Woman on the Edge of Time is a sci-fi or “speculative fiction” classic originally published in 1976. Author Marge Piercy has had critical success as a novelist and poet over a span of several decades, and I remember reading some of her poetry in college but it was a recent NY Times interview with Gloria Steinem that brought Piercy and this particular novel back onto my radar. Woman on the Edge of Time is a provocative tale of time travel that addresses poverty, race, sex, politics, work, family, environment, mental illness, and our choices. Some 40 years after publication, Piercy’s work seems even more relevant and unsettling than ever.
The novel begins in mid-1970s New York City with protagonist Connie (Consuela Ramos) in the midst of crisis. Connie is 37 and has endured pain, hardship and loss. The men she has loved have died or abandoned her, and her daughter has been taken away by the state. Her dreams of school and a good job were thwarted early on, and now that she has a criminal record as well as a previous stay in a mental institution (on top of being a woman of color), it is hard to pull herself out of the cycle of poverty and violence. In attempting to help her niece Dolly, who has been working as a prostitute, Connie again finds herself in trouble with the law and is sent back to the psych ward. Unbeknownst to anyone, shortly before her incarceration, Connie began to have what she thought were hallucinations. A person from the future named Luciente, who comes from Mattapoisett, Massachusetts in the year 2137, has been trying to reach out to people of Connie’s time as part of a research project related to the fate of the world. Connie proves to be a very “receptive” human, and while she is initially wary of Luciente, the two develop a bond that will help Connie with her incarceration and might influence the fate of Luciente’s world.
Piercy gives readers two distinct worlds to consider with some overlap worthy of discussion. In the psych ward, Connie is reunited with Sybil, a woman she had known on her previous stay, and she is introduced to several other inmates for whom she develops fondness. Sybil is one of my favorite characters in this novel.
Sybil was persecuted for being a practicing witch, for telling women how to heal themselves and encouraging them to leave their husbands… for having a loud, penetrating voice and a back that would not stoop and a temper that stood up in her, lashing the tail of the lioness.
Mainly, Sybil was a fighter and she fought those who threatened her, instead of hating her own self. She didn’t deny herself, she had not sold herself to any man.
The other patient whose character impresses Connie is a young man named Skip, another repeat offender who knows how to read his environment. Skip is from a wealthy family and is generous with Connie when she needs money for phone calls. Skip is also gay and has attempted suicide several times. His parents would like the doctors in the psych ward to “fix” his homosexuality.
Connie, Sybil and Skip are among a small group of psych ward patients recruited unwillingly to participate in a study. It is interesting to note that most of the patients are people of color, while the researchers are all white men. All of the participants have been identified as violent repeat offenders. The goal of the research is to modify that behavior so that they can be returned to society “cured” of their illness. The lead researcher, Dr. Redding, has had his picture on the cover of Time magazine and is considered a leader in his field; he expects to make a splash with his newest research and is surrounded by younger colleagues eager to assist him (and their own careers) with this work.
Meanwhile, as Connie negotiates daily life back in the hospital, she finds that she is learning how to contact Luciente on her own and that Luciente can pull Connie into her future world (psychically, not physically). Mattapoisett is a small village, a sort of utopian commune, that combines basic farming and fishing with some impressive technological advances. Inhabitants use “kenners,” which are pretty much Apple iPhone watches, to access information, to communicate, and to store memories. Luciente tells Connie that for some people kenners are a convenience while for others, it’s like it becomes a part of their psyche and they cannot live without it. Yup!
But the technology is not what makes Mattapoisett so interesting and novel. It’s the people who live there, their priorities and their way of organizing their lives that surprises Connie. Race doesn’t matter, men and women are truly equal, no stigma is attached to having mental breakdowns, everyone shares, everyone has enough, everyone gives back to the community. Piercy devotes much attention to each aspect of Mattapoisett life and how it works (governing, work relationships, etc.), and it’s all fascinating to read. I can see book groups or classes spending a lot of time discussing this future, whether it’s realistic to expect or even desirable. To keep this review from going too long, I will mention only childbearing and child rearing. In Mattapoisett, live birth no longer exists. Children are produced from an incubator facility and only for those who have expressed a desire for a child. Each child born has three parents who co-parent. Men are able to breast feed thanks to hormone therapy. Connie is mortified by all of this; she nearly becomes ill while watching a man breastfeed (which reminds me of the controversy today over women breastfeeding in public and how “disgusting” it is to some).
How can men be mothers! How can some kid who isn’t related to you be your child?
How could anyone know what being a mother means who has never carried a child nine months…
Anyone who has adopted, particularly any same sex couple, would have something to say about that. Connie is especially upset that women would give up the one power they have always had — to bear children, to mother. But Luciente explains:
It was part of women’s long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return for no more power for anyone.
As Connie is learning more about Mattapoisett and Luciente, she also must cope with her reality. Dr. Redding and his team are planning disturbing surgeries on their patients, and Connie, understandably, becomes desperate to get away. She develops plans and waits for opportunities to escape. I must say, the scenes set at the hospital can be hard to read (they were for me, anyway). Prisoners and mental hospital patients in the US really were sometimes used in horrific experiments. I think Piercy shows great compassion and imagination in portraying her fictional psych ward patients. This makes Connie’s final action all the more devastating when it happens. Again, in a group discussion, hearing how others feel about Connie’s action would be fascinating.
As mentioned earlier, there is some interesting overlap between Connie’s world and Mattapoisett. Luciente is a woman of similar cultural descent to Connie. She is also a researcher, as is Dr. Redding. Several hospital characters seem to have counterparts in Mattapoisett, as do Connie’s daughter and one of her former lovers. Or at least it seems so to me. In one of Connie’s trips to the future, she makes an unexpected detour into an alternate future. The Mattapoisett and surrounding communities are in conflict with those who live on space platforms, the moon and Antarctica. These people have given up their humanity and freedom and have essentially been turned into robots whose minds are controlled by a small group of “richies” who run the “multis” (the corporations that rule). It is because of this terrifying detour that Connie begins to see herself as “at war” in her real world, and this informs her ultimate decision on appropriate action.
Woman on the Edge of Time is a surprising and amazing novel; it will stay with you long after you finish reading it. I think one of the topics that readers might raise is whether Connie is really time traveling or if it’s all in her head (although, as we know from Dumbledore, just because it’s all in your head doesn’t mean it isn’t real). I’m not sure that question really matters; the issues Piercy raises about how we organize ourselves and treat one another are pertinent either way. It’s a bit scary to see how some of what she predicted is coming true, but it’s worse to see how much we have not changed in 40 years.