learn”: Redding. And the closer she gets to killing him, the harder it is for her to get to the (semi-)idyllic future.
And poof. A very different book. See?
The first time I read the book it depressed me. Subsequently, I came to see Connie’s murder of the doctors as a little victory that would ensure the future, even though she got sent back to Rockaway. (The very end, her case file in which it diminishes her “two years of college” to “one year and three months of community college” and so on is heartbreaking even so.) So I’d managed to see it as a hopeful, if not happy ending, and as I like the characters and it’s brilliantly written, I’ve re-read it quite often. However, re-reading it with Daniel Abraham’s interpretation in mind, it’s perfectly possible that Piercy did mean it to be read the other way. When Connie steals the poison she thinks
This was a weapon, a powerful weapon that came from the same place as the electrodes and the thorazine and the dialytrode. One of the weapons of the powerful, of those who controlled.
Yet we’re told that the utopia came about through people organizing and co-operating, not turning the weapons of the powerful back on them. In Vida, Piercy also condemns violence for its own sake and the easy answers it seems to promise. Vida also has a downer ending. (I assumed Vida was SF when I first read it, but it isn’t, though it could be in the same universe as The Armageddon Rag.) Connie also thinks she can’t reach the future because she’s stopped “catching,” being empathic, and being empathic is something they value. Has she chosen the wrong future? Also, Skip was suicidal and when they gave him the treatment he successfully killed himself. Connie wasn’t really violent, but did the treatment make her violent? The song they sing about the war is “An army of lovers cannot fail” but she acts in hate.
I’d really prefer to see the end as hopeful, but the more I think about it, the harder it’s getting to do that.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.