Friday, 14 February 2014

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

There were times when I was so frustrated with the main character. She was driving me crazy. She was walking through an entirely different world and assuming everything was the same. I realized why this was bothering me - I was wanting and expecting her to react more like a science fiction reader. (And many science fiction characters.)

Heck, I spend a great deal of time exploring new societies as posited by SF writers, for fun. I like to question the whys and wherefores of everything around me, and to see what authors have made for me to play in. It's a habit you pick up.

Connie, however, was not a science fiction reader. Nor a traditional protagonist - she was ground down, poor, Latina, traumatized, a recovering addict, a woman who had been committed to a mental institution in the past, and on her way to being so again. (If you can trust her as a narrator, not because she deserved to, but because, once in the system, it's easy to be remanded to it again and again.) She'd been hurt in every way she could be hurt, and so being invited to see what the future could be like, she was deeply suspicious of everything she was shown, expecting it to come from the same core of exploitation, hierarchy, and hurt that she knew.

Woman on the Edge of Time is part of an era of feminist science fiction, projecting a future utopia without a gender hierarchy. It also shows a dystopia of what could happen if we don't shape up and start paying attention to this stuff.

But what I want to discuss is not the specifics of her utopia, whether it would or could ever happen that way. I enjoyed reading about that society, and being part of it while I was immersed in the book, and maybe it wouldn't happen that way, but it was a beautiful dream.

What I want to talk about is the place that dystopias have in our pop culture these days, and how few people are even daring to dream utopias. Dystopian literature and TV shows are everywhere - what we do after the apocalypse, what society will be like, whether the end comes from zombies, or alien attack, or the electricity turning off, or any of the muddy pasts of the genre of dystopian Young Adult literature. Dystopiana is not, in itself, a bad thing. It can be an examination of what authors think make us human, what is threatened and must be preserved. But there's so much of it. We all seem to be on the edge of our seats with pessimism, betting on what the end will be.

And utopias are seldom dreamed. It's not fashionable, it's not seen as realistic. To write a utopia, look around. What kind of idiot must you be? Well, the kind of idiot I try to persist in being. I'm not after perfection. I'm not after trying to change everything in one fell swoop. But I am after wanting to make things better, in whatever ways I can, despite pain and obstacles and people telling me I must be crazy.

When I need to, I return, time and again to Spider Robinson's essay "Pandora's Last Gift" (included in User Friendly) to hearten me.

Which is why, even if Marge Piercy's 1970 utopia might never happen the way she wrote it, even if attempts to change our living patterns might fail, they hearten me. Why do we scoff if something isn't an utter success? Why are we happier with doomsday predictions?

I enjoyed this book, even though I found the ending deeply unsettling. But it's good for a book to challenge me in that way, to examine when and why. And Piercy allows the reader to decide whether Connie is or is not mad, whether she is or is not experiencing what she thinks she's experiencing.

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