Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time is a disturbing novel. It's the story of Consuelo "Connie" Ramos, a poor Mexican-American woman who has been in and out of mental hospitals. She ends up committed once again after she physically defends her niece from her niece's pimp boyfriend and that's where the horror starts. In the "present day" (mid-1970s) mental hospital the patients are treated with both indifference and abuse by the staff, and Connie and several other patients are chosen to receive experimental neural control implants, not only without their consent, but in Connie's case explicitly against her wishes. The patients are considered little different than test animals by the physicians and doctors participating in the experiment:
[Connie] remembered something she had heard Dr. Redding say to Superintendent Hodges: that they had used up five thousand monkeys before they began doing these operations on patients. Used up. She had heard him say he had wanted to work with prisoners – he thought the results would be more impressive – but there had been such an uproar about three little psychosurgical procedures at Vacaville in California that his team decided to work with mental patients. "After all," he had said, smiling his best ironic smile, "they made a court case and a bleeding heart publicity brouhaha about three procedures, while San Francisco Children's Hospital does hundreds with sound and thermal probes – mostly on neurotic women and intractable children – and no one says boo."This unfortunately wasn't just fiction. By the mid-1970s there had been a number of cases in which experimentation on human subjects without their informed consent had been revealed to the public.
But Connie has an escape of sorts*: she is visited by Luciente, a woman from 22nd century Massachusetts. She comes from a future in which time travelers leave can behind their unconscious bodies while appearing corporeally by forming a mental link with an individual at their destination. This allows Connie to leave the nightmarish hospital to visit Luciente's utopian future. What she finds is that Luciente lives in a small rustic-appearing village, a communal society in which everyone has their own space, works to their best ability, is free to pursue their interests and has their necessities are taken care of. However that appearance of rusticity is somewhat deceiving. Not only does everyone have a personal networked computer (a "kenner"), but the underpinning of their society is advanced biotechnology.
Luciente herself is a plant geneticist who develops new crops, in part by introducing new genes from the plants in carefully preserved wild areas. But the real difference that sets her society apart from Connie's is the elimination of discrimination due to gender or race. Their solution was two-fold: eliminate childbearing and child-rearing as female-only activities and separate genetics from parenthood. As Luciente explains to Connie:
"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 never would be humanized to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers. Every child has three. To break the nuclear bonding."Their reproduction is based on vitro fertilization and fetuses grown in artificial wombs. After birth, each infant has three co-mothers, male and female, who are given hormonal treatments so that all can share in nursing. And because there are no genetic ties between parents and their children, they have eliminated discrimination by race. However, they have found a way to maintain cultural diversity by separating it from genetics:
"At grandcil – grand council – decisions were made forty years back to breed a high proportion of darker-skinned people and to mix the genes well through the population. At the same time, we decided to hold on to separate cultural identities. But we broke the bond between genes and culture, broke it forever. We want there to be no chance of racism again. But we don't want the melting pot where everybody ends up with thin gruel. We want diversity, for strangeness breeds richness."As that quote hints at, people of Luciente's society can adopt any culture they chose, just as they select a name they feel suits them. Luciente's village is culturally "Wampanoag", while others are "Harlem-Black", "Cape Verde" and "Ashkenazi Jewish". I use quotes because only the elements of those cultures that fit their society are adopted - sexism, racism, and patriarchal religion are excluded.
But not everything is idyllic. Luciente and her people are at war with a neighboring society that is essentially their exact opposite. It's urban, uses genetic engineering to create super soldiers, and the common people eat bland food grown on factory farms. Connie accidentally travels to the future New York City where she meets a woman - Gildina 547-921-45-822-KBJ - from this society who has been "cosmetically fixed for sex use" and is sealed in her windowless apartment. Gildina's none to bright, and that's by design:
"She was born a dud. She's just a built-up contracty. All duds have brain deficiencies from protein scarcity in fetus and early childhood. Their IRP's are negative forty to negative fifteen. Her psych scan tests show negative twenty-five. She has no more mental capacity than a genetically improved ape."Wealthy families and corporations in this version of the future use biotechnology to keep the lower classes oppressed. Gildina doesn't expect to live beyond her 40's while the "richies" live for centuries on involuntarily "donated" organs. It's a nasty place to be one of the masses.
Despite the novel's heavy handed (to my eyes) dichotomy between Luciente's idyllic pastoral Marxist society and the hellish capitalist urban society of New York, I thought it was interesting that both versions of the future are heavily dependent on technology - particularly biotechnology - for their existance. In one it's used to allow women to become independent equal members of society, in the other it creates women that are just sexual objects (among many other differences). If forced to chose I'd obviously prefer the former over the latter, but my perhaps naive hope is that we can achieve equality without reengineering our biology.
* There is some ambiguity as to whether Connie's trips to the future are real, or whether they are just manifestations of schizophrenia. It could be argued that she is a victim of being a poor non-white woman whose normal actions are interpreted with the assumption that she is mentally ill (something that has been shown to happen in psychiatric hospital).
So that's my take on the biotechnology in WotEoT. I think there are a number of other aspects that would make for good discussion too.
If you are interested in an academic analysis, check out this essay by Clemson English professor Elisa Kay Sparks.
Tags:Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy, biotechnology