(1976 / 2016) Marge Piercy, Del Rey, £8.99, pbk, xi + 420pp, ISBN 978-1-785-03378-0
Marge Piercy 's Woman on the Edge of Time, first published in 1976, is arguably a seminal novel of second wave feminism. This edition, re-released in 2016, contains a foreword from the author giving some insight in to why she wrote it and why she feels it is relevant in today's society.
Perhaps to properly review this novel we need to consider it both in its historical context but also whether it stands up to criticism when looked at today.
This novel is of its time, perhaps ironically, both in style and pace as well as setting. Connie Ramos, the central character, finds herself in a mental institution as a result of disagreeing with her niece's pimp boyfriend. However she finds escape in the ability to project her consciousness forward in time. The 'utopia' that she finds is one where race, gender and sexuality are no longer dividing issues, where everyone has what they need and works for the good of everyone. In this future there is no centralised government and everyone has a say in their collective future. Later, Connie projects herself into a different future, either an alternative or geographically separate part of the future. In this dystopia, women are considered commodities and only gain status through contracts with men, the few have much and live long extended lives, the many are poor and die young. There is an implication that Connie actions will perhaps help to choose which future is dominant.
In the context of its time, the authors political activism in second wave feminism and the 'new left' is very clear in the depiction of the utopian future, the rejection of gender stereotypes and the nuclear family in particular show this. The non-traditional sexuality relationships also demonstrate this, but perhaps also reflect the authors own personal preferences. The freedoms and valuing of individual talent is emphasised. The integration of children into adult society is smooth and loving, without control or rebellion. This utopia, according to the foreword, demonstrates the direction that the author hopes that society could move in, that by glimpsing this future we could all be motivated, like Connie, to do our bit to bring about. It is all very inspiring.
But does that utopia sound like a place that I want to work towards, does this novel have relevance in my life or the lives of people today?
The original readers of this novel are likely taken from the familiar to the strange and then to the futuristic. They journey with Connie and can identify with her recognition of what is strange because they share her perspective. The problem being for me is that the starting point is not one I identify with, it was written before I was born, in a country I have not even visited. It is a journey of imagination before it even begin. However the world Connie inhabits is well described and I can imagine it clearly, even if it is not familiar. Connie is generally an easy character to like, if not to identify with.
But, with our twenty first century vision, should we like Connie? Should we empathise with her pain and the cruelty of the situation she is in? Yes her treatment is barbaric, but this is a woman who took drugs and repeatedly physically assaulted her child and then asks the reader to sympathise that her child was taken from her.
And what of the utopia? It sounds so idyllic. Perhaps the communist dream without the repressive regime so often associated with that word? Food for all, but who ensures it is distributed and that everyone gets their share? There is still war against an unspecified enemy, perhaps one who has a different idea of how society should be arranged? Criminals who commit serious crimes more than once are killed. It is not clear what is considered serious or who decides. Drifters and those who do not support the ideal are shunned and perhaps not allowed some of the privileges of the rest of society. There appears to be freedom, as long as you fit in. Births are strictly controlled; breeding in the traditional way seems to be forbidden or at least heavily discouraged. A child has three parents (none biologically related), all of whom have the option to breastfeed (artificially produced). This means that the gender or race of the child is determined by a central facility rather than left to chance or genetics. Culture is therefore no longer linked to race or heritage, people are encouraged to collect culture like magpies, picking of the shiny things. Gender no longer seems to be a factor; the language is primary gender neutral. Sexual fidelity is discouraged, being jealous or unhappy with a partner's sexual choices leads to community intervention. Incest is no taboo, which I guess makes sense where siblings are no longer biologically related and there seems to be no ability to get pregnant. Perhaps most worrying for our modern sensibilities is that sexual relationships between adults, even mentors, and those we consider children or young teenagers are also not a problem in this utopia.
Perhaps in the light of today's cynical view it is not such a dream after all. As an insight into history it is a fascinating read. As inspiration to fight for a more equal society, in my view, it falls short in the harsh light of today.
But what of the book itself? Perhaps beyond the surface of whether we like the dream world that is put in front of us or not, perhaps it has another message.
If what the book is trying to tell us is that even those with all societies privilege stacked against them; gender, race, class, disability, perhaps even Connie can make a choice about what injustice they are not prepared to put up with and take a stand and maybe, just maybe that will be the deciding factor towards a more equal society. Maybe that is a message that is even more relevant in 2016 than it was in 1976.
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