A classic read: Woman on the Edge of Time

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First published in 1976

Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time stands in a long tradition of novels that describe a socialist utopia.

Connie Ramos is a 37 year old Mexican-American living in poverty in New York. She has been through a period of mental illness, was hospitalised and her daughter taken away to be fostered. As the novel begins she is hospitalised again, after trying to protect her niece from a violent pimp. The hospital is a barbaric reflection of wider society: drugs are used to discipline the patients, and Connie is treated with contempt and incomprehension by nurses, doctors and social workers. She forms friendships with fellow patients Sybil, who is detained because she believes in witchcraft, and Skip, held because he is gay. Piercy's depiction of a 1970s psychiatric ward is detailed and compelling.

Before coming to the hospital, Connie had met a woman called Luciente on the street. Luciente had told her she was from the year 2137 and Connie, of course, had not believed her. But now she finds that she can travel for brief periods to Luciente's time.

At first she finds the future society disappointing. It is a world of rural villages, where people spend time tending goats and growing vegetables. It reminds her of the poverty of Mexico. She finds it hard to understand the society, much less to like it. Children grow, for example, in artificial wombs, and are then raised by three parents of either sex. Gender differences no longer exist - men can breastfeed - and Connie often finds it hard to tell if a person is a man or a woman.

The future society is democratic, stateless and sustainable. There are no cars, and natural resources are carefully managed. Children are the responsibility of the whole community; there is no school, since they learn through activity.

To some extent it's a hippy paradise, a generalisation of the politics of the 1960s and 1970s. Connie is at first both fascinated and irritated by it. Her experiences have hardened her: she cannot easily trust the society's joy and openness. Yet, as she experiences how the future society deals with death and funerals, how a village party is organised or how decisions are made about the use of land, she comes to do so.

But the utopian future is not certain. The last few capitalists are fighting to maintain their rule, and Connie's friends must do military service, with terrible consequences. Or perhaps the utopian future will never exist - Connie also has a vision of a society where most people die in their forties, living only to provide organ transplants and sexual services to a genetically engineered ruling class who live to the age of 200. Back in the hospital, Connie herself is forced to undergo brain surgery which may be distorting her visions of the future. Finally, she carries out a desperate and ambiguous act of rebellion.

Piercy's imagining of the future is remarkable in its detail. It may not be everyone's ideal future, but the book is deeply moving in its account of human potential, of how things could be different. If someone ever asks you what socialism will be like, you could do worse than give them a copy of this book.