Sunday, August 9, 2015

Classic Sci-Fi: Woman on the Edge of Time

The era of the Mad River Grille meetings of the Classic Sci-Fi Meetup appears to have passed--another private event forced us to relocate again, this time just a building or two over to Vaughan's Pub, and we'll be trying out a new (hopefully good, long-lasting location) next time.

Still, a lovely patio on a Chicago summer, and a nice discussion of Marge Piercy's "Woman on the Edge of Time" (1976): definitely a bit of classic SF, this one particularly in the feminist SF tradition of the 60s/70s, often mentioned alongside work by Le Guin, Russ, or Atwood. The novel follows Consuelo Ramos, a woman who is (seemingly wrongfully) placed in a mental institution, and who is having (seemingly real, albeit psychic) visits to and from the future.

A couple points that we all agreed on: this is a hard book to read. Partially because it takes a while to really pick up, partially because it is about 30% utopia with attendant infodump-itis, but primarily because, emotionally, it's grim. Connie's experience being held against her will, misdiagnosed as an act of oppression, and the way that sexism, racism, and classism are magnified by being institutionalized all make for a rough read.

We talked for quite a bit about how mental health programs have changed (at least in the U.S. and U.K.), but also on how some of these really big problems persist. A few of us had some (secondhand) experience with the injustice and frankly horrific possibilities of the kind of story Connie goes through--basically imprisoned without trial or lawyer, drugged against her wishes, constantly dismissed and treated paternalistically--and while we like the damning way "Woman on the Edge of Time" lays that all out, it's rough reading. We also talked about ethics in experimentation or lack thereof, like the Stanford prison experiment (1971) and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (1932-1972)--"Woman on the Edge of Time" references and presupposes these kinds of unethical experiments on disadvantaged populations.

Some comparisons here to Hubert Selby Jr.'s "Requiem for a Dream" (1978) and film adaption (Aronofsky, 2000), mostly for how unrelenting, inescapable, grim it feels.

But there's a utopia here also! We debated the plausibility/implausibility of such a utopia progressing technologically--the world of Mattapoisett not only produces some high tech, it is also fighting a war with the last holdouts of oppressive hyper-capitalist what-have-you. On the one hand, some of that seems implausible in a largerly agrarian society, but on the other (and maybe this is me being over-optimistic) I think it's a fascinating idea that actually, given the freedom to follow their pursuits and interests, given a much deeper assurance of basic needs being met and being part of a worthwhile project, that these hippies would actually get more science & engineering done than our current system.

(I'm thinking of--and Piercy is a probable influence for--anarchic/utopic threads in works by Cory Doctorow or Kim Stanley Robinson, for instance.)

Other than some science/military quibbles, we found the utopian vision of the future fairly believable, especially given our current ever-rising awareness of climate change and the need to establish some kind of permaculture. The dystopian future Connie visits, though, while intriguingly proto-cyberpunky, is really cartoonish and hard to believe.

I first read "Woman on the Edge of Time" in connection to an article I was researching about reproductive technology in SF, and I still find that aspect of the book pretty fascinating--the utopian society uses artificial wombs, a 3-person caregiving unit, and a break between genetic and cultural heritage as some of the core ingredients in its success. Firestone's "The Dialectic of Sex" (1970) is the book to read, and probably had an influence on this novel. We talked for a bit about some of those technologies, and Connie's reaction to them. A couple people found Connie's constant "ew that's monstrous" reaction to child-bearing/rearing biotechnology annoying, but having read a bit about the push-back against various reproductive technologies over the years, I find it both believable and maybe intentionally annoying.

We weren't really sure what we think about divorcing culture from genetics completely. It sounds good, but on the other hand it also seems like the ultimate cultural appropriation.

Possible utopian influences here include B.F. Skinner's "Walden Two" (1948) and the many real-world utopian experiments it inspired. Which is maybe a bit ironic, since Skinner is practically the archetype for the evil controlling scientists of Piercy's novel. We also talked about the socialist anarchists of Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" (1974), which Classic Sci-Fi read last year, and the anarchists' need for lots and lots of meetings.

About which, things I learned at this discussion: the band Chumbawumba were/are anarchists. Huh. See Aaron Lake's article in Jacobin Magazine (2012) for some more on that.

We wanted to know more about the "conflicting timelines" angle, or, to be blunt about it, THE TIME WAR--how and to what extent different possible futures are reaching back and influencing sensitives in the past in order to ensure their (the futures') eventual coming-to-be. But there's not much to go on here. Also talked about whether or not the time travel might actually all be hallucinations--Piercy leaves the option open, but none of us found it very strongly possible. We contrasted this with some of Philip K. Dick's work, where the reality-versus-hallucination conflict is much harder to resolve.

Some comparisons here to Vonnegut's "Slaughter-house Five" (1969) and Niffenegger's "The Time Traveler's Wife" (2003). "Dr. Who" also a recurring part of the conversation.

Long, tangential, but quite fascinating discussion about how the economics of a generation affect its psychology. This led to the revelations that one of our new members is a happy practitioner of the dismal science, and that influential economist Joan Robinson is among our collective grandmothers.

A few people pointed out that this novel feels really dated in a lot of ways, more so in some ways than our last read (the 80-years-older "Time Machine"). Far more striking, someone pointed out that "Woman on the Edge of Time" comes from pretty much exactly the same time as Butler's "Kindred" (which Classic Sci-Fi also recently read), and indeed they share a lot of elements--mysteriously time-travelling 1970s American women of color, most prominently--but "Kindred" feels like it could have been written yesterday, not 40 years ago. Probably, as someone at group put it, "because Butler is a friggin' genius" that it's not totally fair to compare anyone with. I also wonder about some generic influences, though--while "Kindred" contains basically no flashy SF elements, unlike "Woman", Butler was situated, comfortable, and well-read within SF, unlike Piercy, which perhaps allows a more subtle use of the tropes.

A good discussion! Classic Sci-Fi will be reading Colson Whitehead's "The Intuitionist" in September, and Joe Haldeman's "The Forever War" in October.

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