Book Review from the August 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
Every piece of art can't contain everything everybody would like to say . . . That's the slogan mentality at work, as if there were certain holy words that must always be named.
Thus one of the characters in Marge Piercy's science fiction novel Woman On The Edge Of Time* sums up the author's approach to writing a political story about present and future society without the usual incantation of political jargon. The future society which she so desirably depicts, though not named as such, is socialist in our terms: a moneyless society of common ownership based upon voluntary co-operation, with people contributing according to ability and taking according to need.
The story focuses on an inmate of a mental 'hospital', Connie Ramos. A Mexican-American woman, she is a victim of both poverty and colour prejudice and so is easy prey for the authorities. Having been committed to the institution once, she is sent back on the evidence of a pimp who Connie attacked with a bottle to protect her niece from a beating. She was committed the first time for hitting her daughter Angie although, as she says, "Most people hit kids. But if you were on welfare and on probation and the whole social pigeon-holing establishment had the right to trek regularly through your kitchen looking in the closets and under the bed, counting the bedbugs and your shoes, you had better not hit your kid once."
At a time when child battering is in the news, the author's fictional account shows how poverty can drive a loving parent to violence, and the palpable fact that they are as much victims of capitalist society as are the battered kids. Connie is living on welfare in a one-room flat following her husband's death in prison after a drug experiment. She wakes to Angie's screaming:
. . . She came staggering off the couch and saw that Angie, in kicking the table, in kicking the wall - every blow the blow of a hammer on her aching head - had kicked a hole in her lousy cheap shoes. Those were the only shoes Angie had, and where in hell was Connie going to get her another pair? Angie couldn't go out without shoes. There rose before Connie the long maze of conversations with her caseworker, of explanations, of pleas and forms in triplicate and quadruplicate and trips down to the welfare office to wait all day, first outside in the cold and then inside in line, for ever and ever for a lousy cheap pair of shoes to replace the lousy cheap pair Angie had just destroyed.
"You fucking kid!" she screamed, and hit her. Hit too hard. Knocked her across the room into the door. Angie's arm struck the heavy metal bolt of the police lock, and her wrist broke. The act was past in a moment. The consequences would go on as long as she breathed.
In the course of Connie's incarceration every protest is taken as 'a sign of sickness', and people in a so-called hospital are drugged into zombies. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that such institutions are used by the establishment against, in particular, underprivileged and inarticulate people as "just another way of getting busted', as a sort of warehouse fit only to 'store human machinery' broken by misuse. The story calls into question society's definition of madness.
Contrasted with today's sordid world is Mattapoisett, a village in a future time. Visions of the future often tend to depend almost totally on a 'back to nature' attitude. Unusually, this utopia encompasses both renewable, non-polluting energy sources of the 'small is beautiful' philosophy, and the application of advanced communications technology and machinery to carry out boring or repetitive work. Since unnecessary jobs like 'counting money and moving it about' have been abolished and necessary work is shared out, the workload is reduced to a minimum.
The most interesting aspect of this utopia is not the science fiction 'hardware' but the human relationships which are explored. Mattapoisett is a truly democratic society. Not only are the mechanics of decision-making democratic - local requirements are discussed with 'reps' chosen by lot each year who then meet, discuss and decide at planning councils - but social relationships are too. There are none of the hallmarks of authoritarianism or patriarchy here. No bosses, no leaders, no government. Gone too is that most pernicious institution, the nuclear family. School - that other fearsome institution - has also changed, with the artificial barriers between learning and doing in the real world removed. Children are treated as human beings, totally integrated and contributing to the community in their own right.
Since the characters are given unusual but charming names such as Morningstar, clues are rarely given to test sex role assumptions. Only Connie, the outsider, refers to the women and men as she or he, Mattapoisettians having no gender noun, using 'person' or 'per' for short. Assumptions about sexual and emotional relationships are also tested as the Mattapoisettians are no longer constrained by the concept of heterosexual monogamy.
There is little mention of how the author envisages change to a new society other than 'a thirty year war that culminated in a revolution'. A continuing war with the 'Richies' who have control of the 'space platforms, the moon, and Antarctica' supported by a population of androids, robots and cybernauts, is envisaged.
Utopian novels like Woman On The Edge Of Time are important for visualising a better future. By putting flesh on the theoretical bones of socialism they may inspire people to think about changing the world possibly as much a a library full of books on political science and economy. But there is another important reason. If socialism is to become more than a dream then all of us are going to be discussing how we each want to see the world shaped.
Finishing this book is like waking up thinking it's the weekend, only to find you've been dreaming and it's really Monday morning and WORK AGAIN! Capitalism is still with us, and the last thing to be complacent about is getting rid of it.
Those of your time who fought hard for change, often they had myths that a revolution was inevitable. But nothing is . . . we are only one possible future.
*The Women's Press, paperback £1.95