Marg Piercy's feminist classic A Woman on the Edge of Time critiques our dominant capitalist, patriarchal model, and offers the reader an alternative future.
It's the 1970s. Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, a Mexican-American woman in her mid-thirties, has been unfairly incarcerated at a New York mental institution. She has had some drug use issues in her past, some domestic problems, but nothing warranting this extreme treatment. In hospital, she is subjected to all sorts of cruelties and indignities. Bureaucracy and form filling permeate everything; the doctors and nurses are self-centred career professionals, interested only in self-promotion and moving up the hierarchy. As mental health care experts they may profess to be governed by the principles of rationality and best practice, but in reality they're highly unstable themselves, plagued with a litany of personal problems.
Connie is in serious trouble. The doctors want to perform an operation on her brain that will allow them to control her moods. She's seen the results on other patients – one committed suicide and another was left but a shell of her former self – and has determined she must escape the hospital. But how?
During her tumultuous detention, Connie has been visited by a being from the future. Luciente, an androgynous woman from the year 2137, makes contact and persuades Connie to visit the future, a better place by far. They time travel to Mattapoisett, an agrarian community that has eliminated most forms of oppressive hierarchy, patriarchy and big government. This future civilisation is gender-neutral, classless and racially diverse. Technology is used conservatively, decision making is consultative and democratic, in a grass roots kind of way, and society is by and large much more feminised. The same old human problems remain – jealousy, impatience, violent impulses – but they are dealt with in a more open and honest manner. Neither has war been eliminated. The people of Mattapoisett are involved in a conflict with an ultra-capitalist, environmentally rapacious enemy – the last remnants of our own society.
Connie learns much from Luciente and her people. The biggest lesson is that, in her own time, in a New York mental hospital, she's involved in a war herself. A war against terrible social and economic forces that keep women like her locked up and tortured. She decides to fight back – to at least try to resist – with devastating results.
First published in 1976, Marg Piercy's feminist, sci-fi classic is a mind bending novel of utopian possibilities. The sections that deal with the mental hospital – its grim wards, defeated patients and sadistic doctors – are rivetting for their sense of realism. Piercy makes a compelling critique of our rational, expert dominated world, which can lack empathy and common sense. (Interestingly, the future world of Mattapoisett has no time for big titled professionals, seeing house work as just as important as neurosurgery.)
Readers may find the utopian world of Mattapoisett a bit of a throwback to the seventies, with its hippie-like eschewal of property, its nature cult and gender fluidity. Nevertheless, Piercy does write a philosophically detailed alternate future, one that provides an illuminating contrast to the mad world of 70s New York. Mattapoisett is a breath of fresh air, an idealistic alternative to our current brutal capitalist model.
A Woman on the Edge of Time will challenge and shock. The world looks different having read it.
A Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marg Piercy. Published by Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books