Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time/Readings

ISBN: 1556441673
ISBN 13: 9781556441677
By: Marge Piercy

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About this book

Connie Ramos, a woman in her mid-thirties, has been declared insane. But Connie is overwhelmingly sane, merely tuned to the future, and able to communicate with the year 2137. As her doctors persuade her to agree to an operation, Connie struggles to force herself to listen to the future and its lessons for today....

Reader's Thoughts

Terence

At last - a book I've been meaning to put on the wish list and that's on one of my group's Reads next month. (Even better - my library has a copy in house!)************************Rating: 3.3-3.5 starsIf the last two novels I had read before this had been Paul McAuley's The Quiet War and Bruce Sterling's The Caryatids then I may have nudged my rating into the 4-star category but they weren't. Instead they were Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, Mr. Fortune's Maggot and Summer Will Show, and Piercy's writing style suffered by comparison (IMO, of course).Another strike against the novel was that I wasn't able to "get into it" for the first 100 pages or so.However: It got better. The writing, while never on the level Warner seems to reach effortlessly, did improve and there were some scenes that did leap off the page. And after Chapter 4, it became easier for me to empathize with Connie and enjoy her trips to the world of 2137.One of my groups is reading the book this month (March 2010) so I'm going to hold off on a more thorough (and spoiler-laden) review until later this month, hoping to get some insights and different POVs from the discussion threads.************************Woman on the Edge of Time (WOTEOT or Woman) is an interesting if not especially well written entry in the utopian/dystopian genre. It describes a future Earth where hierarchies have disappeared, gender roles are nonexistent, communities live in sustainable harmony with their environments and people realize their potentials. (Some people commented in the reading thread that it seemed dated in places because it was written in the '70s but I found its interest in the environment, war, out-of-control technology and social pressures to conform very contemporary.) The future isn't perfect. There's still the specter of a war against the remnants of the earlier machine, exploitative civilization (i.e., us - the 20th Century). But that culture only clings to a few enclaves on Earth and some space stations.We find out about this future through the psychic journeys of Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, a middle-aged Chicana whose life has been stifled by all the problems the future has solved. The promise of a better life was quashed when she had to drop out of college after only 2 years, having gotten pregnant by her first husband. When another lover, Claud (the only decent relationship Connie ever had), dies, she descends into a haze of depression and alcohol, loses her daughter and spends some time in a mental institution. When she tries to protect her niece Dolly from her pimp/boy friend, Connie winds up in an institution again because she's a "threat" and prone to violence. Just prior to this, Connie had been visited by a vision of Luciente, who turns out to be from 2137. Connie is a prime "receiver," and can travel with Luciente to the future, where she has a physical existence and can interact with the people she meets there in a limited way.Meanwhile, as Connie learns about the future, in the present she and her fellow inmates are threatened by a scientist who wants to experiment with brain surgery to "cure" them.For me, the selections of the novel set in the mental ward were the most affecting. Piercy manages to generate a real feeling for the helplessness and despair that its inmates feel as their lives are destroyed by the callous indifference of the staff, mental and physical abuse, and the determination of the doctors to try out their pet theories about mental health. The authors uses the future to highlight these cruelties in comparison as well as other issues that resonate today - the environment, gender conflict, war, individuals vs. community, and others.I would argue that, in the end, the future Connie visits is a hallucination that her mind constructs to give her the tools she needs to finally act against her oppressors. The ending is poignantly bleak - her rebellion is no more than a passive-aggressive attack against her immediate enemies - the doctors tormenting her and her friends. Connie manages to avoid further brain surgeries but is unable to escape her imprisonment, and ends up institutionalized for life. There's a glimmer of hope that her action may have allowed her friend Sybil to escape but the reader is left in the dark about that; and there's no certainty that Luciente's future is the real one as she has pointed out earlier that her reality is merely a possibility.I give WOTEOT a qualified recommendation. I enjoyed it eventually and found a lot to admire and hope for in Piercy's vision of the future, and I would certainly recommend it to the utopian/dystopian reading crowd.

Jen

This book is very imaginative, although a bit dated at times. Marge Piercy is a unique writer, in that she is very good at writing complex characters with strengths and flaws. Similiarly, her Utopian Society of the future has had to sacrifice some things that are extremely important to Connie (or nearly any 20th/ 21st C person) in order to create a sustaining and egalitarian society. This novel also has some nice poetic moments. In one of the more illustrative passages, Connie's friends from the future drop in on 20th C United States. They are disgusted by the noise, pollution and conspicuous consumption of the passing automobiles. Connie gives a lovely solliloquy about the joy of riding in a car with your friends while listening to the radio on a hot summer day. It was nicely handled.Definite recommended reading -- it's got the sci-fi element but the writing and characterizations are strong enough to make the book enjoyable to most people who enjoy a good imaginative, anti-establishment novel.

Rob

(6/10) This is a weird one. Piercy alternates between a dystopian image of contemporary racism and mental institutions and an utopian eco-feminist future. Like much utopian SF, a good chunk of the novel is taken up not in traditional plot or character development but in an extrapolation of the setting, detailing the everyday and the specific in the imagined space. This means that at times, maybe most of the time, the novel can feel insufferably didactic -- "psychiatry bad! nature good!". But there's also a kind of power and drama to it, and towards the end of the novel what we've previously assumed starts to come into question. Definitely an important book for those who want to look at new wave feminist SF or contemporary ideas of the utopia, but a bit exacerbating as a read in general.

Emma Radford

This is the second time I have read this book. I rarely reread, but I'm so glad to have revisited this one. Piercy is a powerful writer. She poses so many philosophical and moral dilemmas. I love the contrast of supposedly utopian and dystopian settings, offset by a perhaps unreliable narrator. The ending is ambiguously clever and leaves you reeling. A must-read!

Jamie

3.5 stars. Piercy's novel, as many other reviewers have noted, is somewhat dated for the contemporary reader - written in 1976, her vision of the haves and the have-nots resonates strongly with Marxist-leaning feminist politics emergent at that moment. We may think ourselves much more inclined to seek out the nuances of sociopolitical oppression today (though isn't this--the sense that "we" are somehow more developed than those who have come before us--one of the interesting tensions between the protagonist and her notions of the future's 'primitivism'?), but Piercy's understanding of Connie Ramos' social location is more or less cut-and-dry. Connie's limitations (being an immigrant, being Chicana, having a history of drug abuse and pickpocketing, etc.) are used not to develop a multi-faceted ethical characterization but to mark her, indelibly, as a 'victim' of the world. Which is to say: Connie and her world allegorize the problems of 70s American culture, and work to suggest what may happen if we don't 'fix' these social issues. This makes for a quick and engaging story, though perhaps one that feels at times a bit didactic, a bit programmatic. Piercy's vision of the possible future is perhaps the most absorbing portion of the book. Where many speculative or dystopian/utopian narratives underscore things like genetic tampering, global industrialization, technological slavery,&co&co, Piercy imagines a sort of sideways utopia in which these very possibilities also have their productive uses. Genetic modification facilitates, for example, the breeding of 'abnormalities' (that is, breeding elements of chance in plant life that works alongside evolutionary principles in order to replenish the earth), and ensuring the proliferation of possible racial & ethnic bodies (cultures, in Piercy's world, are chosen by affinity rather than by birth). The technological enhancement of the body--or at least the health of the body--allows for longer laboring bodies (children and the elderly) so that everyone is able to work less day by day. Duties are shared by all, children are born outside of the uterus and 'co-mothered' by three figures. Gender is more or less null as a category of identity (everyone is referred to as "person" or "per" rather than "him/her/she/he"). But this does not mean that the generalized human struggle is over; battles occur, killers are killed by their tribes, everyone does not, in short, 'just get along.' This is perhaps the strength of Piercy's futuristic worldview: that even in an ostensibly utopian society, Piercy still recognizes that stasis would be little more than death. On the whole, the writing is adequate; the story becomes really engaging after about a hundred pages; the future is truly fascinating. Connie was for me sometimes difficult to really sympathize with, largely because I thought of her tale as more like a fable than an individual experience. Definitely worth a read for anyone interested in feminist fantasy or sci-fi, feminist lit, those who enjoy reading about women and madness. Though I found it a chore at times, I'm really quite glad I added this one to the shelf.

MRM

I feel harsh giving this book only two stars, but since my reaction was "it was okay," two stars is accurate in the GoodReads context. (Actually, my true reaction was "it was fucking depressing," though after closing the book and reflecting, there's of course a more nuanced reaction to be had.)An anarchist reading group whose meetings I've been attending held a discussion of this book, which is why I picked it up in the first place. One member said that Piercy's vision of a non-hierarchical society matched his ideal society in a lot of ways, and I would have to agree.Humanity is still human -- some conflicts are portrayed, for example -- but several issues were left unexplored, like the "criminal justice" system (if I remember correctly, Luciente et al explain that people are killed after they do something unforgivable a second time). Also, I'm not sure what I think about the way babies are born in 2137...And even in this world, there are rumblings of trouble on the horizon, with not just the ongoing war but also the philosophical split (related to genetics and human reproduction) between the Shapers and the Mixers.One of the more plausible elements of Mattapoisett's world was the change in pronouns ("person" and "per," rather than gendered terms). Language isn't constant in general, and given that "he/she," "s/he," and non-mainstream gender-neutral pronouns like "hir" and "ze" are replacing the generic "he," real life is (slowly) becoming less patriarchal, and our words are reflecting it.Piercy conveys the contemporary (well, late 1970s) societal surround of misogyny, racism, and classism quite literally by setting the novel mostly in a mental institution. Most of the supporting characters in the present day storyline are one-dimensional (for example, would no one at the Thanksgiving dinner with her family really have shown any sympathy for her?), and, like any utopia (or dystopia?), the plot is a vehicle for getting out Piercy's ideas of alternative societies in our potential future. The flip side to this artifice is that having a story to hang ideas on makes everything more memorable, especially if you're a reluctant reader of theory like I am.Another participant in my book discussion said that she thought Connie should have killed herself, too, at the end of the book, rather than passively waiting to be taken back to Rockover and punished for life. I would have to agree there. I also think her murderous action was justified, given her situation. As a "sacrifice" that would "save the future," as the cover copy on the 1983 Fawcett Crest edition puts it, poisoning a few of the professionals isn't quite up to the job. But as a battle, definitely.

Cindy

I'm wavering between 4 and 5 stars. I really, really enjoyed the story and the writing, and I was totally absorbed. So, even though the book has flaws, I rounded up to 5.Books I couldn't help think of while reading Woman on the Edge of Time:*The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Treatment of poor minority women, and issues of consent)*One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Who's crazy in the loony bin?)*My Lobotomy (Memoir from a former patient who had a forced lobotomy when he was a child)*To Say Nothing of the Dog (Time travel!)*Hominids (Tons of parallels with this time-travel future utopia - and gadgets from the future.)*The Handmaid's Tale (Post-modernist dystopia with an open-ended ending.)

Damien

This is considered to be the sf/futuristic fantasy classic that made Marge Piercy famous. Although I liked "He, She and It" more, "Woman on the Edge of Time" has a lot of interesting ideas. If you like to be stressed out and kept in suspense from cover to cover, then this book is great. From the extremely violent beginning to the subdued violence of the end, the events of this book will take you from trauma to unrelenting trauma, with but few moments of fleeting joy scattered here and there. Although the visions of the future are fascinating and in many cases desirable, they seem rather dated; Piercy's hope for the 22nd century seems definitely limited to the kind of imagination typical to the 1970s. Think of "Girl Interrupted" meets "12 Monkeys" meets "Ecotopia" and you have this.

Valerie

i read this book in a day because it was for college. it's really good though. it's about this lady who sometimes travels into this utopian-egalitarian future. she lives in an insane asylum so you're not supposed to know if she's crazy or really time traveling. the end is a surprise.i thought it was really interesting to read about what this author thought a feminist utopia would look like. i thought it was fun to agree or disagree with aspects of it and i unintentionally started designing my own utopia. makes me kinda think that we could NEVER find a way to organize/govern ourselves that would work for more than 10% or so... what do you think friends?

Lisa Vegan

The most important thing to know about this book is that it was first published in 1976. This is such a late 1960s-early-mid 1970s story! It’s funny because part of it takes place in the mid 70s and part takes place in the 22nd century. The 22nd century appears as though imagined in the 1970s. So, the future seems dated somehow. I suspect I would have thought it was brilliant if I’d read it over three decades ago. Now, I cringed quite a bit and thought it was unintentionally humorous at times.The story is about a woman in the 1970s who’s a mental patient (it did remind me a bit of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) but she can communicate with those in the 22nd century. Those in the 22nd century she has the most contact with are still at war but otherwise are living in an almost utopia. The author seems to say a lot about an egalitarian society, communal living, sexism and class and racism, much about the environment; quite a bit about computers. It’s a cautionary tale and must have seemed quite impressive back in 1976.I loved the language imagined 150 or so years into the future, how English evolved, done in a way that makes use of the vernacular of the 1960s and the 1970s; it’s adapted from that time. It doesn’t work that well in 2010 but it was splendidly constructed, and I enjoyed revisiting the time of three and a half decades ago.It took me about 50 pages to start enjoying the book but then I had times when it was difficult to put down. (I did really want to read this: I got first one moldy library copy then another identical edition that was also just as moldy, but I’m glad that I read it.)I can’t say too much about it so I don’t give anything away, but I found the ending somewhat unsatisfying, but I think that the author was very deliberate about how she ended it.I wasn’t sure whether to give it 3 or 4 stars. I opted to give it 4 because the story was told in such a creative way.

Stephanie

Published in 1976, this book was remarkably prescient. The way that Piercy has structured her utopian community of the future is not too far off the direction that alternative communities have been moving since the '60s -- and which has only accelerated in recent years, with the greater focus on sustainability and alternate energy sources. She also does a nice job of contrasting the plausible future utopia with an equally plausible dystopia, in which everything is state-controlled, bio-engineered, and class divisions have flourished and multiplied. Both are presented as possible futures, and the main character is given to understand that she has influence on which future happens - by virtue of fighting or giving up. Whether or not the main character time travels or is merely mad becomes irrelevant.

Max Gordon

It’s interesting how the lens of three decades of life experience can sharpen the focus of certain stories—and even parts of stories. When I first read Woman on the Edge of Time not long after it was published (1976), I was barely into my 20s and already a reliable cog in the corporate machine. At that time, I enjoyed Marge Piercy’s story of a 37-year-old Chicana woman in New York whose already-complicated life takes a twist for the bizarre when she begins to communicate with an ambassador from the year 2137, but I found little to identify with personally beyond the yearning for a more egalitarian, utopian world. I read the book again when I was around the age of the main character, Consuela Ramos, and found considerably more to love—and ponder. I had naively thought when I first read the book in the late 70s that sexism, racism, and ethnocentrism were on the wane—outmoded concepts that were slowly but undeniably going the way of other counterproductive human behaviors like burning witches at the stake or equating nonconformity with insanity. Silly me. The 80s and 90s taught me otherwise, so that by the time I dipped into Woman in the late 90s, I realized how prescient some of Piercy’s observations were. And when I reread the book yet again recently, I finally found the story far richer and more nuanced than in any of my earlier readings.I am a gay single mother in my 50s who, after a severe depressive episode, has seen the inside of a mental institution. The short-term unit at McLean is a country club for harmless sadsacks compared with the more Cuckoo’s Nest setting Connie finds herself in, to be sure, but it’s a nuthouse all the same. So during this reading I found myself especially attuned to Connie’s treatment by “the system”—the way her story of the actions that led to her second commitment are ignored and read as denial and evidence of illness; the emphasis on orderly obeisance and lecturing over individual therapy and understanding; the easy assumption that “noncompliance” is dangerous and must be crushed. To be fair, I did not encounter frightened, uncaring staff during my brief stay, but it is still true that patients rarely if ever see actual doctors. At best they see counselors in group settings, but most interactions are with nurses, technicians, and pharmacists—just as they were in Piercy’s 1976 hospital. Those insights were critical in this recent reading of the book. The first time I read the book (I was a kid, remember!), I tended to believe that Ramos was indeed schizophrenic, and that she had created a very inventive but allegorically instructional alternative world to hide out in to escape the roughness of the real world. After the second reading I had no doubt that she had in fact been communicating with and visiting the world in 2137, and that her brave actions at the end of the book played a critical role in averting a disastrous future. But after this latest most recent reading, I have a different conclusion: it doesn’t matter. The book works either way, because it is above all character study, a deeply introspective look at community, evolution, survival, identity, and connectedness. Past reviewers have called the future world a “feminist utopia,” but this is hardly accurate. What they seem to be responding to is the idea that this future shows a world in which capitalism is not the driving force. It’s true: men are not in charge. But neither are women. Everyone is on charge, in turn. It’s not even socialism but communal living taken to a grand scale and extreme. It’s a world where everyone matters and is listened to, which is why it is important that Connie is not just some average housewife or middle management executive or a neurosurgeon: Connie is the epitome of the voiceless, ignored part of society—the people we brush off as “nuts” and consider less worthy of our full attention. This is not to say that Piercy is suggesting that everyone wearing a foil hat is tuned into reality and we are all fools for thinking them crazy; rather, she is contrasting what can happen when one set of people assumes graceless power over another and refuses to listen, to allow them to contribute or make their own sometimes-bad choices. It’s about what could happen if we accept totalitarianism.As an aside, I was amused to see that several reviewers considered the book dated—not the “present” period, mind you, which they accepted as a quaint period piece, but the imagined future of 2137. What we all forget too easily is that in the time since this book was written we have been barraged by a high-tech cinematic view of the future that almost invariably depicts our fate as increasingly electronic, automated, and conformist. Woman was written after the original-Star Trek series but predates the movies, the spin-off, and flashy movies like the Star Wars, Alien, and Terminator franchises. And the book helped spawn a generation of the alternative cyberpunk view of the broken, dystopian future that gave us Bladerunner and Mad Max. But realistically, none of us knows what the world will be like 125 years from now. Would we have imagined in 1887 that we could cruise down a highway at 80 mph talking to loved ones around the world through an earpiece? That our conversations at busy intersections and streets would be monitored and captured on camera without our knowledge? That pilotless drones would crisscross vast territories collecting data and firing weapons aimed by people on different continents? To think that we have any more insight into what will still be “normal” in 2137 is hubris.

Mat

70's feminist tentative-utopia. As that genre goes, i really like this one. It comes more from the gender fluid/ androgyny positive side of things than the essentialist "women are more nurturing shit", which i liked. And i liked that the main character was a mad woman and that madness was well explored, if slightly simplistically at times. I don't like it's anti-cityness or certain aspects of uniformity that it espouses, but it's pretty tolerable for the traditions it adheres to. Those traditions are, ultimately, part of a history i respect and am grateful for.

Ben Babcock

I'm ambivalent about this book. The best way to describe my reservation with Woman on the Edge of Time is that I was never comfortable suspending my disbelief. I tried to make myself willing to go where Marge Piercy was taking me but never quite got there. Although the book steadily improved from its chaotic but very dull beginning, it never involved me in the way I require to get much satisfaction from reading. In the end, I was reading the book to finish it instead of because I was eager to find out what happened next—I was not invested in the fate of Connie or Luciente. Piercy's utopia is intriguing and creative—and therein lies the problem.Woman on the Edge of Time is a good example of how one can take a concept (in this case, a utopian society) and overdo the trope to the point where it distracts from the story one is trying to tell. Through the unique interaction of present (well, the 1970s) with a possible future, Piercy weaves a story of power and revolution. Her protagonist is one of the powerless, the poor, the oppressed. Society is "against" her. Her only hope lies in her ability to envision something potentially better.There's a difference between having a detailed portrayal of a utopia and an effective one. My new gold standard is probably The Dispossessed . The key requirement is that the description of utopia itself doesn't get in the way of storytelling, and I'm not convinced that requirement is met here. Authors often take license with the imagined future, especially when it is compared with their present. Alone, any of the various concepts that Piercy injects into the future—conflict between the ecologically-aware and the technology-crazed sides of society, reproduction via bottle babies, a sort of non-hierarchical representative-by-lottery democracy, the natural evolution of language and dialect—are interesting and a fine basis for a utopia. Together, they're overwhelming. Piercy's utopia is too crowded.In contrast, Connie's present is far too simple a world. We're supposed to sympathize with Connie's misfortunes, feel shocked at what the doctors at her asylum are doing when it comes to running experiments on patients. The explanations that the doctors offer Connie when she protests that she doesn't belong in a mental hospital are always curt, snide—it's all very one-sided. Connie's brother, father, and niece are all very unhelpful. It is almost enough to make the sceptic in me wonder if Connie is in fact more far gone than she believes, and the whole time travel part of the book is a delusion. I'm forced to conclude that's not the case, for Piercy never explores this avenue explicitly, except for one particular scene that doesn't confirm the delusion hypothesis. Connie's visits to the future are for the benefit of inspiring her to alter her present.I am of two minds on this book. Ben the Philosopher appreciates what Piercy is trying to do, considers her utopia and Connie's plight, and contemplates the power struggles and social conflict philosophy underpinning this book. Yet Ben the Reader professes no emotion, no feeling stirred by the story. A book may have the most profound themes ever imagined, but if they don't move me, I cannot in good conscience commend the book. Still, I can say of Woman on the Edge of Time that it strives for greatness, and only in failing does it find mediocrity. Better to strive and fail than just aim low, and for that I can recognize a sincere effort if not a satisfactory one.

Fiona Moyler

This book took up my every waking hour while I was reading it, and indeed by the end I was having dreams about it too! Unfortunately my unconscious brain is not a good author, and the bits of plot I dreamed were rubbish! I loved reading about the utopian society, but I didn't read it entirely without misgivings. It was fun to wonder would things be better this or that way, but also I found myself wondering what exactly the author intended at some points. I mean, I know that Connie's observation that the future men were emasculated was not to be trusted when you considered the horrors that she went through in her own time, but I wondered what Piercy intended in showing us Luciente/Diana as a destructive relationship, and also Bolivar/Jackrabbit as one which while not destructive, certainly caused pain for other characters. I know she points out the evil of homophobia elsewhere in the story (poor Skip) but am I really to believe it was a coincidence that two of the main characters had somewhat destructive gay relationships? Anyway, I worried a little about that, but overall the message was clear and Luciente's future was presented in a positive light. One thing I was delighted to see included was initiation rights for teenagers. I have thought for many years that those might sort out a lot of the problems caused by restless and irresponsible teens (and also eliminate the mental anguish a lot of people go through at that age). Towards the end it built up into a quite a suspenseful action story and I flew towards the end. There was little resolution there, but that certainly made it more open-ended and keeps you thinking about what future we are headed to.A lot of people are saying in their reviews that this is a book about the nature of sanity and insanity and no doubt it is, but funnily enough it didn't cross my mind that Connie might actually be insane until the last few pages. (Not that it would really matter if she was or not; the bits in the mental hospitals had me practically screaming in rage/fear at the injustice of Connie's plight and the smug, all-knowing air of the various people put in charge of her). Powerful stuff.

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