Sunday, April 29, 2012

Good News for Modern Woman

I'm gradually rereading all of Marge Piercy's work this year, and I've just begun her second novel, Dance the Eagle to Sleep, originally published in 1970.  I remembered from my previous reading, long ago, how rough the book had seemed: it's very much a product of the Sixties, full of sex and drugs and rock and roll.  I don't think it's yet a feminist novel yet (that would come in her third one, Small Changes): three of the four main characters are young males, who are a bit more willing than than the norm to recognize their common humanity with women, but they still have to be shocked into it.  For example, the science and math prodigy Billy is surprised when a young woman turns out to be a person:
Ginny hung around and finally out of embarrassment he put her to work with the crew.  It turned out she wasn't stupid.  He could not say why he had assumed she was.  She even asked good questions.  He forgot to be worried about how he should act.  He treated her like the rest of the crew and that seemed to work.
To be fair to Billy, his assumption about Ginny was based as much in class and intellectual snobbery as in sexism, and it's probably significant that he learns to see past it.

Dance the Eagle to Sleep is a science fiction novel (Piercy has published at least three of them), a precursor of her now-classic Woman on the Edge of Time.  The premise is a youth revolt in the later 20th or early 21st century, after a heavy clampdown on the social-justice movements of the 1960s.  Universal service, military or civilian, has been instituted to keep the population under control.

What got my attention and led me to write about the book here was this passage about the climax of a student school takeover (emphasis added):
The fourth night, the police cordon was reinforced by busloads of tactical police, and they knew the crisis had come.  "Four days and three nights to turn five hundred kids into a people," Corey said.  They lay on the roof watching the police bring up a bulldozer and get ready to smash in through the south doors.  It was eerie.  The moon was risen and bright on them.  The police did not move like men, because they were so encased in their weapons and paraphernalia.  They carried side arms, cases for handcuffs on their left hips, a club for head knocking and ball breaking, a gas mask and extra rounds of ammunition.  Some had devices on their backs for spraying gas.  Others carried spray cans or grenades.  They moved with the stiffness of men laden with gadgets and protected from any sense of what they do.  Something that looked like a tank was drawn up.
Since the Occupy movement began, many people have become aware of the increasing militarization of American police forces.  Piercy reminded me that it's not new, but she also foresaw how much it would advance.  It seems to me that most of the countercultural fiction from the 1960s and 1970s read by students today was written by men; but some important work was written by women, and Dance the Eagle to Sleep is a good example.  It even got an enthusiastic blurb from Thomas Pynchon, and it's newly back in print.  It's a reminder that the Occupy Movement is in many ways a replay of what people knew forty years ago and more -- which is depressing on one hand, but also suggests that there are lessons to be learned if the suppression of dissent isn't to be repeated now.