The future is already here, it's just...

Insights from Woman on the Edge of Time

#GovSciFi episode 1: Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy, 1976

I’m starting my deep dive into what we can learn from utopian fiction with what Wikipedia says: is considered a classic of utopian speculative science fiction as well as a feminist classic.” The strange folk of Good Reads are pretty divided on its merits.

I first read this many years ago, and loved the ecological, liberatory utopia that makes up the “future” part of the book. So much stuck with me, to the point that on re-reading it I found that there were things that I had kind of internalised as my own ideas but that had clearly come from this book. I also realised I had blocked out just how bleak the “present day” (1970s New York), portions of the story were.

A tiny spoiler free synopsis

Connie Ramos is unjustly consigned to a series of vicious psychiatric hospitals. The “present day” parts of the book pull no punches about how oppressive and violent society can be to everyone – but particularly people of colour, women, people with mental health issues, and people who resist. She finds that she has a special kind of power which means she can communicate with Luciente, a visitor from the future (2137) settlement of Mattapoisett, who can pull Connie into the future and show her around.

One of the (valid, I think) critiques of this book is that it is really didactic, with Luciente basically explaining everything to Connie, and Connie reacting with a kind of predictable 20th Century disbelief, joy or horror, depending on the situation. I personally quite like this but I can see how it’s grating if you are less into this kind of thing than me! Anyway, it’s useful for our purposes:

How is society organised?

Mattapoisett is one of a number of settlements or villages in a decentralised, anarchist-type society that has managed to achieve almost all of the goals of the 60s and 70s feminist movements, and many of the aspirations of more recent social justice movements. It’s a solarpunk kinda place, with a polyamorous, permacultural and decolonial twist, and a dose of sortition.

Work is a key part of it, but differently conceived of to today:

“Grasp, after we dumped the jobs telling people what to do, counting money and moving it about, making people do what they don’t want or bashing them for doing what they want, we have lots of people to work. Kids work, old folks work, women and men work. We put a lot of work into feeding everybody without destroying the soil, keeping up its health and fertility. With most everybody at it part time, nobody breaks their back and grubs dawn to dust like old-time farmers…. Instance, in March I might work sixteen hours. In December, four …”.

There is a lot of suitably futuristic technology – from flying buses to machines that print compostable costumes, called flimsies, for the many celebrations and parties that the community has. Everyone has a “kenner”, a smartwatch-esque device that can tell you things, locate people, and call them. There are “holis”, like immersive movies, that also function like zoom calls, allowing people to have visual contact and meetings across distances.

Despite this, “our technology did not develop in a straight line from yours,” Luciente said seriously, looking with shining black gaze, merry, alert in a way that cast grace notes around her words. “We have limited resources. We plan cooperatively. We can afford to waste … nothing. You might say our—you’d say religion?—ideas make us see ourselves as partners with water, air, birds, fish, trees.” “We learned a lot from societies that people used to call primitive. Primitive technically. But socially sophisticated.” Jackrabbit paced, frowning. “We tried to learn from cultures that dealt well with handling conflict, promoting cooperation, coming of age, growing a sense of community, getting sick, aging, going mad, dying—” “Yeah, and you still go crazy. You still get sick. You grow old. You die. I thought in a hundred and fifty years some of these problems would be solved, anyhow!” “But Connie, some problems you solve only if you stop being human, become metal, plastic, robot computer. Is dying itself a problem!?”

People use gender neutral pronouns – per, and person – and the concept of the nuclear family has been left long in the past. Romantic relationships abound – with one person often having many at the same time – and have been separated from raising children. Children all have 3 parents – and live altogether mostly in a special “children’s house”, and childbearing has been outsourced to a piece of technology called “the breeder”. One of the things that initially outrages Connie is the sight of a man breastfeeding.

She felt angry. Yes, how dare any man share that pleasure. These women thought they had won, but they had abandoned to men the last refuge of women. What was special about being a woman here? They had given it all up, they had let men steal from them the last remnants of ancient power, those sealed in blood and in milk”.

How do people work together?

There don’t seem to be organisations in the way we think of them – it certainly feels like a place with no limited liability. But people get a lot of stuff done.

There are area-level “planning councils”, with people chosen by lot for a year-long term. Decisions are made in the planning councils by deliberation, supported by people fulfilling the roles of Earth Advocate and Animal Advocate. As Luciente puts it:

“We arrive with the needs of each village and try to divide scarce resources justly. Often we must visit the spot. Next level is regional planning. Reps chosen by lot from township level go to the regional to discuss gross decisions. The needs go up and the possibilities come down. If people are chilled by a decision, they go and argue. Or they barter directly with people needing the same resources, and compromise”.

This is a place with no final authority, a place with many arguments, disagreements and compromises. If a compromise can’t be reached and one village or group wins over another, then the winners host the losers, hold a party for them and give them presents. Everyone knows what it’s like to be on the winning and losing side of an argument. There are a lot of meetings – but as Luciente says:

“How can people control their lives without spending a lot of time in meetings?”

How is power dealt with?

There’s a hard edge to this place. The society is at war, with an undefined, but definitely partly cybernetic, enemy. Everyone is trained in and contributes to defence, and goes off to join the army for periods of time.

For more internal conflicts, there are rotating “people’s judges”, not from the village, who referee between interpersonal disputes. People often “crit” each other’s behaviour and the impact of it, and the community can intervene in interpersonal disputes that are affecting others. As one of the people’s judges says:

We believe many actions fail because of inner tensions. To get revenge against someone an individual thinks wronged per, individuals have offered up nations to conquest. Individuals have devoted whole lives to pursuing vengeance. People have chosen defeat sooner than victory, with credit going to an enemy. The social fabric means a lot to us”.

Murders and assaults still happen, and the legal framework seems to be broadly one of restorative justice. The “crosser”, the victim, or their family, and the judge work out a sentence – “maybe exile, remote labour. Sheepherding. Life on shipboard […] You could put in for an experiment or something dangerous”.

But – “Second time someone uses violence, we give up. We don’t want to watch each other or imprison each other. We aren’t willing to live with people who choose to use violence. We execute them”.

What’s the role of the individual vs the group?

One of things I found so compelling about this vision when I first read the book is that while the society is deeply communitarian, there is a great deal of individual freedom. Children go through a rite of passage around the age of 13, choose a new name for themselves, and are then full members of the community.

People get to live in individual small huts or houses, nearby but not with their “mems” – their family and friends. People choose what to study – often moving village to study with particular people or learn particular skills. Then, “whenever we decide we’re ripe to join a work base, we fuse as full members. We share the exciting jobs and the dull jobs. We don’t think telling people what to do is a real world skill.”

Luciente, Connie’s guide, is a plant geneticist. Certain villages are known for certain products or professions. Art is highly valued and making art is an important part of people’s lives.

“Madness” is openly talked about and there are “madhouses” where people can be for a while, to heal, with no stigma.

One of the key skills that is taught early to children is “inknowing” – the ability to control the nervous system through breathing and other “easercises”.

“we want to get used to knowing exactly what we feel, so we don’t shove on other people what’s coming from inside”.

I like the fact that the non-coercive nature of the place is shown as taking a lot of time and energy. The core ideas that “Person must not do what person cannot do” and “Per must do what per needs to do” are complex, cultural things. Connie is consistently baffled by the lack of control, of centralisation, of coercion, and it’s this that feels at the heart of the utopia to me.

Some prompts for thinking:

What is the kind of internal work that we need to do today so we don’t “shove onto other people what’s coming from inside”?

If lots of meetings is key to people being in control of their lives, what are the right kind of meetings? Are we having them?

How can we learn to give feedback in direct and loving ways?

In a world with limited resources, is it inevitable that some people will lose out? What would the equivalent of the “winning” side hosting the “losing” side to a party be?

How does the thought of there being no final authority, no-one actually “in control” make you feel? Do you believe we can collectively negotiate our way to a better future?