Monday, October 10, 2011

The Present Is a Disputed Area

I've been putting off rereading Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time for the same reason anyone hesitates to return to a much-loved work from the past: for fear it wouldn't be as good as I remember. But if anything, it's better.

I first read it in the fall of 1976, a few months after it was published. A friend had taken me to hear Piercy reading her poems, and then to hear her talking to a class, so she'd already made a big impression on me. Then a few people were passing around a copy of Women on the Edge of Time, and I read it twice within a few days before giving it to the next person. It was a slightly unsettling experience, because I'd never before read a book that felt like it was pandering to my politics. Most science fiction, let alone mundane fiction whether gay or straight, required a lot of filtering as I read it, to compensate for sexism, racism, and homophobia. Reading Woman on the Edge of Time was like stepping on a step that wasn't there; the adjustments had already been made for me. I felt enormously grateful to Piercy for the gift of such a story.

The frame story of Woman on the Edge of Time is set in New York City around 1975. Consuelo ("Connie") Ramos is thirty-seven, a Mexican-American woman living on welfare. She was born in Texas, but gradually migrated north to Chicago, and later moved to New York. When the novel opens she has already been institutionalized once, for abusing her young daughter Angelina while in a long despairing drunk following the death of her lover Claud; previously she'd spent some time in jail as Claud's accomplice as a pickpocket. When her niece Dolly's violent pimp Geraldo follows Dolly to Connie's apartment, Connie attacks Geraldo in Dolly's defense, and is railroaded back into a mental institution. Connie meets and befriends several other patients, and with some of them is drafted into a psychosurgical experiment typical of the period: the doctors hope to control "antisocial" behavior through direct stimulation of the subjects' brains. This is one major stream of the story.

We also learn that Connie has been visited by Luciente, who claims to be a visitor from the future, part of a time-travel project in 2137. Gradually, through telepathic contact, Connie is able to visit Luciente's world. Piercy leaves open the question of whether Luciente is supposed to be real or Connie's hallucination, though within the story it's clear enough. The other major stream is Connie's, and the reader's, introduction to twenty-second century Mouth-of-Mattapoisett in Massachusetts, a community patterned after Wamponaug Indian culture, though with a mixture of high technology -- Piercy had a better sense of where computers would go than most sf writers in the 70s -- and close-to-the-earth poverty.

"Our technology did not develop in a straight line from yours," Luciente tells Connie. "We have limited resources. We plan cooperatively. We can afford to waste ... nothing" (125). And: "We don't have big cities -- they didn't work" [68]. Sometime in the twenty-first century there was a major revolution, and now the ultrarich elites control only the Moon, the space platforms, and Antarctica; a war of attrition is still being waged. (Page numbers are from the Fawcett mass-market paperback, still in print after all these years.)

We get glimpses of a few other communities: Cranberry, based on "Harlem-Black" culture, and Ned's Point, "the flavor of Eastern European Jewry" (153). We're told that the First Nations have their own territory, and Connie meets a young Latina from Texas who tells her that things are somewhat different there too: "What we've done with adobe over the past forty years -- how it glows. We eat plenty of meat too, not like here, where they think one skinny cow makes a fiesta!" (210). The communities aren't isolated from each other, though: there's a lot of trade and other interaction between them, especially for educational purposes. Young people travel to study with masters in their field, and may settle in the masters' communities, move to others, or return home.

I noticed very forcefully on this reading how radical was Piercy's approach to sex/gender and race. Babies are incubated in a "brooder," because as one woman character tells Connie,
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 [105].
On race, another character explains,
I have a sweet friend living in Cranberry dark as I am and her tribe is Harlem-Black. I could move there anytime. But if you go over, you won't find everybody black-skinned like her and me, any more than they're all tall or all got big feet. ... At grandcil -- grand council -- decisions were made forty years back to breed a high proportion of dark people and to mix the genes well through the population. At the same time, we decided to hold on to separate cultural identities. But we broke the bond between genes and culture, broke it forever. We want there to be no chance of racism ever again. But we don't want the melting pot where everybody ends up with thin gruel. We want diversity, for strangeness breeds richness [103-104].
These are still threatening ideas, not only in mainstream American society but also in multiculturalist circles -- to say nothing of other cultures.

Even more threatening, I think, would be Piercy's handling of gender. Piercy invented neuter pronouns, "person" and "per", for her future, and broke the bond between reproductive organs and gendered expression. (In Mattapoisett, people usually refer to males and females, instead of men and women, except when they're talking about historical conditions and struggles.) This leads to a lot of confusion for Connie, who sometimes can easily discern the sex of the people she meets in Mattapoisett, but more often can't. So we get scenes like this one:
"When I was born, I was named Peony by my mothers --"
"Peony sounds like a girl's name" [says Connie].
"I don't understand. It was the name chosen for me" [77].
And this one:
Finally she heard a high-pitched warning siren and a fast-moving vehicle flashing red lights came shrieking toward them about a foot off the ground. It came to an abrupt halt right outside the tent and settled with a hiss. White Oak [the pilot] hopped out and a person -- the voice [Connie had heard over an audio communicator] had been male, she thought -- about five feet nine, compactly built, slid out of the other side and strode with quick, slithery grace toward the tent. Bolivar, she supposed, had kinky hair worn in braids fully as elaborate as Erzulia's, but his skin was fair and heavily freckled with the sun. He wore a knee-length ... she could not call it anything but a dress, with stripes on the bias [160].
Many readers today, I think, would try to read characters like these as "transgendered," but that's a concept that would have no meaning in a society where gender isn't an important category. I see "transgender" and "genderqueer" as largely conservative if not reactionary trends, attempts to hold on to standard gender patterns -- partly, I suppose, as a result of the influence this book has had on me. (To clarify, however quixotically: this doesn't mean that I think people shouldn't be free to express and label gender, to dress and decorate themselves, and to modify their bodies, as they wish. Of course they should: that's an old Gay Liberation tenet that I still hold to. But I still think that many trans people are very conservative in their view of gender and sex. Someday I'll do a post on that.) A reviewer on Amazon referred to the future Mattapoisett as "a female dominated society," which supports my feeling that many people perceive sexual equality as female domination.

Beyond these matters, Woman on the Edge of Time is a very rich book. Piercy put a great deal of work into her future societies (there's also a chilling dystopian chapter that gives a glimpse into the culture of the "richies," which seems even less distant now than it did thirty-five years ago), but she also describes contemporary American society with a careful and critical eye. Piercy has been a political activist for many years, first in the New Left and then in Second Wave feminism, and in environmental and international solidarity movements since then. She gives a little of this background to Connie, who recalls,
Years ago I was living in Chicago. I got involved that way. Meetings, meetings, meetings! My life was so busy, my head was boiling! I felt such hope. It was after my husband Martín ... He got killed. I was young and naive and it was supposed to be a War on Poverty. ... But it was just the same political machine and us stupid poor people, us ... idiots who thought we were running things for a change. We ended up back where we were. They gave some paying jobs to so-called neighborhood leaders. All those meetings. I ended up with nothing but feeling sore and ripped off [154].
"Paying jobs to neighborhood leaders" ... that rings a bell somehow. Later, I think they came to call themselves "community organizers."

Piercy's depiction of the brain salad surgeons and their self-justifying prattle helped to harden my own distrust of psychiatry. Another reviewer of this novel on Amazon wrote, "I'm certain that back in the 70s, and even today, there are places like this, although I doubt that implanting devices into mental patients' heads (surely a plot device) has ever taken place." His doubt is seriously misplaced; psychosurgery and attempts to control "deviant" behavior by stimulating the brain electrically had a brief vogue in the Sixties and Seventies. It went somewhat undercover, partly because its most distinguished exponent left the US for Spain, but he recently came back, and he's tanned, rested and ready. The writer Arthur Koestler wrote a novel in 1972, The Call Girls, using the same procedure as a plot device, which I think far inferior to Piercy's; but then it's written from the perspective of the doctors, not the patients. (Koestler's question is: What if the technology breaks down?  Piercy's is: What if it works?)  The general mentality has always been with us, of course.

I should add, and stress, that the politics of the book didn't get in the way -- at least for me. If you disagree with them, they probably will. Science fiction and especially utopian fiction are literature of ideas more than action, and tend to be didactic. But Piercy is also good at depicting characters in difficult situations. Her characters are unusual for science fiction: women, people of color, poor people, mental patients. (If you find Woman on the Edge of Time excessively preachy, compare it to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which is at least as driven by sexual politics -- male-supremacist sexual politics -- and is every bit as preachy about the conditions of [male] mental patients. Their plight is, among other things, a metaphor for the suffering of men in a "matriarchal" society, a popular obsession in masculist literature of the period.)

Granted, Mattapoisett has the same weakness that most utopian societies do: it has no subconscious. The guide figure can explain everything to the visitor, and there's no underside; everything is as the guide describes it. For a comparison, imagine a normal, politically sound American of our day explaining the wonders of our society -- our racial and sexual equality, our wonderful economic system, our first-rate health care system, our peaceful coexistence with our neighbors -- to a visitor from a century past. (Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, published in 1974, is as close as I can think of to an exception, but then it's subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia.") This is a normal problem in the Utopian genre, though.

What impressed me most on this rereading of Woman on the Edge of Time was how little it had dated, both in its future and in its present; to me Piercy's politics seem more relevant than ever. And above all, it's a great read.