Wednesday, August 12, 2009

WiSF reading club: Woman on the Edge of Time - Equality Through Biotechnology?

Note: I've volunteered to host the WiSF reading club discussion about Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. The post below is my take on one aspect of the novel - one that fits in with the "biology in science fiction" theme of my blog quite nicely - but I don't mean for it to limit the discussion. I think there are a number of other issues the novel touches on that would be interesting to explore, so please have at it in the comments.


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.

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  1. i was just reading the part about male and female group lactation to a co-worker...

    "Lets not" he said.

    its also interesting to think that sexism reigns only because of a woman's reproductive power and that we could cure it if we could make that distinction vague, but the book seems to ignore that there may have been other reasons too- like the male and female differences in upper body strength and our brain chemistry, hell, even the ways we digest alcohol -

  2. I agree that Woman at the Edge of Time is both thought-provoking and heavy-handed. Piercy is not a subtle writer.

    I wrote an essay about the double-edge potential of artificial wombs: Equalizer or Terminator?

  3. Haven't read this book yet, but after reading more about it I believe it may be something that I should read in daylight. It may be too close to reality to give the reader a chance to remember the 1970's concept of mental illness.

    Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting story is a romantic action adventure in space.

  4. I have always thought the 'utopia' sounded hideous - the children are forced to leave at 12 to break down parent/child bonds, yes?

  5. Anonymous2:52 PM

    Anonymous, yes, the children leave at 12 or 13 ... for a few months of camping, and then come back to their hometown but set up their own apartment, and don't talk with their parents for six months so they can all get used to the child being independent now. It's not really much more of a wrench than going away to boarding school in the days before email and when long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive.

    Besides, most teenagers long for their own apartment and to be free of parental supervision.

  6. Anonymous3:14 PM

    I'm glad Sajbrfem started the book club, because I would never have read this on my own; it sounded very dark. It turned out to be very intense, but not that dark, partly because of all the time spent in the far future, and partly because of the way it gives our heroine hope and purpose in the 1970s ~ present time.

    The presentation of gender and appearance interested me. When our heroine first meets Luciente, she thinks Luciente is a man, because Luciente isn't displaying any of the cultural markers of femininity. She isn't being butch, either; she just isn't bothering with stylized gender markers, and a 1970s person was so used to artificial gender display that she had trouble parsing build and breasts and voice without them.

    In the dystopian future, Gildina was operated on to acquire a cartoonishly exaggerated porny figure. On top of that she applied elaborate cosmetic paint whenever she went out (only with her man; she wasn't allowed out alone). She didn't get to eat real food, just cheap synthesized stuff to support life but not vibrant health. (She believes the natural food that rich people eat must be yucky and bad for you.) She was on drugs to make her more tractable and let her tolerate a life deprived of space and freedom and even company. She earned her living by providing sexual services to a man, at his demand, and counted herself lucky to have a contract with just one man instead of constantly having to scrounge for one-time stands. It seems so nightmarishly extreme.

    But back in the present, we see all those elements already active. Our heroine's niece Dolly (which I think is a significant name) becomes a prostitute, against our heroine's advice. She either gets or is saving up for cosmetic surgery. She dyes her hair and wears lots of makeup. She takes lots of speed because it makes her feel better and perform better. It also interferes with her memory and concentration. She gives up food (because it makes you fat) and subsists on Ding-Dongs and similar cheap chemicalized junk when the hunger pangs get too bad. She's limited to going where her pimp will let her, when he will take her. It's chilling.

    But it wouldn't be so chilling --- would seem almost normal --- if I read Dolly's lines without having seen Gildina's situation described in an 'other' enough context that the background social propaganda didn't apply.

    One of the powerful things about Woman on the Edge of Time was the way it used far-future societies to show us 1970 society more clearly. It's like corrective lenses, putting things in focus that are normally blurred.

  7. Anonymous4:36 PM

    And now that I've read Professor Sparks' essay, I noticed another detail: 'Luciente', as Professor Sparks points out, is Spanish for "shining, brilliant, full of light". And Gildina is her analogue in the dystopian society: the guide who explains things to our heroine. 'Gildina' is a form of 'gilded': a shiny reflective layer thinly coating something that doesn't glow at all. Moreover, Luciente is a gender-neutral name; Gildina is overtly feminine.

  8. Stasya: While there are some gender differences in brain chemistry, men and women are actually much more alike in their cognitive abilities and brain function than they are different. Unfortunately the differences are what are played up in the media - also by some psychologists, economists, and sociologists who by into the silliest extremes of evolutionary psychological explanations of behavior.

    There is, of course, a significant different in average morphology - men are, on average, taller and are more able to put on muscle, in addition to the differences in secondary sexual characteristics. I think that part of Piercy's point is that those differences aren't important in creating social status in a technology-based society where reproduction and child-care are shared equally between men and women.

    I think that it's interesting that in our present day (and even in the 1970s) that most of us work at jobs where muscle and height don't have any direct bearing on performance, and yet the differences in perception of the abilities of men and women persists.

  9. kathmandu: The "coming of age" test in the novel reminded me of Panshin's Rite of Passage, which I loved as a young teen.

    It's also a very good point that Piercy's "future" sets the "present" in high relief. I would argue that that is something that science fiction can do very well, even if it is sometimes heavy handed (like many of the Star Trek: TOS episodes).

    And yes about Gildina representing Dolly's life taken to the extreme. It makes so many actions that are often considered the norm for women, even today - cosmetics and cosmetic surgery, starvation diets supported by pharmaceuticals, staying with controlling men for their financial support - seem more horrifying.

  10. I also would not have read this book if it wasn't for the bookclub, so thanks, sajbrfem (and also, thanks Peggy for hosting this discusion).

    I agree that it's a dark book, and that Piercy's writing is not enormously subtle.

    I thought the use of an "unreliable narrator" was really interesting, especially since the expeditions ceased at the end of the novel.

    Also, I didn't think that Luciente and Gildina were living in concurrent societies which were at war with each other directly. I thought they were in alternate futures. Unfortunately, I've returned my copy of the book, so I can't mine for quotes, but I understood it as follows:

    - Connie comes across Gildina because she's reaching out for Luciente, and can't find her (or anyone else from her world). This occurs after a couple of really important events: Luciente (or someone else from her time) has warned Connie that what happens in Connie's time is pivotal in that it will determine the direction that humanity takes; and, importantly, when Connie meets Gildina, it's the first time she's reached for Luciente after something to do with the brain implants (I think after the first one is put in, but I can't remember for certain).

    - The hints that Luciente (and others) give about their history suggests that the entire planet is now part of their society, or more or less - I got the impression that the people they're fighting are possibly off-planet, maybe on the moon.

    Anyway, it may just be me being pedantic - ultimately, yes, the people that Luciente's society is warring against are the people who have a society like that Gildina lives in, and that's a large part of the point - but I think that the issue of whether they're in alternate futures or simply different cities is relevant, because it highlights the importance of what Connie's trying to do. It's not enough that she simply sit back, enjoy her visits with Luciente & co, and relax in the fact that there's hope for humanity because Luciente & co will fight the war in the future - Connie has to join the fight in her "now", and in doing so, she loses the ability to visit Luciente & co. She ends up trapped, not only in the pretty horrendous present described by Piercy, but in the even more horrendous environment of the institution.

    So there's another device used by Piercy: Connie is able to visit Luciente while innocent, but as soon as she commits the murders, she's somehow tainted and unable to time-travel.

    (That, for me, contributes to the "unreliable narrator" storyline, too.)


    On the issue of children & child-raising in Luciente's world: I really liked it, as a concept! I liked the fact that co-parenting wasn't tied to sexual relationships; I liked the fact that men and women could be equally involved in the process (by the way, it is currently possible to give men hormones and have them lactate - apparently, their milk has a higher amount of protein compared to women's, but is otherwise the same); I liked the rite of passage/independence (which didn't seem to reduce love between mother and child - look at the scene where the poet dies (I forget her name), and her child, Jacksparrow's lover, who Luciente has issues with, gets there at the last minute); I liked the emphasis on the concept that the children were part of the community from the very beginning.

    But I can also see how, while it might be nice in concept, it could potentially be very difficult to get around a whole lot of other social objects.


    As a lawyer, I also found the dispute resolution process (exemplified between Luciente and Jacksparrow's other lover, but Luciente also explains other parts of it to Connie at other times) really interesting. But I thought it was pretty vague, and, as a process, unsatisfying. That could be my social acclimatisation speaking. But anyway, I was unconvinced by it.

  11. Haven't read this book yet, but after reading more about it I believe it may be something that I should read in daylight. It may be too close to reality to give the reader a chance to remember the 1970's concept of mental illness.

  12. Very interesting article.

    But maybe you should just know

  13. I just found your blog through a new follower...very cool. :)

  14. I haven't read the book yet, but after reading your post I guess it is time for me to have it!


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