Review of Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
Woman on the Edge of Time
by Marge Piercy
I'm ambivalent about this book. The best way to describe my reservation with Woman on the Edge of Time is that I was never comfortable suspending my disbelief. I tried to make myself willing to go where Marge Piercy was taking me but never quite got there. Although the book steadily improved from its chaotic but very dull beginning, it never involved me in the way I require to get much satisfaction from reading. In the end, I was reading the book to finish it instead of because I was eager to find out what happened next—I was not invested in the fate of Connie or Luciente. Piercy's utopia is intriguing and creative—and therein lies the problem.
Woman on the Edge of Time is a good example of how one can take a concept (in this case, a utopian society) and overdo the trope to the point where it distracts from the story one is trying to tell. Through the unique interaction of present (well, the 1970s) with a possible future, Piercy weaves a story of power and revolution. Her protagonist is one of the powerless, the poor, the oppressed. Society is "against" her. Her only hope lies in her ability to envision something potentially better.
There's a difference between having a detailed portrayal of a utopia and an effective one. My new gold standard is probably The Dispossessed. The key requirement is that the description of utopia itself doesn't get in the way of storytelling, and I'm not convinced that requirement is met here. Authors often take license with the imagined future, especially when it is compared with their present. Alone, any of the various concepts that Piercy injects into the future—conflict between the ecologically-aware and the technology-crazed sides of society, reproduction via bottle babies, a sort of non-hierarchical representative-by-lottery democracy, the natural evolution of language and dialect—are interesting and a fine basis for a utopia. Together, they're overwhelming. Piercy's utopia is too crowded.
In contrast, Connie's present is far too simple a world. We're supposed to sympathize with Connie's misfortunes, feel shocked at what the doctors at her asylum are doing when it comes to running experiments on patients. The explanations that the doctors offer Connie when she protests that she doesn't belong in a mental hospital are always curt, snide—it's all very one-sided. Connie's brother, father, and niece are all very unhelpful. It is almost enough to make the sceptic in me wonder if Connie is in fact more far gone than she believes, and the whole time travel part of the book is a delusion. I'm forced to conclude that's not the case, for Piercy never explores this avenue explicitly, except for one particular scene that doesn't confirm the delusion hypothesis. Connie's visits to the future are for the benefit of inspiring her to alter her present.
I am of two minds on this book. Ben the Philosopher appreciates what Piercy is trying to do, considers her utopia and Connie's plight, and contemplates the power struggles and social conflict philosophy underpinning this book. Yet Ben the Reader professes no emotion, no feeling stirred by the story. A book may have the most profound themes ever imagined, but if they don't move me, I cannot in good conscience commend the book. Still, I can say of Woman on the Edge of Time that it strives for greatness, and only in failing does it find mediocrity. Better to strive and fail than just aim low, and for that I can recognize a sincere effort if not a satisfactory one.