Author: Marge Piercy
Details: (c) 1978 Marge Piercy; Pub The Women's Press 1992; ISBN 0-7043-3837-8
Verdict: Woman on the edge of time is readable but overly simplistic.
Reasons for reading it: I absolutely hated Body of Glass and had determined never to touch anything by Piercy again. However, rysmiel recommended this when I posted a negative review of The Handmaid's Tale. I've read books on rysmiel's recommendation that have offputting titles and covers, that are in genres I'd never normally touch, and that deal with subjects I really don't care about, and almost all of them have turned out to be well worth it. So why not a book by an author I'd previously bounced off badly?
How it came into my hands: The big Oxfam bookshop in Cambridge last summer
I didn't hate Woman on the edge of time anywhere near as much as I hated Body of glass. The thing that Piercy does well is creating fictional futures, emphasizing social organization rather than shiny technology. The thing she does badly is trying to browbeat the reader into sharing her political opinions and judgements of what kinds of societies are good for women (she doesn't appear to care very much whether societies are good for men).
The biggest problem with WotEoT is that the futuristic Utopia, which is somewhat in the tradition of Always coming home, is presented too uncritically. The viewpoint character, Connie, does make some criticisms, but they are easily dismissed as her being blinkered by the propaganda of her (and the implied reader's) capitalist and patriarchal upbringing. Even though I have a horror of collectivism, I had the constant impression that everything was rosy and positive. I found that annoying, because I just don't believe anything about humanity is that simple, and because the whole literary tradition of Utopias led me to expect that the imagined future would turn out to be not quite so wonderful as originally presented.
The story tension instead comes from the fact that the too perfect to be true future depends precariously on choosing the right branch of the timeline in the present to bring about that future rather than a horrific one. Connie is charged with nudging the alternate realities in the right direction, but since she is incarcerated in a secure mental hospital as a violent psychotic, she has extremely little power to influence anything. Indeed, the quasi-Dickensian portrayal of how miserable it is to be poor, and even worse if you are non-white and female, and the polemic about how badly mentally ill people are treated by society and by the health system, are probably the greatest strength of WotEoT. It's almost a Christian narrative, with someone represented as the absolute dregs of society being able to save the world and bring about a perfect society by martyring herself for her faith.
The encounter between Connie and the happy bunny futuristic feminists could have been really interesting. But the characterization and dialogue are clunky, and instead of exploring the time-traveller's experiences as an alien in a very different culture, there's just a lot of polemic and infodump put into the mouths of the inhabitants of the future. To be fair, Luciente is specifically described as being didactic and ideological, but the rest of her community are really no better. In the end, it feels a bit like the typical old-fashioned children's book where the poor orphaned children escape from their miserable reality by travelling into some fantasy land where everything is shiny and happy.
The structure of the story is very similar to Wyndham's novella Consider her ways: a woman taking part in medical experiments finds herself transported to a feminist future, and she must try to alter the course of reality to make sure the right path is followed, which she can only do by committing extreme violence. However, Wyndham is doing the more standard Utopian trope where the perfect future is shown to be flawed after all, and his protagonist's tragedy is that her sabotage fails. (A major difference is that Wyndham rather endearingly tried to reinvent feminism from first principles, while apparently oblivious to actual real-world feminism, whereas Piercy is obviously part of mainstream feminist discourse.) WotEoT doesn't state in so many words that Connie's heroism is successful, so I suppose it is ambiguous at that level. There's a possible reading where the whole novel is a personal tragedy: perhaps the Utopian future is just Connie's delusion, the voices in her head telling her to commit a horrendous crime that will scotch any chances she might have of escaping for the from the evil clutches of the medical system. But it seems so sincere and so sympathetic to Connie that I don't think that was the intention.
The characterization was good enough to keep me reading, but very wobbly. Too many melodramatically evil men, and I was really annoyed by the way that Luis is portrayed as a race traitor because he escapes from his poor background and makes a success of his life. Connie herself is clearly meant to be a victim of terrible circumstances, but one who is not too teeth-grindingly angelic. This doesn't quite work, though, and she comes across as rather passive and wet. Still, there are the elements of a decent story showing through the polemic, and I certainly found it gripping.