Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Small Changes, Very Small

I'm almost done rereading Marge Piercy's third novel, Small Changes, originally published in 1973.  I first read it in the mid-1970s.  It's a long complex book, built around two main characters but with many other secondary ones.  (Two important male characters are Vietnam veterans, interestingly.)  It's typical now to dismiss it as one of the feminist classics of the 1970s, and many contemporary readers claim that it's dated.  I don't think so.  Relations between women and men have changed somewhat since the book was written, and middle-class women are more likely to have careers outside the home than they were previously.  But men still expect emotional and other service from women, and woman still find it difficult to refuse it, let alone demand emotional and other service from men in return.  And there's still reaction, a powerful movement to return us all to the Fifties, though the Fifties were an aberration, a diversion from tradition rather than Tradition itself.  We're not likely to go back to the days when many women could stay at home as housewives because most men can't earn enough to support a household by themselves.  It wasn't feminism that destroyed the "traditional" family, it was capitalism and the Reagan administration.

But although feminism is one of the core themes of Small Changes, it's about other things too.  It's partly an account of reaction against the Sixties, including state repression that most Americans paid no attention to at the time.  One of the characters must testify before a grand jury empaneled to destroy the resistant social movements that had scared our rulers so badly.  This was officially justified, insofar as anyone bothered, because of the violent segments of those movements: the Black Panthers, the Weathermen.  (Of course, the far greater State violence, against American citizens as well as foreigners, was of no great concern to most citizens, even after it was exposed.)  As one character explains:
It isn't like a regular jury.  They're older, richer white people always, and they even run a credit check on them.  They're to bring in indictments that the government wants.  Ninety-five per cent of the time that's what they do -- agree to prosecute.  But Anita says that mainly they're a device for investigating.  They're a way of forcing people to testify against each other.  The F.B.I. can't force you to talk, the police can't, though they try.  But a grand jury can send you to jail if you don't answer their questions [505].*
And Wanda, the character called before the grand jury, explains:
"This is a fishing expedition, Beth.  The questions they want to ask me aren't just about deserters.  They're asking about the whole web of connections in the movement.  They want to know who's friendly with who, who lives where, in what commune, who sleeps with who, who gives money.  They want to fill in all the missing connections so that people can't disappear underground any more."

"But they must know all that anyhow, they have all the phones in the country tapped!"

"Don't exaggerate, Beth.  They don't know everything.  Even when they 'know,' half of what they know is garbage and they want confirmation.  Look, the questions they're asking me include every address I've lived at since the year zero.  Who else lived there?  What vehicles have I owned and who borrowed them?  Who was at the women's conference last year in Boston and where did they stay?  How did I travel from Boston to New York for the health care conference that summer?  What meetings did I attend in that fall that plotted riots, demonstrations, or street actions -- all lumped as one! ... [507].
Yes, the novel is often didactic, but no more than any Robert Heinlein book.  No wonder that I, who grew up loving Heinlein, also love Piercy.  Heinlein's advocates have often pointed to his highly intelligent and competent characters as a feature of his work that sets it above most (especially mundane) fiction.  Piercy also focuses on intelligent competent characters, with the difference that she doesn't set them against straw opponents they can easily beat.

Things haven't changed all that much in American politics; we now have the Patriot Act and the surveillance state, and probably all our phones and e-mail are tapped now.

Another key topic is computers.  Miriam, one of the two principal characters, moves from mathematics to computer science.  This is in the late 1960s, when computers were mainframes that filled whole rooms, and programs and data were input on punched cards, before desktop computers much less tablets, before the Internet and WiFi.  Miriam gets a job with a small research firm on Route 128 near Boston, the only female programmer in the company.  (Come to think of it, Miriam is a lot like Heinlein's smart, sexy, male-identified heroines, though again, she lives in a different universe.  But then Heinlein's men are also fantasy figures.)  Their big contract is writing software for the anti-ballistic missile program that the Nixon administration backed at the time.  Miriam gets shuttled onto that team, which she hates.  There's a scene where she meets her old MIT professor Wilhelm Graben, who scoffs when she complains about being "hired by death."
"What nonsense.  It's scuttlebutt that the system will never operate.  For instance, assuming that the computer technology works out perfectly -- for the first time in history, perhaps -- but assuming that, the crucial interface is that combination of radar equipment and computers.  Now there cannot possibly in any real war situation be enough time to discriminate the raw data in the radar inputs about what would be real missiles and what simply extra junk floating about.  All weapons are programmed to fill the heavens with large quantities of objects that induce noise in the radar.  Chaff for instsance -- aluminum foil -- reflects radar beams quite nicely and produces responses that would indicate serious objects approaching.  The electronic countermeasures will be jamming, with strong transmission at the same frequency that the radar operates on ...

"But forget military questions.  Think about the most amusing aspect of the ABM.  Now you are exploding, say, a five-megaton warhead to knock down a missile no bigger than a barn.  Obviously, this does not require a warhead of five hundred million tons of TNT -- Hiroshima was destroyed by twenty thousand tons' equivalent.  Thus you can deduce that accuracy is simply not in it.  They're figuring on exploding a five-megaton bomb to knock down a missile because they are not counting on being in the same state with it -- states imagined to be lines superimposed upon the air ... "  His voice was calm and mocking.  She grew colder and colder ...

"Defense, it's called.  The rhetoric of defense, of course, is that human beings are being defended.  But the type of weaponry we are discussing is absolutely useless in defending human beings.  It would make little difference, I imagine, to someone on the ground whether he was fried alive because an enemy missile exploded twenty miles to his right hand, or because one of 'his' missiles exploded as far overhead.  The temperature on the ground would instantly rise several hundred degrees, in either case.  Defense is defense of missile sites, not of people or the landscape, which would be eliminated ... But you must admit, the rhetoric with which American politicians address their constituencies about defense spending is amusing" [379-380].
I'd forgotten this passage when, sometime in the early 90s, I leafed through the book looking for another passage I remembered.  The same weapons systems, with super space lasers added, were floated again in the 1980s as the Reagan gang's Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI, commonly derided as "Star Wars." There have occasional attempts to resurrect the program under Clinton and perhaps under Bush, even though the same criticisms Piercy put into Graben's mouth still apply.  What counts is pouring millions and billions of dollars into high-tech industry, not "defense ... of people or the landscape." 

There's a lot of quotable, still-relevant material in Small Changes -- I haven't come close to exhausting it here.  On one hand, while there's nothing wrong with books that focus on stereotypical concerns of women like domesticity and romance, concerns that still dominate what is derisively called "chick lit," it should be clear that Piercy's interests and ambitions include those concerns but aren't restricted to them.  Much as I love, for instance, Jennifer Crusie and her smart heroines, none of her books are as large in this sense as Small Changes or most of Marge Piercy's novels.  But then, the same is true of most male writers today.  I think that the reason many people try to dismiss Piercy's work as dated feminist cliches is that her left politics disturb them at least as much as her critical take on men in relation to women.

*Quoted from a Fawcett-Columbine trade paperback reprint from (I think) 1997.