Woman on the Edge of Time

Marge Piercy
Woman on the Edge of Time Cover

Woman on the Edge of Time


Alfred A. Knopf, 1976
Intended Audience: Adult
Sexual content: Explicit
Ace/Genderqueer characters: Yes (human)
Rating: R for violence, disturbing situations and sex
Writing style: 4/5
Likable characters: 4/5
Plot/Concepts: 4/5

Consuelo ("Connie") is beat up and worn out by life. When she attacks a man to defend her niece from being forced into an abortion, she is committed to a mental institution. But Connie's not crazy, even if someone from the 22nd century visits her regularly and pulls her through to experience the future which could be.

My feelings upon starting and ending this book were pretty similar. I was not expecting the story to be so dark. Connie's life (and the social condition which makes her misery) is presented to the reader like an open wound, and the body of the work is made up of many attempts to heal that wound while others insist on making it worse. The strangers from the future try their best to help and provide Connie with the love and strength she can draw from nearly no one of her own time, but in the end there is only so much they can do against a world which sees a poor woman of color as a danger and a waste of resources.

There is little kindness in the present day for Consuelo. Her family abandons her, the staff at the mental hospital are unsympathetic (to her and the other patients, who all face horrible neglect and abuse while being constantly drugged into near-oblivion), and the doctors see her only as a test subject for dangerous brain surgeries which could make them famous. The only place Connie finds friends of her own time is in a couple of the other patients: a homosexual man named Skip, and a witch named Sybil.

I was pretty thrilled to meet Sybil because early on she is identified as being asexual, and Connie accepts that even though she doesn't quite understand. Sybil compares sex to playing rummy or doing jigsaw puzzles—sure, people do it all the time, but it's not appealing or important to her. I also like Sybil for the same reason Connie does: she is a strong woman who respects herself, who believes in her own power (witchcraft or no), but most of all is just a genuine friend. She is willing to risk herself in order to help Connie escape.

There is also another probably-asexual person in the future, Magdalena, who runs the children's house. I say probably-asexual because there is a difference between celibacy and asexuality. On page 129 Magdalena is described as being "chaste and solitary among adults", and I was thrilled to find that the people from the future "respect people who don't want to couple." This was said as a gentle rebuke to Connie assuming Magdalena just couldn't get a man to sleep with her. Or should I say "per", the only pronoun in use among the future population. Per is short for Person, and as one might guess, gender roles have become much altered in the 22nd century, as has the structure of family. There are no fathers, only mothers—three of them, with two sharing the breastfeeding (males are treated with hormones to help this process). Males and females work equally in the home and outside the home, and no one bats an eye at same-sex couples. Indeed, Luciente, the one who pulls Connie through to the future, is at first mistaken for a man because her body is so fit from physical labor, and she carries herself with such confidence.

In many ways the society of the future is almost too idyllic, with everyone having enough time and support to pursue their interests and become respected for their efforts. For example, Luciente is a mother but also a plant geneticist, and per partners have their own interests which they pursue such as the design of holographic films, but everyone still gives time to city council meetings and farming and everything else. I also had trouble with some of the changed vocabulary of the future, but after a while I appreciated its usefulness in creating a sense of difference. Still, there are aspects which will undoubtedly make some readers uncomfortable, and Connie struggles with many of these aspects: the growing of babies in the "brooder" rather than having live births; the giving up of mothering to males; the acceptance and even encouragement of children having sex together.

But there were two things I had much more difficulty swallowing. The first was the removal of culture from race. Of these future communities, each adopts a culture from the past to emulate—the one Connie visits most often is supposedly patterned after the Wampanoag Indians. Connie is understandably shocked by this and points out that it feels fake. Luciente—Connie's contact with the future—explains that a few generations back they mixed up the gene pool and broke that bond between culture and race once and for all. They believed that connection enabled oppression based on appearance. Now everybody was a mix, and free to choose their own identity. This whole concept collided pretty strongly with everything I'd learned in college about appropriation and "playing Indian" in particular. However, in a way it could be argued that this is the same as breaking the bond between mothering and femaleness—it is a giving up of the sovereignty or identity of one group so that that identity can be shared and no longer a cause of friction or inequality. This society deemed it a necessary step toward peace between races and sexes, a necessary sacrifice. I can only speculate on whether or not the women and people of color of today would agree.

The second thing was a more personal reaction against what I saw as hypocrisy. Toward the beginning of Connie's visits to the future, she is introduced to the concept of interspecies sign languages, which have apparently been developed for use between humans and most animals they come into contact with regularly, from cats to cows. Connie asks if they talk to cows before killing them, and Luciente explains that being fairly self-sufficient in their plant production, they don't eat much meat, and when they do it's only for specific occasions and they tell the herd what they are doing. This suggests a certain level of intelligence in animals, and a near-equal respect for human and animal life. As a vegan, this thrilled me. I was later disappointed to find that in nearly every meal afterward, some meat was being eaten (sometimes several different types of meat!), and the killing of animals is treated pretty lightly. This and many other unrelated things told me that this ideal society was not without its contradictions and was still growing. I suppose I can appreciate the realism of that.

Speaking of realism, there was one more thing I struggled with. I know that some people are born into lives where hardly anyone they encounter will show kindness toward them. But to have so many people treat Connie like dirt, like something less than human, made it hard for me to fully connect with the world this story is set in. I've always thought that a good antagonist or villain should show some glimmer of goodness, of humanity, because otherwise they are not really a character. These doctors and nurses barely felt like characters to me for that reason, despite small details being thrown around about their personal lives. Perhaps this shows my privilege more than anything else, but the behavior of all the staff at the mental hospital seemed so hard to fathom. The only kind of perspective I could put it in was to remember that human beings ran the death camps of the holocaust as well, so once a person is categorized as less than human, there is no limit to how much one's empathy toward them can be removed.

I have barely mentioned any of the characters from the future, and that is not for lack of good ones! On the contrary, Connie meets so many people, all distinct, that if I started describing a few I would end up having to talk about too many. There is so much packed into this book—explorations of social conditions, economic conditions, concepts of family, grieving, coming of age, attachment, patriarchy… the list goes on. It all feels natural in the context of Connie comparing the future she visits with her hellish present. She has to process her feelings on who she is in relation to this future, and how she has lived her life fighting for things which everyone either has or does not need in the future possible world… because it is only one possible world, and depending on her choices in the present it may not come to exist.

I could go on about this book for pages and pages. An entire college course could be built around this book, there is so much that it touches on. On the acknowledgements page, we find out that Piercy did a lot of hands-on research, talking to people who have been in mental institutions, and even sneaking in to some places to get a firsthand look. Knowing that much of the darkness in this book is based on reality makes it very difficult to read in places. There are moments of Connie's life that are so low I felt ashamed reading them, and yet people have lived through as bad or worse. I grew to respect both the author and Connie as a character, for coming through with some dignity, some perspective still. But the message of this book that is most piercing perhaps is how society creates its own enemies, its own insanity, either as tools to play out the power of the arrogant or else by fearing differences to the point of calling difference a disease.

I will be thinking about this book for a long time. I suspect it will haunt me, both the darkness of Connie's present and the light of the future imagined. Although I wouldn't recommend it for everyone (I found some moments slightly traumatic, and there was too much sex for my taste), it is an important book which should be talked about much more than it is.