Classic book: Woman on the Edge of Time – A utopia of resistance

Mel Evans looks at Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy, first published 1979

May 2, 2012
5 min read

A journey through resistance and revolution, Woman on the Edge of Time expresses the personal in the political by exploring the body as a site of resistance. Like many of Marge Piercy’s page‑turning works of fiction, her well-crafted narrative is led by affectionately observed and likeably flawed characters. Piercy gives space in her work to women’s experiences and relationships, often, as in this novel, to queer women and women of colour.

Woman on the Edge of Time depicts parallel stories: 1970s New York, where incidents will fate a potentially utopic or dystopic future, and the year 2137.

Piercy’s utopia elaborates on contemporary political and scientific experiments in horizontal living/organising and computer technology. No one bears children and male‑bodied people produce milk. Pronouns are non‑gendered and every child has three co-mothers until they turn 13 and pick their own name, off in the forest.

Everyone’s in functional polyamorous relationships. Each has a room of their own, creating a rhizomatic network of closely related individuals, with no nuclear or hierarchical relationships, intimate or familial. We meet a young teenager playing a harp to a room of sleeping babies. For the big party, everyone gets dressed up in fabulous Gaga-esque biodegradable outfits. Neighbouring communities consider their respective needs and debate until consensus on how to live with each other and the land. It’s delightfully politically idyllic.

Is this the utopia I would go for? Well, in many ways no. Utopic visions are only useful insofar as they shed critical light on the present and open imaginative space around alternative futures. They will always have limitations, and Piercy’s future utopia of Mattapoissett has its flaws.

The utopia is brought to us via the dreams and hallucinations of Consuelo Ramos, incarcerated in a New York hospital mental health ward. Connie is tough and hurting, imprisoned when she needs to be supported, abandoned to a place potentially more life-threatening than the one she inhabited before. Piercy does not create a utopic vision as a polemic, but as a counterpoint in constant dialogue with the experience of individuals marginalised in a capitalist society. She does not use this utopia to tantalise or drug the reader but rather as a tool to critique social crises of the present. Her science fiction delights in technological potential while also questioning medicine turned technically tyrannical.

Connie is a Hispanic woman, poor and sidelined. She retains a deep warmth and care for her unreliable niece, and nurtures the strength in the women around her on the psych ward. Here we meet resistance to oppression in their sheer resilience to physical violence. Connie and her ward-mates fight against the doctors’ abusive scientific experiments as the people of utopic Mattapoisett hold off the encroachment of the corporations’ attack at the frontiers of their enclosure.

Connie’s initial reaction to Piercy’s utopia as depicted in Mattapoisett lets loose the potential disgust in the reader for this seemingly new-age hippy commune, which in fact shows itself to be a highly organised, technologically developed community that Connie grows to trust, embrace and be nurtured by.

Connie’s passage to Mattapoisett is enabled by time travel sans fancy gadgets, on the arms of genderqueer Luciente, who wears trousers that re-size according to when the wearer gains or loses a few pounds. Where Luciente comes from, people are referred to as per and ze rather than her/him and s/he. Initially Connie reads Luciente as a gay man, and is shocked to find per to be what Connie would consider female-bodied. Piercy’s writing in 1979 might seem trite now after 30 years of trans-activism that has both evolved and disrupted understandings and expressions of gendered bodies, yet her writing is part of that journey.

In this future, racisms of the past (for 2137) are healed into a Benetton-esque blur of under-explored ethnic references. As far as I can see, racisms that oppress to this day stemming from colonialism and slavery will not disappear into casual celebration of cultural differences, but will require a continued critique and struggle against white supremacy, and I would have liked to see some depiction of this process. That the war with the corporations is being fought on the one hand, while white supremacy is somehow fully dismantled on the other, betrays a lack of analysis of the intersection of capitalism and racism.

Nonetheless, the journey with Connie and her ward‑mates empathetically shows the brilliant resilience of a group of women labelled ‘mad’ and facing persecution. Marge Piercy’s writing is to me like a long-awaited afternoon drinking tea with a close friend. Her characters, narratives and sensitive reflections on both intimate relationships and political organising engulf me in a sympathetic critical understanding. She is the most lent-out author on my shelf. With Piercy, do not expect a tidy neat denouement – life rarely offers an easily resolved ending, and neither does she.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry

Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram


104