Woman on the Edge of Time opens with Connie (Consuela) Ramos's niece Dolly arriving at the door of her tiny apartment with a bloody face. Her pimp, the cause of the bloody face, shows up mere moments later with a doctor to terminate Dolly's pregnancy. After a lot of shouting and insults, Connie breaks a glass bottle across Geraldo's face, resulting in her second involuntary commitment to a mental institution.
The first time was shortly after the love of her life was arrested for shoplifting and, in an overwhelmed moment, she hit her young daughter. That time, she felt she deserved everything that happened to her, not that it made much difference. Her daughter disappeared into the foster care system and she ended up on welfare, unable to get a job. She did get out of the institution, though. That's more of a question this time.
The other difference in Connie's life is that Luciente has made contact with her. Luciente is apparently from the future, appears in Connie's apartment, speaks an odd dialect, and is both horrified and fascinated by the New York City of Connie's time. She is also able to bring Connie mentally into the future, to a community called Mouth-of-Mattapoisett, which has no insane asylums, welfare, capitalism, pimps, condescending social workers, pollution, or the other plagues of Connie's life.
Woman on the Edge of Time sets a utopia against a dystopia, but the dystopia is 1970s America seen through the life of a poor Mexican-American woman. The Mattapoisett sections follow the classical utopia construction with Connie as the outside visitor to whom the utopia is explained. The present-day sections are a parade of horrors as Connie attempts to survive institutionalization, preserve a shred of dignity, and navigate the system well enough to be able to escape it. At first, these two environments are simply juxtaposed, but about two-thirds of the way through the book it becomes clear that Luciente's future is closely linked to, and closely influenced by, Connie's present.
I wanted to like this book, but I struggled with it. It took me about two months to read it, and I kept putting it down and reading something else instead. I'm finding it hard to put my finger on why it didn't work for me, but I think most of the explanation is Connie.
Piercy commits fully in this story to making Connie an ordinary person. Her one special characteristic is her ability to receive Luciente's psychic contact from the future, and to reach out in return. Otherwise, she's an average person who has lived a very hard life, who is struggling with depression and despair, and whose primary reaction to the events of the book is a formless outrage mixed with self-pity. This is critical to the conclusion of the story, and it's a powerful political statement: Ordinary people can affect the world, their decisions matter, and you don't have to be anyone special to fight oppression.
Unfortunately, this often makes the Mattapoisett sections, which are the best part of this book, frustrating to read. Not only does Connie not ask the questions about the future utopia that I wanted to ask, but she also reacts to most of the social divergences with disgust, outrage, or lasting confusion. This too I think is an intentional authorial choice — a true course correction in our world isn't also going to be comfortable and familiar, all of us will disagree with some of those choices, and Connie is not someone who grew up reading utopian literature — but it adds a lot of negative emotion to what is otherwise a positive celebration of how much better humanity can be. The people of Mattapoisett are endlessly patient with Connie in ways that also highlight strengths of their society, but I frequently found myself wanting to read a different story about Luciente, Jackrabbit, and the others without Connie there to recoil from the most drastic changes or constantly assume the worst of their customs.
I felt like I understood Connie and empathized with her, but I didn't like her. It's hard to read books where you don't like the main character.
The present-day scenes are an endless sequence of nightmares. Connie has a couple of friends inside the institution, who are also just trying to survive, but is otherwise entirely alone. Her niece tries occasionally, but is so strung out on drugs that she can't hold a coherent train of thought. Every figure of authority in the book treats Connie with contempt. All medical staff treat the patients like animals; the best that any of them can hope for is to be treated like a tolerable but ugly pet. I fully believe this was accurate for at least some facilities in some places, but it's soul-crushing to read about at length. I found myself slogging through those sections of the book, waiting for another interlude in Mattapoisett where at least I could enjoy the utopian world-building and relax a bit around happy characters.
This is, to be clear, effective at conveying the political point that Piercy is making. It's striking to read about Connie's horrific life and realize that it would be far worse today. Outside of the institution, she was living on long-term welfare, something that no longer exists in the United States. There are essentially no more mental institutions of the type in which she was held today; we closed them all in the 1980s and dumped all the residents on the streets. As Piercy points out in her forward, this is not an improvement. Today, Connie would either be homeless or in prison, her circumstances would be even worse than they were in the book, and even this plot would not be possible.
It's hard to know what to say about books that say true things with the level of anger and revulsion that our world warrants and do not give the reader the comfortable wrapping of characters with room to be happy. There is little Piercy says here that's wrong, and it's something we should hear, but apart from the Mattapoisett interludes I found it miserable to read. I read partly for escapism and for a break from dwelling on the unfolding horrors of the news cycle, so I struggle with books that feel like an extension of the day-to-day reporting on how awfully we treat our fellow humans. This is a problem I have with much of 1970s feminist SF: The books are incandescently angry, and rightfully so, about problems that are largely unfixed fifty years later, and I come away deeply depressed by humans as a species.
The heart of this book is the carefully-constructed Mattapoisett utopia, which says fascinating things about parenting, ecological balance, interpersonal relationships, communal living, personal property and its appropriate place in society, and governance structures. Piercy does cheat with some psychic empathy and some semi-magical biology, but most of what she describes would be possible with our current technology. I've not talked much about that in this review because the other parts of the book hit me so strongly, but this is a very interesting utopia. If you like analyzing and thinking about alternative ways of living, this is thought-provoking stuff.
I can see why other people liked this book better than I did, and I have great respect for its political goal and for Piercy's utopian world-building. It wasn't the book for me, but it might be for you.