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Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. New York: Methuen, 1986. p121-155. Rpt. in
Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 347. Detroit, MI: Gale. From Literature Resource Center.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning
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[(essay date 1986) In the following essay, Moylan traces the theme of utopia in Piercy's oeuvre leading up to Woman on the Edge of Time, claiming that the novel's structure expresses the power of desire to disrupt oppression.]

The anger of the weak never goes away, Professor, it just gets a little moldy. It molds like a beautiful blue cheese in the dark, growing stronger and more interesting. The poor and the weak die with all their anger intact and probably those angers go on growing in the dark of the grave like the hair and the nails.(Connie, in Woman on the Edge of Time)

Utopian vision and an awareness of the denial of that vision in the everyday life of American society have been present in Marge Piercy's writing and politics since her first book of poetry, Breaking Camp (1968). In that collection, her poem, "The Peaceable Kingdom," speaks to the contradiction between the images of pastoral utopia evoked by Edward Hicks's painting of the same name and the destruction of humanity and nature by the United States at home and in Vietnam. Her closing lines reveal her awareness of the utopian dream promised in the new world and the dystopian nightmare actually delivered: "This nation is founded on blood like a city on swamps / yet its dream has been beautiful and sometimes just / that now grows brutal and heavy as a burned out star."1 The belief in a beautiful and just world and the anger at the denial of it by the dominant power structure have persisted in all of Piercy's writings. These attitudes have been strengthened and deepened by her political activism beginning with the anti-war movement, continuing through her early involvement with the women's movement growing out of the new left, her involvement in ecological, mental health and community-control movements, and on to her primarily feminist politics in the 1980s. Her many volumes of poetry and her novels are the transformation of that activism and imagination into a tough and dreamy tendentious literature.2

Unlike that of other writers of critical utopias, Piercy's fiction did not develop directly within the world of science fiction publishing and fandom. Her second novel, Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970), however, is a science fiction extrapolation on the anti-war/anti-draft, civil rights, and student movements of the 1960s in which she gives form to the dreams of revolution which sustained many in that time and weaves a tale of guerilla warfare and communes in the Catskills and the mountains of Colorado and New Mexico. She next turned to realism in her novel Small Changes (1972), as she dealt not with the dreams but with the realities of sexism in the new left and the feminism that reawakened in the struggle against it. With Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) she combined realism and utopian science fiction to produce what many consider to be her best novel. Piercy's work comes much more directly, then, out of the left political culture of the 1960s. To be sure, Le Guin, Russ, and Delany all developed their utopian vision in the same matrix of events and political outlook, but they did so within the artistic activism of progressive science fiction culture whereas Piercy worked within the political activism of radical, socialist, feminist politics. While Woman on the Edge of Time is a major work in the revival of utopias in the 1970s, it has an overt political edge to it that leads the book to be more concerned with the process of revolution itself.

Piercy's utopian novel arrives more by way of critical realism and traditional utopian literature than from science fiction or experimental fiction. In style she is closer to Le Guin. In anger and engagement more like Russ. Woman on the Edge of Time juxtaposes a realist narrative centering on Connie Ramos, a Chicana living on welfare in New York City, who has suffered the oppression and exploitation of the American system in an overwhelming variety of forms, with utopian images of the future society of Mattapoisett, a decentralized and democratic, anarcho-communist, feminist, ecologically aware village. Pamela Annas notes that in Piercy's novel, "the possibilities of human freedom are located not so much within the individual characters as within the social structure and the relations between the individual and that social structure."3 The generic possibilities of a utopian science fiction that breaks open realist narrative allow for the development of a radical utopian activism in the text that offers a serious oppositional challenge to the historical status quo.

Woman on the Edge of Time weaves together a narrative of collective struggle with imagery of utopia, with one interpenetrating and influencing the other. Connie is oppressed because she is a woman, Mexican, poor, unemployed, a single parent, and branded by the medical establishment as psychotic. After migrating from her village in Mexico, eking out two years of college, losing lovers to death and poverty, she ends up in New York City with her child, Angelina, and her lover, Claud. While coping with Claud's death and surviving in the face of enforced poverty, she beats her child once in the frustration parents sometimes feel toward their frightened and demanding children in times of emotional, intellectual, and physical deprivation. Rather than getting support and assistance from the state, she is labeled a child abuser, committed to Bellevue and Rockover State Mental Hospital, and loses custody of her child to a middle-class family in Westchester. In short, Connie is a sane woman labeled insane, a survivor reduced to a victim. When the novel begins, she is back in the city, released from the hospital. Her niece comes to her for refuge from the pimp who is beating her, and, while defending Dolly from the violence of a beating, Connie herself, in an all too typical twist of bureaucratic/racist injustice, is recommitted for beating up her niece's "lover." Dolly defends Geraldo's version of the story to save herself from further violence, and Connie, the victim, is blamed for the "crime." From the chaotic violence of the streets Connie is transported to the institutional violence of the mental ward--which, as in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, functions as a microcosm of the bureaucratic/capitalist system, with its attendant racism, sexism, and violence.

Among Connie's gifts is a mental sensitivity that enables her to be open to telepathic possibilities which extend to possible futures that could emerge from the present situation. This is the science fiction premise that informs the novel. For on page one the reader discovers that Connie is being contacted by someone from somewhere else: "Either I saw him or I didn't and I'm crazy for real this time," she says as the shadowy figure departs, leaving behind a warm chair.4 Driven by the psychiatric power structure to doubt her abilities and perceptions, she is unsure whether she is hallucinating or really being visited by someone. It becomes clear when Connie is back on the mental ward that she is in communication with a person from the future. As in Joanna Russ's The Female Man, the utopian visitor is exploring the past to enlist help in the ongoing revolution to assure that a progressive line of history prevails.

Piercy's novel, appearing as it does in the year of the United States bicentennial, pits revolutionary ideals and praxis against the hierarchical rule imposed by contemporary society. With ideas and images arising from the oppositional politics of the late 1960s, Piercy employs the utopian genre to express those radical possibilities in the images of the future society of Mattapoisett and sets that utopia off against both the realist images of present day oppression and the dystopian images of a future in which the forces of profit and power prevail. The iconic figures give shape to 1960s dreams and practices not by presenting them as a static and secure utopian system but rather as still engaged in a life and death struggle in Connie's time, as she fights the psychiatric control of the dominant class, and in Mattapoisett's time, as its citizens militarily battle against the remaining forces of that class and ideologically contest the tendencies toward centralized power within the new society.

Hence, as we move to the discrete register and the consideration of the ideological message of Piercy's text regarding the ideologeme of activism, we find a much more engaged and open-ended sense of what must be done than was found in Le Guin. Like Russ, Piercy has a notion of the work necessary for the willed transformation of the present to open the way for a utopian future that centers not on the redeeming quest of a single leader but on the collective struggle of a people across cultures and time. That struggle is represented not by a white, male, professional leader but by an alliance of common people of all races and cultures, connected across past, present, and future by the continuing history of the social revolution, and focused on two women of Hispanic/Indian origins--one a victim of the present system who turns revolutionary, the other the utopian example of the blossoming of the person that can occur in a truly free and just society.

While Piercy's overall strategy is one of class/gender/racial alliance, with an important focus on the autonomy of humanity and of nature, her tactics in Woman on the Edge of Time center not only on the ongoing effort to shed centralized power within the revolution but also on the necessity for violent struggle to achieve the social revolution given the overwhelming power of the phallocratic/capitalist/bureaucratic structure both in its ideological manipulation and its raw violence. Thus, the male violence of Dolly's pimp inflicted on Connie's vulnerable niece, the bureaucratic violence imposed on the "psychotic" patients in Rockover State Hospital, and the male and bureaucratic violence shaping Gildina's life in the dystopian New York are countered by the guerilla action that Connie carries out as she poisons the hospital staff in a deed that paves the way for the society of the future. The ongoing military and police violence of the present powers in Third World countries and American cities as well as the war still waged by those forces against Mattapoisett from bases on the moon and Antarctica are countered by the overt air war that the people of the utopia must carry out as they slowly defeat the forces of domination.

Piercy's version of the ideologeme of activism, then, is one that focuses on the strategic necessity of the alliance of the all oppositional forces and the tactical need for both ideological and violent struggle as well as personal transformation. Reflecting an awareness of the debilitating in-fighting and splits of the opposition forces in the early 1970s, her novel is a call for cooperation and coordination as she traces the common history and agenda of that opposition. Also she enunciates a radical ecological politics as part of the overall strategy as the people of Mattapoisett work to heal previous environmental damage and achieve a new partnership with a nature respected for its own existence. Reflecting the move from non-violent tactics in US radical politics to urban guerilla violence, found in the Weathermen and in various minority groups such as the Black Panthers, her novel adopts the tactics of Third World struggles in their insistence on sabotage and guerilla war to achieve the revolution. On the other hand, she also calls for personal transformation of each individual beyond the male-dominant, heterosexist, authoritarian structures of the present; here then she adopts the tactics of the feminist and male movements against the structures of institutional and personal sexism. With Piercy, we are at another pole from Le Guin's non-violent, mystically harmonious emphasis on détente and self-sacrificing (male) leadership.

As we move to the consideration of the ideology of the form of the novel, we also discover a politics of literary engagement that goes beyond the ambiguous binaries of Le Guin's noble effort. Piercy employs utopia as a literary weapon just as Connie uses the Parathion to poison the doctors of the hospital. By countering realism, with its tendency to reinforce the limits of the status quo, with utopian discourse, Piercy subverts realism from within by her use of a female and revolutionary protagonist and defeats it from without as the power of utopian imagination breaks open the realist text to a radically alternative future. In the same manner, she defeats the dystopian narrative, found in chapter 15, with the same power of the utopian impulse. Learning from the mistakes of past political dogmatism and the limits of the traditional utopian text, Piercy also demonstrates within her text a self-reflexive sense of the limits and real ambiguities of utopian discourse so that the text leaves itself open to question and varying reader responses rather than tying everything up in a closed binary circle. In her literary form, Piercy counters the totalizing closure of the status quo and expresses an open political praxis in the operations of the text that reproduces the strategy and tactics imaged in that text.

Pastoral Utopia/Urban Dystopia

Piercy's image of the United States is not nearly so distant as Le Guin's, for the setting of Rockover State Mental Hospital is a direct realist version of present-day society in one of its more extreme and overt manifestations of power and control. Connie and the other patients--non-white, female, aged, young, gay, of various non-rational bents--are second-class citizens and victims of an establishment of white, middle-class, male doctors and psychologists with a complement of non-white and generally female helpers who are coopted into this system by their need to survive economically. The violence of the street represented in the incident with Dolly's pimp, the cooptation of middle-class success represented by Connie's suburban-based brother who refuses to help her, and the oppression and direct violence within the hospital itself convey in their critically realist images an angry picture of life in modern America. Thus, Piercy's utopia of a liberated future society is very non-ambiguously set against this present-day hell.

The utopia in Woman on the Edge of Time motivates Connie and the text itself: for the possibility of a better place enables both the protagonist and the realist narrative to move beyond the restrictions of the time-bound present. Elaine Hoffman Baruch notes that Piercy draws on many cultures--Third World, peasant, Native American and counter-cultural--to create an anti-racist and anti-sexist vision of the future which fuses utopia and its pursuit of civilization with a pastoral arcadia, the place of personal pleasure. It is a vision based on what Baruch calls the "equality of androgyny, that is, an equality of interchangeable differences whereby temperaments and roles traditionally assigned to one sex or another are open to both."5

The iconic images of the utopia begin in the second chapter of the novel with the arrival of Luciente on a New York street--thereby establishing Piercy's emphasis on the personal and the realm of everyday life as the focal point of her utopia. Connie, assuming her own cultural stereotypes, sees the person who appears as a young Indio male, but atypically not very macho; only later, when the narrative roles are reversed and the visitor to her world becomes the guide taking her as visitor around utopia, does she realize Luciente's gender. Connie is transported mentally to utopia by means of the time-travelling telepathy and matter transformation which allows her to be reconstituted in that future place. Luciente as a "sender" telepathically reaches across time to link with Connie, a natural "catcher," with the link occurring more easily at those times when--drunk, high, just waking, or simply at peace--Connie is most relaxed and receptive. Connie, the visitor, is taken from the "Age of Greed and Waste" to visit the land of the "people of the rainbow with its end fixed in earth."

The utopian village of Mattapoisett near Buzzards Bay in what was once Massachusetts is near Connie in space but not in time. The year is 2137. The forces of male supremacy and capitalism have been almost defeated in the closing years of a thirty-year war which devastated the major population centers, rendered many areas uninhabitable, and reduced the population, yet did not result in nuclear devastation. The war culminated in a revolution that created the new society, with the enemy driven back to orbiting space stations, the moon, and Antarctica. Looking over the village, Connie sees

a river, little no-account buildings, strange structures like long legged birds that turned in the wind, a few large terracotta and yellow buildings and one blue dome, irregular buildings, none bigger than a supermarket of her day. ... A few lumpy freeform structures overrun with green vines. No skyscrapers, no spaceports, no traffic jam in the sky.(WET [Woman on the Edge of Time], 62)

Buildings are small and randomly scattered, made of recycled material; land is under cultivation, used for grazing, or left wild. People travel on foot or bicycles and use hovercraft "floaters" for long distance travel. Personal living space is private: every adult from puberty on has a separate room. Personal freedom and tribal togetherness mark the social ambience of the village. As Luciente puts it, "We're all peasants" (WET, 64), but they are peasants who enjoy great individual freedom.

The economy of Mattapoisett is a steady-state, decentralized, anarcho-communist one with a biological-based high technology used in appropriate ways to render work less onerous but not to eliminate it. Every geographical region is "ownfed" and produces all the items it needs to survive and live a good life. Beyond that, each region produces and trades what it excels in with others. In this non-monetary economy, the necessities of life are guaranteed and the few luxuries are shared equally. The work day is short, and more like the workday of the peasant than of the factory worker:

How many hours does it take to grow and make useful objects? Beyond that we care for our brooder, cook in our cooker, care for animals, do basic routines like cleaning, politic, and meet. That leaves hours to talk, to study, to play, to love, to enjoy the river,

says Jackrabbit, echoing Marx (WET, 120). Work is shared by all, including the elderly and the children. The non-productive jobs have been eliminated with the revolution: "telling people what to do, counting money, and moving it about, making people do what they don't want or bashing them for doing what they want" (WET, 121). With everyone working part time nobody works many hours: perhaps four hours one month, sixteen another, and continuously during harvest, catastrophes, or military duty.

High technology and sophisticated science is appropriately mixed with the ecologically balanced, non-growth economy. The use of computers allows for automation of difficult and dangerous work, but where labor can be humanly productive and fulfilling, as in child care, gardening, or cooking, automation is not used. The energy technology of Mattapoisett allows for the use of natural, non-polluting, renewable energy sources: solar, methane gas from human waste and compost, windpower, water power, tidal power, and wood. The science of this utopia is so advanced in areas such as genetics that plants and animals can be bred for the best use possible while preserving the genetic diversity of the ecosystem; for example, single-celled creatures called 'spinners' have been developed to serve in colonies as fences and barriers and to mend themselves as needed. Medicine makes use of advanced science in the repair of vision by cell manipulation, microsurgery for severed limbs, and extrauterine reproduction; for example, body damage is repaired by regrowing cells, a reversing of the negative energy of cancer. Yet folk medicine, ranging from voodoo to Native American to herbal and mental healing, is used as well. Science and technology, then, in production, in medicine, in all aspects of everyday life, are used appropriately to ease the human burden and improve the quality of life without destroying the ecosystem or human initiative. Profit and power do not determine the use of the advanced knowledge of this culture.

While the economy is communist and steady-state, the government is a decentralized, community-based anarchism. Connie wants to see the government during one of her visits, but she is told that "nobody's working there today." On a day when it is working, she finds a representative town-hall form based at the village level; beyond that, there is a grand council of the villages in a given region. Governing is a process wherein the needs of each village are determined and scarce resources are justly divided after debate and consensus. Village reps are chosen by lot and serve for one year. This leadership is not only rotated, but restricted to avoid the accumulation of privilege: "After we've served in a way that seems important, we serve in a job usually done by young people waiting to begin an apprenticeship or crossers atoning for a crime" (WET, 244).

The social unit of Mattapoisett is dual: the self and the community or tribe. In a clear reversal of the reproductive machinery of Huxley's Brave New World, parenting is entered into by three friends who agree to parent and then apply to the "brooder," where conception--genetically engineered to preserve optimal diversity--occurs in a lab and fetuses are developed until birth. The "comothers" may be any combination of genders, and are seldom lovers: "So the child will not get caught in love misunderstandings" (WET, 68). Parenting is shared by the three until the child reaches puberty and goes through her or his initiation rite of a week's ordeal alone in the wilderness, where a vision quest occurs and the child enters adulthood by surviving and then choosing a name based on that experience. After this rite, the 12- or 13-year-old is a full adult, eligible to participate in government, serve in the military, or seek an apprenticeship. For three months after naming, parents may not speak to their former child, "lest we forget we aren't mothers anymore and person is an equal member" (WET, 109). So the "mothers" who nurtured and raised the child give way to three "aunts" selected at naming; the aunts of either gender serve as advisers for the years of early adulthood.

Education is a life-long process that from the early years seeks to develop the whole person: "We educate the senses, the imagination, the social being, the muscles, the nervous system, the intuition, the sense of beauty--as well as memory and intellect. ... We want to root the forebrain back into a net of connecting" (WET, 132). Children are integrated into the life of the community: they are cared for in a nursery by those who have a gift for child care, carried about, taken to work, encouraged to help, and taught by the entire community as well as by their teachers and comothers. They are allowed to live full lives and are not kept in a separate building all day. By age 4, children are taught reading, as well as meditation and the yogin arts of body control; they are also allowed to be sexually expressive. Even into adulthood, learning goes on: "We never leave school and go to work. We're always working, always studying. We think that what person thinks person knows has to be tried out all the time. Placed against what people need. We care a lot how things are done" (WET, 123).

The ambience of life in Mattapoisett is easygoing but marked by hard work and hard play, and assisted by appropriate rituals. Celebrations are an important part of life, where the usual long-wearing practical clothes are set aside for costumes and "flimsies," "a once-garment for festival." There are eighteen regular holidays, another ten minor ones, and feasts when a decision is won or lost or when production norms are broken. In the course of the novel, two death rituals are described--one of a very old person, one of a young person who died in battle. Both exhibit the naturalness and community flavor that mark the rest of Mattapoisett life:

The family, the lovers, the closest friends sit with the body to loosen their first grief. After supper everybody in the village will gather for a wake in the [fooder]. ... All night we stay up together speaking of [the dead one]. Then at dawn we dig a grave and lay the body in. Then we plant the mulberry tree. ... Then before we go to bed, we visit the brooder and signal the intent to begin a baby.(WET, 154)

Rather than extend life with their advanced science for a privileged few, the people of Mattapoisett choose to accept death: "I think it comes down to the fact we're still reducing population. Longer people live, less often we can replace them. But most every lug wants the chance to mother. Therefore, we have to give back. We have to die" (WET, 269).

With an emphasis on the quality of everyday life, communication is important. Each person wears a wrist-watch-like device, a "kenner," which links the person at all times to the central computer and communications system. An image of the utopian other to the monitoring device implanted in the patients of Rockover, the device is part personal memory, part telephone, part analytical tool; people feel lost without it because it does so much so efficiently. Also, inter-personal communications are highly stressed, with every person trained in verbal and non-verbal expression, including telepathy. With such intra- and inter-personal communications skills, the community effectively works. When necessary, it deals with conflict in criticism/self-criticism sessions. When conflict between people gets especially out of hand, the community holds a "worming" wherein the conflict is opened up and dealt with so that the "social fabric" is preserved. Appropriately in a society in partnership with nature, communications skills are also extended to animals; for in Mattapoisett higher animals, such as cows, cats, and dolphins, have either been bred to talk or people have taken time to learn the language of the particular species. Washoe Day is a major holiday, commemorating the chimpanzee who was the first animal to learn to sign between species. Throughout the society, songs, operas, hologram, film, dance, and mixed media "rituals" make up the artistic forms whereby people express themselves and communicate with each other.

Unrepressed sexuality is regarded as a natural part of life. Parenting is separated from sexual activity, and a free and sometimes complex sexuality is part of each person's life. "Fasure, we couple. Not for money, not for a living. For love, for pleasure, for relief, out of habit, out of curiosity and lust" (WET, 58). One has "pillow friends," who are lovers, and "hand friends," who are not, longer-term lovers become "sweet friends" and deal with all the joys and problems of such arrangements. Some people couple monogamously for a time, some are celibate, most are sexually active with several people, of whatever genders they prefer. Not only are there positive images of liberated women of all sexual preferences and many skills and interests, but Piercy also provides male characters--such as Bee, Jackrabbit, Bolivar, and others--who are beyond the personality formations of male supremacist socialization.

To be sure, there are misfits in this utopia, people who are lazy and do not want to do their share of work or do not take care to get along with others. These people are asked to leave and may wander from village to village. And though there are no courts, no police force, no jails, there is conflict, which is worked out in community meetings with a chosen referee. There is little theft with so little private property. Like cannibalism, rape is a thing of the past. However, assault and murder occasionally happen. People get angry and strike out, but the violator is worked with, helped so that the act will not be repeated. If the act is done willfully, the person is given a sentence: "Maybe exile, remote labor. Shepherding. Life on shipboard. Space service. Sometimes crossers cook good ideas about how to atone" (WET, 201). The assaulter, the victim, and the referee work it out with the community. One murder is allowed to be atoned for, but capital punishment in this imperfect utopia is declared for a second deadly offense.

The utopian ideology of Mattapoisett is based on the dual values of personal freedom and community responsibility and on a sense of the unity of humanity and the rest of nature. All are free to act. "Person must not do what person cannot do" (WET, 92) expresses the fundamental belief in freedom shared by all the villagers. Yet this freedom is balanced by the needs of the community: everyone is expected to do their share of work, to contribute to the political and military needs of the community, to care for the natural environment. The maintenance of freedom for all means community work and meetings: "How can people control their lives without spending a lot of time in meetings?" (WET, 146). A social faith binds all together, and people express this physically: "Touching, and caressing, hugging and fingering, they handled each other constantly" (WET, 70). Happiness is not based in objects, in fetishes, but in the self and in relationships with others. Such happiness, however, occurs within a deep sense of place and connection with the local "web of nature." "Place matters to us. ... A sense of land, of village, and base and family. We're strongly rooted" (WET, 116). The entire community works on repairing the ravages of war and the earlier exploitation of nature, and the diversity of the gene pool is protected: "think of every patch of woods as a bank of wild genes. In your time thousands of species were disappearing. We need that wild genetic material to breed with" (WET, 265). For while a stable community is valued, change is accepted as a healthy given: "We're always changing things around. As they say, what isn't living dies" (WET, 64). Evil in this society is what goes against these values: "Power and greed--taking from other people their food, their liberty, their health, their land, their customs, their pride" (WET, 131). The good envisioned by all is best illustrated by the image of a mixed-media hologram produced by Bolivar:

Two androgynes stood: one lithe with black skin and blue eyes and red hair, who bent down to touch with her/his hands the earth; the other, stocky, with light brown skin and black hair and brown eyes, spread his/her arms wide to the trees and sky and a hawk perched on the wrist.(WET, 173)

Such is the utopia of Mattapoisett developed by Piercy: democratic, anarchist, communist, environmentalist, feminist, non-racist--where freedom and responsibility are balanced in a steady-state economy and non-repressive value system. As Baruch notes,

It is a world which keeps alive the spirit of play in adulthood. But it is also a world that allows its children to grow up. ... Piercy's is a world that transcends the lust for power, whether over humans or things. The only power it seeks is power over the self.6

To be sure, elements in this utopia that mark it off from the others of its time are the use of extrauterine reproduction and the changes in the language, both revealing the radical feminist basis of Piercy's vision. Connie visits the "brooder," sees the fetuses each in their own sacs, and is understandably upset at this brave new world that has eliminated pregnancy and childbirth. Luciente explains in an argument that recalls Shulamith Firestone's argument for such a revolution in reproduction in her Dialectic of Sex:7

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. The original production: the power to give birth. 'Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we'd never be equal. And males would never be humanized to be loving and tender. To break the nuclear bonding.(WET, 98)

If this new form of reproduction, with the attendant change of being able to adapt males for breast feeding so that all share everything, establishes equality at the beginning of life, a reformed, non-sexist language continues to sustain such equality throughout life. He and she are replaced by the general pronoun per; man and woman by the general noun person. To sustain this change in the language, argued for by political and scholarly compatriots of Piercy's such as Nancy Henly, other changes in the language suggest the overall cultural change that had occurred by 2137. Words from telepathy have entered this language--intersee, redding, inknowing, grasp--as have words expressive of the life style and politics: ownfed, suck patience, comothers, worming. And some purely pleasurable slang has evolved from the culture: feathers me fasure, painting the bones, running hard, barge on, and zo. Language alone does not change reality, but it does sustain the reality one prefers. In the novel's dialogue Piercy shows the reader how this can work in the everyday life of a culture. The names of the people also accomplish this. Names are given to the newborn by the comothers, but chosen by the initiated after their ordeal and changed whenever one feels the need. Generally, the names come from two categories that also serve to sum up the overall vision of this utopia: nature--Jackrabbit, Dawn, Otter, Bee, Rose, Morningstar, Peony, Hawk, White Oak, Aspen, Orion, Blackfish, Corolla--and politics, primarily from the historical line of notable women or notable revolutionary nationalists and leftists of all ethnic groups--Diana, Sappho, Deborah, Sojourner, Susan B, Neruda, Sacco-Vanzetti, Luxembourg, Red Star, Bolivar, Tecumseh, Parra, Selma, Crazy Horse. A few names come from Spanish: Luciente, Innocente, Magdalena. The reader gets a good sense of Piercy's sensibilities and ideological stance from these names, and such sensibility and stance is what informs her utopian vision.

Piercy, then, draws on history and everyday life for the material of her vision. She draws clues for the dream of utopia, as Nadia Khouri points out, from the "progressive historical continuity" (what Ernst Bloch terms the "red line of history"), from Third World and Native American cultures and from "subcultures of poverty." Those cultures not destroyed by mass culture maintain for their people "a powerful means of immediate gratification: a cultural identity, ... a sense of community, a certain intensity of life, food, sex, the explosion of song, dance, play, contrasting sharply with the larger culture and its marginalizing influence."8 Perhaps Connie puts it most simply when she observes the villagers: "They are not like Anglos; they were more like Chicanos or Puerto Ricans in the touching, the children in the middle of things, the feeling of community and fiesta" (WET, 119-20). To be sure, Piercy's utopia and Delany's are two that significantly incorporate anti-racist sensibilities and efforts into the utopian effort.

This utopia is a thriving community, but in the overall plot Mattapoisett is not an inevitable outcome of history. The science fictional gambit of time travel and Piercy's new left concept of the important role of human choice in the determination of the historical process within the material limits of the given situation combine to make Mattapoisett only one potential future among many. There are other possibilities: indeed Piercy devotes one chapter to a dystopian society, which Connie projects into as the possibility of Mattapoisett temporarily fades. In chapter 15, the reader encounters a totalitarian future in which the forces of phallocratic capitalism have remained dominant and produced a hierarchical society that is overpopulated, polluted, sexist, and racist. Rather than the lightbearer, Luciente, Connie meets Gildina, gold-covered, and again is a visitor in another land. Gildina 547-921-45-822-KB is a kept woman, who has been physically adapted to please the man in a way that recalls Chinese foot-binding and other forms of mutilation of the female body by male society to establish and mark ownership and control. In this nightmare society, women are subservient to men: some eke out a living as one-nighters, some succeed with a longer contract. Those who can't make it, whether male or female, end up as "walking organ banks," selling off their body parts and dying at age forty, while the "richies"--Rockmellons, Morganfords, Duke-Ponts who can afford the transplants--live two hundred years. Furthermore, the richies live in space platforms to avoid the ravaged and polluted earth; while those of lower income levels have to be conditioned just to live in the polluted urban atmosphere. Here, in the other future, an Age of Uprising also occurred; here too the enemy lives on space platforms and fights with cyborgs. But here the enemy has won; plenty for all has been traded for luxury and long life for a few; the masses are used to run the social machinery and serve as surplus body parts and prostitutes for the rich. Furthermore, the masses are constantly monitored by security forces through implanted devices like those used on Connie and her friends. This dystopia is run by the "multis," the multinational corporations such as the "Chase-ITT" that have divided up the world and eliminated nation states and self-government.

Piercy's utopian and dystopian images provide contrasting symbolic resolutions of the contradictions in modern US society. Although she favors the utopian alternative, by describing both future societies she makes clear to the reader that the future is not a matter of inevitable victory for the oppressed of the world and that the present structures of power are immense and require careful, courageous, and collective work by all the forces of opposition to shape history in favor of the social revolution. Like those of the other writers, her utopia is an amalgam of values based on the principles of liberation, feminism, socialism, and ecological cooperation with nature. But this utopia is not a perfect system, for it is still subject to regressive behavior within its very human, and frail, ranks and to continuing attacks by the counter-revolutionary forces beyond its borders. Jealousy and murder, the temptation to centralize power and control nature technologically persist in utopia and must be countered by mechanisms of decentralized decision-making, criticism-self-criticism, and worming sessions, and even capital punishment if need be. And the external military threat creates the continued need for universal, though voluntary, military service in the citizens' army and means that death and destruction are still a part of the reality of this struggling utopia. Piercy identifies the enemy as multinational capitalism, bureaucratic and military power, and male and white supremacy; and she stresses its power to disrupt utopia. Consequently she recognizes the need for utopian citizens to be vigilant and militant both internally and externally. Utopia could grow out of the victory of the allied oppositional forces, with the utopian impulse itself being a major motivating force in the commitment of those forces; or the dream could be crushed by the centralized power--ideological and military--of the present social formation. The outcome, as Piercy presents it, hinges not on the inevitability of material conditions or the innate goodness of powerful ideas but on human choice and engagement, on collective resistance, on the willed transformation of history by those subordinate to the present system.

Luciente and Connie/Organizing and Violence

The question of activism, the key ideological notion generated in the discrete register, is put quite directly by Piercy: social change requires not only a radical vision but also a radical practice so that history can be moved forward. In Woman on the Edge of Time the science fictional possibility of different possible time continua allows for the major conflict of the novel and establishes the context for the text's meditation on the necessary strategy and tactics for radical change. As one of the utopians haltingly explains to Connie, "at certain cruxes of history forces are in conflict. Technology is imbalanced. Too few have too much power. Alternate futures are equally or almost equally probable ... and that affects the ... shape of time" (WET, 189). Or, as Luciente puts it, Mattapoisett is "not inevitable grasp? Those of your time who fought hard for change, often they had myths that a revolution was inevitable. But nothing is! All things interlock. We are only one possible future" (WET, 189).

Connie lives in one of those historical conjunctures that could break the present open and set in motion events that will lead to either the blue skies of Mattapoisett or the yellow skies of New York. Luciente in 2137 is at another crucial point wherein the revolution is on the verge of victory and could finally close out the possibility of these yellow skies. As developed in the discrete register, the plot turns on Luciente contacting and radicalizing Connie, to demonstrate qualities of a good political organizer, and Connie throwing off her victimhood and deciding to join in the revolution, to demonstrate the personal commitment that must occur whatever the persuasion of the organizer inspires. As Connie is told,

you of your time. You individually may fail to understand us or to struggle in your own life and time. You of your time may fail to struggle together. ... We must fight to come to exist, to remain in existence, to be the future that happens. That's why we reached you.(WET, 189-90)

Thus, as Piercy sets up the situation: the revolution requires the praxis of both Luciente, struggling to keep utopia in existence and serving as an organizer, and Connie, struggling to pave the way of utopia and becoming a terrorist. Both women--actually versions of the same character with one being shaped by the violence of the present and the other being shaped by the nurturing of utopia--choose to help realize the future based on those principles of autonomy, feminism, and ecology shared by the various forces opposed to the status quo. The ideologeme common to the critical utopia in Piercy's novel is more radical, sharper, and less subject to cooptation than is the version that emerges from Le Guin's text, and closer in strategy and tactics to Russ's novel, although not separatist in its basic outlook.

Piercy describes the way to the alternative society of the utopian future as one paved by collective action, within which the activity of strong individuals is the essential element. The personal commitment that was the hallmark of the new left vision of the 1960s is at the heart of Piercy's ideological concern. As Luciente challenges Connie, so Piercy challenges her readers. The organizer wonders

why it took so long for you lugs to get started? Grasp, it seems sometimes like you would put up with anything, anything at all, and pay for it through the teeth. How come you took so long to get together and start fighting for what was yours?(WET, 169)

Luciente encourages Connie to get in touch with her experience of victimization and her anger and to believe in herself and her power to fight back. When Connie objects that she is a nobody without power, Luciente replies:

The powerful don't make revolutions. ... It's the people who worked out the labor-and-land intensive farming we do. It's all the people who changed how people bought food, raised children, went to school ... who made new unions, witheld rent, refused to go to wars, wrote and educated and made speeches.(WET, 190)

Here, the variety of work engaged in by the activists of the 1960s and after is recognized and presented in an alliance of opposition. In the narrative gambit of differing time probabilities, the choices that lead to either social revolution or male, white corporate domination are made the central ideological concern of the text.

Within this context of willed transformation, then, the actions of both Luciente and Connie are key to the progress of the novel. Luciente is a healthy and intelligent person nurtured by the free and provident society of Mattapoisett. In the daily work of that society, she is a plant geneticist who can develop new species that either add to the ecological diversity of the natural environment or serve to improve human existence further without damaging nature. She shows off one of her products to Connie, a variety of rose, named Diana after a former lover: "big, sturdy white with dark red markings and an intense musk fragrance," popular in Maine and New Hampshire because it is "subzero hardy" and a good climber. Although Luciente has her own living space, she also has two current lovers, "sweet friends": Bee, an older, stocky, black male, who works in the brooder nurturing the developing fetuses, and Jackrabbit, a 19-year-old male, who is an artist but who in the course of the novel volunteers for military duty and is killed in action. She has also parented two children, Neruda and Dawn, and shared that parenting with two of her best "hand friends," Morningstar and Otter.

Within the presentation of Mattapoisett society, Luciente provides a focus for the ongoing problems of utopian existence. At the personal level, Luciente becomes embroiled in jealousy as she and Bolivar, Jackrabbit's other regular lover, compete for Jackrabbit's attention. The tensions reach a level where the community's well-being is endangered and are dealt with in a communal worming wherein Luciente and Bolivar confront their conflicting feelings directly with the help of the insights and criticisms of their comrades. Whereas before the worming both were trying to diminish the other in Jackrabbit's eyes, afterward they are helped to meet together to work out their differences.

At the political level, Luciente is active in the "Shaping Controversy," the debate between differing factions of the community on appropriate uses of genetic technology. The Shapers want to intervene genetically in human development and to breed for selected traits; whereas the Mixers hold out for random genetic mixing since they claim that no one objectively knows how people should become and that the integrity of nature itself should be respected. The debate reaches the status of a "power surge" and thus must be resolved at grand council level and put to rest. Luciente, the geneticist, holds with the mixing position--as one would expect of Piercy's protagonist--and participates in hours and hours of meetings and debate on the issue. By the novel's end the controversy is not resolved, and the utopian project remains open and uncertain on this issue.

As the revolution continues its battle for survival, Luciente is selected to be the "sender" in the trans-temporal project of seeking out "catchers" such as Connie. This political task, at once physical and ideological, becomes Luciente's primary activity in the novel. She becomes the guide in the utopian narrative and the organizer in the political development of Connie. Thus, the utopian analog of Connie--who is similar in appearance to Connie, though slimmer and healthier, who has lovers who match Connie's young husband, Eddie, and old lover, Claud, who has a daughter the age of Connie's lost daughter Angelina, who is psychologically sensitive like Connie, and who has gone on to be a scientist as Connie might have in a more just society--is also the utopian inspiration for Connie to help create the very historical conditions in which such a utopian other could develop. If Luciente is important in the novel as the major character of the utopian narrative and as Connie's guide and mentor, Connie is the central character of the entire novel, the visitor to utopia and the victim of the realist narrative whose final action is the very catalyst that enables--at the symbolic level of individual action--Mattapoisett and, thus, Luciente herself to exist in the future.

Piercy's plot works out of this pattern of mutual influence that spirals like a double helix beyond binary closure to a vision of historical progress wherein the establishment of utopia further opens out to the anticipated victory of the utopian forces, with key elements still unresolved such as the resolution of the shaping controversy and the continued healing of the world. The key to the spiral is Connie herself, and the nexus between Mattapoisett and Connie is her understanding of the historical process and her role in it. Connie learns

that past, present, and future exist inside each individual and that each individual has to take responsibility for the future and act. Passivity leads to someone else shaping a future that may be lethal to all you hold sacred--such as human freedom.9

Connie chooses against "technology, in the service of those who control," and for insurgency (WET, 215).

The main plot of the novel, then, opens with Connie's freedom being denied once again as she is sent to the mental hospital for acting out against the society that oppresses her and her loved ones. Driven to the hospital, she is totally cut off from her life and descends into hell to be further reduced as a person and transformed into an experimental subject. Within this hell, however, are the seeds of her resistance and resurrection as a revolutionary fighter. Piercy's plot develops in a series of episodes in which Connie or one of her friends is defeated and then a utopian visit intervenes to build up her strength so she can fight back. The pattern repeats in a widening gyre until the conflict is escalated to a level of outright violence and counter-violence, to the institutionalizing of Connie after her assassination assignment, and the consequent establishment of the utopia.

With the novel narrated in the third person from Connie's point of view, the reader follows Connie in her imprisonment, as she meets other patients, some of whom are old friends--such as Sybil, a proud and independent woman, a witch, and a fighter who has no place in mainstream society--and new friends--such as Skip, a young gay male who has been driven to insanity and eventually to his final act of resistance by suicide with an electric carving knife in his parents' kitchen by parents and officials who would not tolerate his "deviant" sexual preference. Slowly the sides line up, with Connie, Skip, Sybil, Alice Blue Bottom, Captain Cream, and other patients learning that the medical team--Dr Argent, Dr Redding, Dr Morgan, and others--are preparing them for an experiment in the control of the "socially violent." As the patients are moved to a special ward, they learn of the experiment to be performed on them. Headed by Dr Argent of the NYNPI--never spelled out, but New York Neuropsychiatric Institute fits--the project seeks to monitor patients by means of a sending device implanted in their brains that allows for computer-directed control of their behavior by direct stimulation of brain areas when the patient "acts out." Sybil sums it up: the goal is "Control. To turn us into machines so we obey them" (WET, 192). Social justice is replaced by social control: a profitable control because the implantation method would reduce social service costs by automating the supervision process. In this situation, Piercy describes the economic mechanisms wherein profits dominate social relations. As corporate greed and military expenditure reduce the financial resources available for the social wage that all in a society are entitled to, the state must respond by cutting back services and further dehumanizing its citizens by use of cybernetic technology that makes people less able to determine their own lives and the direction of society, rendering them passive in the face of corporate domination.

When the horrible implications of the new procedure sink in, the patients begin to object and resist. But the hegemonic power is on the side of the doctors, and one by one the patients fall prey to the knife and the electrode. However, Connie's visits to Mattapoisett--as visits to post-revolutionary societies such as China, Cuba, Mozambique, Poland, and Nicaragua inspire and inform many--enlighten her to the possibilities of collective resistance and a better social system. Strengthened mentally by her visits, she is trained in the skills of revolutionary struggle and recruited to the cause that affects the village of the future and the hospital ward of the present. Consequently, Connie's first act of resistance is escape, which she does with the help of Sybil and Luciente--a revolutionary female alliance of present and future, scientist and witch, that enables her to challenge the dominant power structure. Connie flees the hospital like a runaway slave of old. With "a big red star" shining overhead, she finds the North Star and "follows the drinking gourd" to what she hopes is freedom, but her few days of freedom are reduced to savored memories when she is spotted at a bus station and returned to the hospital to face her turn in the experiment.

Back in captivity, Connie sees that those who have been operated on can no longer resist: Alice found that when she tried to fight back, the monitor turned off her rage and left her confused. The doctors force a situation wherein Connie must act decisively before they get to her. Luciente encourages her: "You're important to us, we want you to survive and break out. One attempt, one failure--you have to take that for granted. What works the first time?" (WET, 254). Before she can act, however, the operation happens. After the operation, Connie, politicized and strengthened by her utopian connections, does not give up and declares her intent to escape again. At this point in the novel, the alternating moments of oppression and utopian interlude swing to one side as the forces of oppression dominate: Connie is implanted, Skip commits suicide, two others are implanted. And as these reactionary temporal vectors move ahead and influence the future, Connie's utopian friend Jackrabbit--a future version of Skip--dies in battle, the war against the enemy goes badly, and Connie loses contact with Mattapoisett and contacts the dystopia in New York instead. At this point negation dominates the dialectics of power.

The negation of the negation begins when Connie stays in a long trance, having gotten back in touch with the village and stayed on for Jackrabbit's funeral. "Her ability to stay in the future amazed her. They had been trying to rouse her since the evening before. This time, locked into Luciente, she had not even felt them. She watched the fuss through narrowed eyes. They were scared" (WET, 314). Savoring this "first victory," Connie begins to think how she can use the extra time to "scare them again," with Luciente's help. At this point the conflict in both the utopia and the world intensifies: Connie's next visit to the future finds her on the front lines in an airship piloted by the newly adult, 12-year-old Hawk. "Communing's been harder," Luciente tells her. "Something is interfering. Probability static? Temporal vectors are only primitively grasped" (WET, 316). Connie helps with the battle and receives encouragement in turn:

Can I give you tactics? ... There's always a thing you can deny an oppressor, if only your allegiance. Your belief. Your co-oping. Often even with vastly unequal power, you can find or force an opening to fight back. In your time many without power found ways to fight. Till that became a power.(WET, 317)

And so Connie's final act of resistance begins to take shape. In a twilight vision between worlds, she sees all the "flacks of power who had pushed her back and turned her off and locked her up and medicated her and tranquilized her and punished her and condemned her" (WET, 325). In response to her second extended trance, the doctors panic. Fearing they have lost her, they remove the device from her head. Another victory. But now Connie knows more about the dynamics of the situation: "The war raged outside her body now, outside her skull, but the enemy would press on and violate her frontiers again as soon as they chose their next advance. She was at war. ... No more fantasies, no more hopes. War" (WET, 326-7). Awake in the hospital, she tries to encourage the others, telling them that she is biding her time to see what she can do next to strike back. In response to Sybil's dreams of a better life, Connie asserts that "we can imagine all we like. But we got to do something real" (WET, 332). Utopia is useless unless one acts toward making it real.

On a visit to her brother's suburban home over Thanksgiving weekend--the reward for her "good behavior"--Connie decides against further escape and opts for violent direct action. She prepares for her final act in the novel: to assassinate the medical team by poisoning their morning coffee--taking the revolution to the realm of everyday life. She steals the most deadly pesticide from her brother's plant nursery, pouring Parathion into a small bottle to smuggle back into the hospital: "this was a weapon, a powerful weapon that came from the same place as the electrodes and the Thorazine and the dialytrode. One of the weapons of the powerful, of those who controlled" (WET, 351). Connie has "grabbed at power" so that she can fight back, for herself and her comrades.

When she next contacts Luciente she learns that the former battle scene never occurred: "Not in my life, Connie, not in this continuum," Luciente tells her (WET, 356). Connie's resolve has already affected the temporal vectors, shifting them back in a radical direction, and she goes on to discuss with Luciente her plot to poison the team's coffee. In doing so she voices her reservations about the violence she is about to commit, but Luciente reassures her: "power is violence. When did it get destroyed peacefully? We all fight when we're back to the wall--or to tear down a wall" (WET, 359). Unashamed after the poisoning, Connie hardens her mind, cuts herself off from Mattapoisett, and prepares for her punishment after killing four of the six members of the team.

The last chapter of the text is titled "Excerpts from the Official History of Connie Ramos," and it details Connie's continued treatment as a "socially violent" person at Rockover State Hospital. Her life goes on as a prisoner of the state. Though she has succeeded in her guerilla action, she now faces confinement in the state hospital, doped up on Thorazine or worse, for the rest of her life. The realist text ends bleakly for Connie as an individual, but it also ends with victory for the utopian forces in the long run.

The ideological message of Woman on the Edge of Time is that of the need for an alliance of those seeking human emancipation informed by a feminist, socialist, ecological, libertarian, and liberation politics. It calls for collective action and cooperation among all movements in the broad oppositional left: women, gays and lesbians, members of racial, ethnic or national groups, workers, neighborhood organizers, mental health and education reformers, anti-nuclear/anti-military/anti-intervention activists, radical ecologists, and others in the diverse lot opposed to the dominant system. The organization and practices of the society in Mattapoisett and the variety of individuals involved in the struggle both in the utopia and among the hospital patients sum up this anti-hegemonic alliance. Furthermore, the activities of Luciente and Connie, while they stress the commitment and courage of individuals, do not valorize the power of isolated heroism or leadership as much as they identify the importance of personal engagement within a collective effort. For neither Luciente nor Connie acts as a solitary change agent; rather, they carry out their particular contributions as parts of an overall effort involving many types of people and a variety of actions.

If collective/alliance politics are the strategic element of the picture of activism that emerges in the novel, the tactics emphasized are basically three: service and personal development--as imaged in the life and work of the utopians as they carry on daily life in Mattapoisett; ideological and political struggle--as imaged in Luciente's explanation of the historical situation to Connie and in the support and training she gives to Connie, but also in Connie's work with the other patients, in Bolivar's art, in the debates on the Shaping Controversy carried out in the grand council, and, indeed, in the way that the history of revolution is kept alive in the culture of Mattapoisett; and finally armed struggle--as imaged both in the military action that the utopians wage against the cyborgs and in the sabotage and assassination carried out by Connie. Although Connie's action is at the center of the novel and receives the most emphasis--a situation no doubt influenced by Piercy's sympathy for the tactics of urban guerilla actions taken by the Weathermen and by Third World liberation groups--the revolutionary violence has to be read within the overall context of an opposition movement that also includes the service/personal and ideological/political elements as equally necessary in defeating the power of the hegemonic forces and developing the ideas and practices of the revolution. Certainly many readers might find Connie's action hard to take and might prefer that social change would come about more by way of the sort of non-violent speaking and scholarship that Shevek carries on, but Piercy's plot reminds readers that the processes of radical change are complex and occur in the face of a violent power structure.

However, what is most important in Piercy's concern with activism is the basic connection between personal action and historical change itself. The revolution is not inevitable. It is a process of change that may require appropriate conditions and happen more readily at particular historical moments, but it will not happen at all without personal commitment and struggle. As Connie's action and the many names of past revolutionary activists preserved in Mattapoisett society indicate, the actions of each person throughout the years count in the never-ending process of social revolution. The future is never certain. Utopia is never fixed once and for all. Without the activism that Piercy advocates, drawn from the practice of the movements throughout the world in the 1960s, the revolution will not come about. Without that activism, the ongoing process of human emancipation will give way to forces that seek to employ human activity for a system based on profit and order rather than on justice and freedom. That message of personal activism within collective unity, sometimes requiring great sacrifice and violence, then, is at the heart of the oppositional ideology of Piercy's novel.

Generic Battles: Utopia, Dystopia, and Realism

The literary form of Woman on the Edge of Time conveys a similar message of activism that Piercy develops in the images of daily life in Mattapoisett and in Connie's resistance within the hospital. Just as the content of the novel reveals the power of the utopian impulse to defeat the dominant powers of the real world--whether they are the cyborg army of the multinationals or the doctors of the state mental hospital--so too the utopian form of the novel breaks through the limits traditionally imposed by the narrative forms of literary realism or dystopian fiction. The oppositional ideology of this critical utopian form is one of combative engagement with those literary practices that, in the twentieth century at least, have tended to reinforce the ideological claim that a social alternative to what currently exists is impossible. The isolated literary genres caught within the present limits of the dominant mode of production and its attendant culture are, therefore, set free and re-engaged in a radical literary practice that artistically anticipates a new social formation. In Piercy's novel, the primary conflict is between the realist narrative which carries the account of Connie's experience in the hospital and the utopian narrative which gives us Mattapoisett, but there is also a contest between the utopian and dystopian narratives. Furthermore, the utopian narrative itself is one which is self-reflexive and thus able to comment on the traditional limits of utopian writing.

The novel begins in the realist mode set in modern day New York, but the subversion of the present by the utopian dream occurs in the second sentence of the first chapter as Connie thinks to herself, "Either I saw him or I didn't and I'm crazy for real this time" (WET, 1). Here, the basic tension between the power of the state which maintains that Connie is crazy and the utopia which liberates her is established. The stage is set for the defeat of the imposed "realism" of the status quo by the utopianism of the anti-hegemonic forces. While the narrative initially appears to be in a realist mode, the science fictional and utopian mechanisms of alternative reality and willed transformation immediately begin to subvert the text. Although the first two chapters are mainly concerned with Connie's battle with Geraldo and her recommitment to Bellevue, an account worthy of any gritty realist text, the hints of utopia--fleeting images of Luciente, a warm chair, queasy feelings--promise a deeper confrontation that begins when Luciente establishes contact with Connie in chapter 3. By that point, the narrative power of realism has been given its due and Connie's victimization by the sort of unbeatable institution portrayed in novels such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is well established. At the onset of this novel, we seem to be off on yet one more tale of victims and defeat; however, Piercy sets this up only to give the liberating power of utopia more impact when it does arrive. For Connie is not crazy and is not defeated: utopia exists and helps her to assassinate the doctors who victimize her and others. Connie is not one more realist protagonist who, bound by the limitations of the world as the reader knows it, must be done in by an overpowering system. Instead, given new narrative opportunities by the generic powers of utopian and science fiction, she can change from victim to activist. Empowered by the utopia, she turns the tables on those professionals who tell us all to stop complaining and dreaming and to adjust to the world as it is--that is, to serve the system and shut up.

By using an apparently realist form, Piercy first of all challenges that form from within its own generic limits by creating a protagonist who fights back, even within the limits of the "real world." Connie, a strong female protagonist, can be seen as a powerful figure in her own time in her escapes from the doctors' power, in her encouragement to the other patients, and in her direct resistance to the imposed treatment--similar to McMurphy's resistance in Kesey's novel. But Piercy takes the protagonist a step further than Kesey did with his male Christ-like hero and allows Connie to succeed in the poisoning even though she is then condemned to life imprisonment in the hospital. That is, even if the novel were simply a realist novel, it would be anti-hegemonic in its strong female hero who resists victimization and successfully fights back, winning not in terms of the present social system but in terms of the revolutionary effort to overthrow that system.

However, Piercy is not content with that limited literary strategy. She challenges realism, in all its associations with things as they are and "must be," from outside the limits of the genre by attacking with the fantasizing power of utopian science fiction. In the fantastic mode, Piercy can break the rules of the historical situation and posit a future society with the power to reach back in time and help one of our society's victims fight back and thereby ensure the survival of utopia. Thus, even though the last chapter of the novel is a harshly "realistic" summary of Connie's hospital record, implying her continued incarceration, the overall utopian form of the novel reveals the limits of that realistic report and places the entire text against the last chapter, asserting the power of utopian discourse to deconstruct reality as we know it and to motivate literary texts as well as real people so that they refuse the world as it is and fight for a better one. As with Russ, the weapon of the utopian impulse is contributed by Piercy to the oppositional forces of her time; indeed, she does so without the ambiguity and restraint that compromises Le Guin's novel. Piercy's work is clearly more tendentious and angry and much less willing to let the present culture retain control over the utopian impulse. It is the practice of utopian discourse itself that Woman on the Edge of Time ultimately celebrates. It is not the system of utopian society as seen in the admittedly exciting images of life in Mattapoisett that reveals the power of utopia but rather the impact of utopian dreams and experience on the protagonist that is the primary utopian mechanism in the text. The power of dreams to help change the historical current is the key formal message that joins with the similar message of both the ideologeme and the iconic images of the novel.

Furthermore, Piercy is not content simply to defeat the cooptation of literary realism by the dominant culture. She also goes after the dystopian form in so far as it implies that the only alternative to the present bad situation is a worse situation--a suggestion to readers that they take things as they are and not make them worse by useless revolutionary efforts, for then the repression would only be greater. The infamous chapter 15 in which Connie's dystopian analog, Gildina, describes life in a totally repressive and polluted New York under the complete control of the multinationals is as good a dystopian image as one might expect and holds its own with the writing of Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin. Again, rather than accept a bleak future or counsel inaction, Piercy's novel serves to defeat the one-dimensional negativity of the dystopia by articulating Connie's utopian-supported action. In poisoning the doctors and thereby sending revolutionary vectors forward in time, Connie assures that Luciente's world, not Gildina's, is the one that will prevail. Dystopia is reduced to a bad moment in the long red line of history, and the hold that the dystopian narrative has had on the genre of utopian writing in the twentieth century is seriously weakened by Piercy's narrative contest between the two forms. This time, at least, the dream defeats the nightmare.

Piercy, however, does not just employ utopia against realism and dystopian fiction and celebrate utopia in a non-critical fashion. As one of the important writers who revived utopian fiction in the 1970s, she is aware of the limitations of the genre itself: its tendency to reduce alternative visions to closed and boring perfect systems that negate the utopian impulse that generated them; as well as its cooptation by the marketing and socialization mechanisms of contemporary industrial societies. Like Russ and Le Guin, she makes sure to express the limits and problems that continue within the utopian system and utopian discourse. In her own text she uses the radical potential of utopian discourse for the emerging opposition to the present social systems.

Some of Piercy's commentary on the limits of utopian fulfillment comes from Connie as she reacts to life in Mattapoisett. Echoing Engels's doubts about the efficacy of literary utopias, Connie questions the gap between utopia and history: "What could a man of this ridiculous Podunk future, when babies were born from machines and people negotiated diplomatically with cows, know about how it has been to grow up in America black or brown?" (WET, 97). Furthermore, she observes that life is still far from perfect in this society: "you still go crazy. You still get sick. You grow old. You die. I thought in a hundred and fifty years some of these problems would be solved, anyhow!" (WET, 118). With Connie's doubts, Piercy avoids a simplistic, elitist image of utopian perfection and links utopia more closely with the uncertainties of history.

The antagonisms that persist in utopian life are further revealed in the controversies that occur in Mattapoisett. At the personal level, the jealousy between Luciente and Bolivar demonstrates the continuing problems of insecurity and love encountered by humanity even in the best of all possible worlds. The only difference is that in Mattapoisett people have become more aware of conflicts and have worked out social mechanisms to deal with them within a more nurturing social fabric. Thus utopia is seen to help the human situation but not to perfect it out of existence. At the political level, the continuing war against the enemy and the Shaping Controversy demonstrate the fragility of any better society which attempts to improve the human condition. Both situations indicate the possibility that a revolutionary society can be defeated by external attack or by return of misplaced power within its borders.

These narrative gambits serve to deny the former assumed simplicity and totalizing tendency of utopian visions and help to create a more realistic utopia that is more palatable to the demanding, and jaded, reader of the 1970s and 1980s. The resulting images make clear that any utopian alternative in this world must fight for its existence and will continue to experience problems and contradictions; for history is a process of contradictions that continues even after the most destructive situations have ended.

The novel approaches self-reflexivity when in the worming scene Luciente expresses her jealousy toward Bolivar by criticizing his art. Luciente describes Bolivar's holi as too individualistic and politically thin. She expects art to be more tendentious, getting at the deep political and economic sources of the destruction of so much of humanity and nature. Bolivar, on the other hand, defends his work by arguing that "the culture as a whole must speak the whole truth. But every object can't!" (WET, 203). He characterizes Luciente's view as a "slogan mentality ... as if there were certain holy words that must always be named" (WET, 203). "Sometimes an image radiates many possible truths," Bolivar argues, "Luciente appears to fix too narrowly on content and apply our common politics too rigidly" (WET, 203). Here, of course, is the continuing debate about the politics of art: content against form, rational critique against non-rational insight, political correctness against artistic freedom, tendentious against more indirect but perhaps more broadly acceptable art. Neither side "wins" the debate. Both are encouraged to understand each other's point of view. Piercy thus opts for a dialectical unity of the two positions, avoiding the extremes of political hack and individualistic indulgence. The novel appears to express this unity of opposites as it seeks to be both politically engaged and aesthetically multi-dimensional. However, since Luciente is a major character second only to Connie, her comments in the structure of the text tend to carry more weight than do those of the minor character, Bolivar, and the political assertiveness of the novel itself seems to tip the balance in the direction of Luciente's position. To be sure, Woman on the Edge of Time is a tendentious work, uncompromising in its political assessment and alternatives, its angry tone, its direct assault on a very undisguised phallocratic/bureaucratic capitalism, and its firm commitment to armed struggle.

Perhaps the most directly self-reflexive commentary in the novel is the connection between Connie's telepathic empathy and dreams and the "actual" utopian society and its political fight. The connection between utopia and the life of this apparent victim of the present system is an assertion on Piercy's part of the beneficial effect that such dreaming, the utopian impulse as Bloch and Marcuse and others have described it, can have both on a single personal life and on history itself. In the first chapter, Connie dreams of a better life wherein she and Dolly and Dolly's daughter could live together in comfort and peace. Even though it is just a dream in the face of actual poverty, racism, sexism, and violence, Connie values the role of such fantasy in her life: "That she knew in her heart of ashes the dream was futile did not make it less precious. Every soul needs a little sweetness" (WET, 8). Piercy connects this ability to indulge in "futile" dreams with Luciente's visit and implies that dreams do demonstrate what does not yet exist and move us beyond the insufficiency of the present. Piercy reproduces within the novel the way that the hegemonic system makes each of us doubt ourselves in our dreams and perceptions. She then attacks that imposed doubt by demonstrating the liberating power of utopian dreams, especially when they join with those of others. In the content of the book, then, she demonstrates the power of the form. In the form itself, she releases the power of the unsatisfied utopian desire from its cooptation by affirmative consumer culture and sets it free to participate in the movement toward a new society that goes beyond white, male, bureaucratic, corporate power.

Woman on the Edge of Time, then, develops an image of utopia that draws on many presently subordinate cultures, on the insights of ecology and appropriate technology, on the theory and practice of feminism and overall human liberation, on the democratic anarchist and socialist tradition, and on the grassroots work by the new left in many issue-oriented movements from school and mental health reform to cooperatives and local decision-making. She describes a collective activism that preserves the importance of the individual person. However, it is an activism that involves more risk and destruction than the travelling and negotiations of a Shevek do, as well as one that leads to a revolutionary new society rather than separatism or compromising détente. The form of the novel is itself an expression of the radical power of the utopian impulse to cut through the cooptation and denial of desire in the present dominated by white male discourse and power and by hierarchy and control in the service of profit. Though less concerned with separatism and less formally experimental than The Female Man, Piercy's novel shares a radical vision with that novel which goes beyond the more compromising text of Le Guin's. Both Russ and Piercy see less hope in the present situation and more in the emerging power of subordinate people.

Piercy's juxtaposition of realism and utopia, as well as her revival of dystopian writing, enlists all these forms, and the utopian impulse itself, as material forces in the ongoing conflict of history. She establishes a dialectical connection between consciousness raising and the historical situation that carries out the dynamic of power relations and social change within the literary operations of the utopian text. In both content and form, Piercy asserts the power of desire as a mechanism of the collective human subject that cannot be totally denied or coopted, as an anticipation and practice of what could be as the current historical situation is negated. Piercy does not assert utopia, she activates it.


1. Marge Piercy, "The Peaceable Kingdom," in Breaking Camp (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968), pp. 68-9.

2. Piercy's poetry published in book form includes: Breaking Camp (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968); Hard Loving (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969); 4-Telling (Trumanstown, NY: Crossing Press, 1971); To Be of Use (New York: Doubleday, 1973); Living in the Open (New York: Knopf, 1976); The Twelve Spoked Wheel Flashing (New York: Knopf, 1978); The Moon is Always Female (New York: Knopf, 1980). Piercy's novels include: Going Down Fast (New York: Trident, 1969); Dance the Eagle to Sleep (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970); Small Changes (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973); Woman on the Edge of Time (New York: Knopf, 1976); The High Cost of Loving (New York: Harper & Row, 1978); Vida (New York: Summit, 1979).

3. Pamela J. Annas, "New Worlds, New Words: Androgyny in Feminist Science Fiction," Science-Fiction Studies, No. 15 (July 1978), p. 154.

4. Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (New York: Knopf, 1976). Subsequent references to this book will be coded in parentheses in the text as WET.

5. Elaine Hoffman Baruch, "A Natural and Necessary Monster: Women in Utopia," Alternative Futures, 2, No. 1 (Winter 1979), 44.

6. Baruch, "A Natural and Necessary Monster," 45.

7. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Bantam Books, 1970).

8. Nadia Khouri, "The Dialectics of Power: Utopia in the Science Fiction of Le Guin, Jeury, and Piercy," Science-Fiction Studies, 7 (March 1980), 58.

9. Annas, "New Worlds, New Words," 159.


Annas, Pamela J. "New Worlds, New Words: Androgyny in Feminist Science Fiction." Science-Fiction Studies, No. 15 (July 1978), 143-56.

Baruch, Elaine Hoffman. "A Natural and Necessary Monster: Women in Utopia." Alternative Futures, 2, No. 1 (Winter 1979), 29-49.

Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic of Sex. New York: Bantam Books, 1970.

Khouri, Nadia. "The Dialectics of Power: Utopia in the Science Fiction of Le Guin, Jeury, and Piercy." Science-Fiction Studies, No. 7 (March 1980), 49-61.

Piercy, Marge. Breaking Camp. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968.

------. Dance the Eagle to Sleep. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970.

------. Going Down Fast. New York: Trident, 1969.

------. Hard Loving. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press, 1969.

------. Living in the Open. New York: Knopf, 1976.

------. To Be of Use. New York: Doubleday, 1973.

------. Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Moylan, Tom. "Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 347, Gale, 2014. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 26 June 2019. Originally published in Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination, Methuen, 1986, pp. 121-155.

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100116315