Hello lovely humans today I’m going to be talking about the author Marge Piercy and specifically her book Woman on the Edge of Time. This was the November pick for the LadyVaults book club and it was phenomenal.
You can watch this review as a video or continue to read the full text below.
Can’t see the video, try clicking this link: https://youtu.be/4T66Vhiwhlc
If you’ve no idea what the Lady Vaults Book Club is well it’s a monthly book club, read along buddy read thing where we explore works of speculative fiction by women. More information is in the launch video and the goodreads group.
But without further ado, let’s talk about Marge Piercy.
Marge Piercy is an American author born in 1936. She has published 17 novels some speculative fiction and some not, along with a veritable library of poetry.
She is notable for her involvement in political and social activism throughout the decades and was a significant feminist voice in 1960s and 70s new left movements including anti-war protests and women’s rights. Her fiction is very much informed by her political activism, her biography notes that she “always knew two things she wanted with regards to her writing career: she wanted to write fiction with a political dimension (Simone de Beauvoir was her model) and she wanted to write about women she could recognize, working class people who were not as simple as they were supposed to be”.
Her first published novel from 1969, Going Down Fast, a story following a group of young working class people who live in an urban slum set to be demolished, encompasses both of these aims. A New York Times review said it burned with anger and conviction, and those feelings carry through many of her works, including the one we are here to talk about today Woman on the Edge of Time.
Woman on the Edge of Time is an amazingly powerful book that is both utopian and dystopian, a vividly painted criticism of the contemporary world and an escapist fantasy, it is equal parts comforting and rage inducing, heartbreaking and yet offering hope.
First published in 1976, Woman on The Edge of Time follows Consuelo Ramos, a 36 year old Chicana woman living in the then contemporary New York city. Her husband is dead, her daughter has been removed from her for child abuse and adopted by another family, she has previously been institutionalised for mental health issues, and she is barely scraping by. But then at the start of the novel things get worse. Connie is trying to protect her pregnant niece from the niece’s pimp who wants her to get a back alley abortion. He beats Connie, calls the police and gets her institutionalised for attacking him. As opening chapters go it’s pretty brutal and bleak. The rest of the novel takes place within the mental hospital and is partly a searing criticism of the treatment of patients at the time.
But then the science fiction part kicks in. It turns out that Connie is able to communicate with the future, she is contacted by an androgynous person called Luciente who lives in 2137. Through conversations and then some weird kind of mental projection, Connie is able to explore this utopian future society which is essentially the 1960s left wing dream – sexually liberal, ecologically sound, deeply socialist and feminist. But it is not the only possible future. Connie learns that without work other, less idyllic futures, may be in wait.
This is an amazingly powerful book, one which I think would appeal to readers regardless of whether they enjoy science fiction or not. Science fiction fans cannot help but love the detailed consideration with which 2137 has been imagined. Economic, technological, agrarian, political, societal and familial concepts are all brought out for our, and Connie’s, consideration, and inspired in me several hours of rapt contemplation of how such ideas might work, might feel, how they could be brought to be or maintained. Though at times this utopia feels a little dated in terms of racial and cultural ethics it is a strikingly well thought out in others with wonderful queer representation and found families along with a host of other delightful little details.
And for non sf readers the social and political commentary is much more central than the science fictional conceit of time travel. The time travel is a device to demonstrate how the two societies differ, of what a better society could be, a mirror showing our own world’s dark reflection. Piercy deliberately leaves the book ambiguous on whether Connie’s visions of the future are just that, the visions of an abused brain desperate to escape hellish reality, or a real future that may come to be and holding that dichotomy in your mind as you read is quite something.
And it is this clever ambiguity that gives the book its power. It is both a utopian and dystopian story. It’s just that the dystopia its the contemporary world, our world and what allowing it to continue without change may bring. Because whilst mental health care has improved somewhat since 1976 there are still so many elements of Connie’s world that ring true for us now. The heartbreak of it is the familiarity of the stories of women and queer people and people colour and those with mental and physical disabilities, and those like Connie whose identities intersect there, being crushed and discriminated against by society. In a 2016 article celebrating the book’s 40th anniversary Piercy noted that inequality has in fact greatly increased since the early 1970s.
It’s rage inducing. And it’s meant to be.
Remember when I said Piercy’s earliest novels was described as burning with anger. Well here she is kindling the flame of that anger in us. Piercy wants us to be angry. because anger is better than defeat. Anger means you believe there’s something better, anger and hope intertwine to create action. By showing Connie, and us, a possibility of a different future, even if its one Connie will never see, she gains hope that a different existence, a different way of being is possible. And this gives her the strength to survive, to fight back. She is willing to fight for a future she doesn’t even know is real. But then, as one reviewer pointed out, how do any of us know that the things we campaign for will come to be in future? We don’t. We hope for them, and so we fight for them.
What Piercy shows us, in the end, is that a little hope is a mighty thing, and never give up the fight because another world might just be possible.