Science Fiction Studies

#64 = Volume 21, Part 3 = November 1994

M. Keith Booker

Woman on the Edge of a Genre: The Feminist Dystopias of Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy's science-fiction visions of the future have made important inroads into what has been a traditionally masculine territory. Woman on the Edge of Time has become a contemporary classic, and the recent He, She, and It (winner of the 1992 Arthur C. Clarke Award) is already gaining considerable attention as well. These works, similar in their imaginative power and political commitment, are otherwise quite different, and Piercy's move from the first to the second can be taken as indicative of the increasingly complex intermixture of utopian and dystopian moods that has informed feminist imaginative fiction in the last few decades. Woman on the Edge of Time was written in the mid-1970s and reflects some of the utopian optimism of the women's movement of that era, though it has a significant grim side as well. He, She, and It, meanwhile, was written at the end of the 1980s, for many a decidedly dark decade for women's causes. As might be expected, the latter book contains a much larger portion of dystopian images than does the former. At the same time, and curiously, the overall mood of He, She, and It is in many ways far more positive than that of its predecessor. Still, both texts include a mixture of positive and negative imaginative projections of the future. Indeed, they gain much of their energy precisely from the dialogic combination of these perspectives, a combination that acknowledges the complexity of history itself while at the same time suggesting important generic interrelationships between utopian and dystopian fiction.

In some ways dystopian fiction would seem to be a natural genre for feminist writers, despite the fact that such writers have more typically been associated with utopian fiction. Centrally concerned with the clash between individual desire and societal demand, dystopian fiction often focuses on sexuality and relations between the genders as elements of this conflict. For example, the governments of dystopian societies like those described in We, Brave New World, and 1984 all focus on sexuality as a crucial matter for their efforts at social control. And it is also clear that this focus comes about largely because of a perception on the part of these governments that sexuality is a potential locus of powerful subversive energies.

On the other hand, despite this consistent focus on sexuality in dystopian fiction, the major works of the genre have done relatively little to challenge conventional notions of gender roles. Despite giving frequent lip service to equality of the genders, literary dystopias (and utopias, for that matter) have typically been places where men are men and women are women, and in relatively conventional ways. As in many other ways, More's original Utopia sets the tone for this trend. In contrast to his belief that social and economic inequality is the source of most of the ills of his contemporary European society, More's Raphael Hythloday describes an ideal Utopian society where equality is emphasized above all else, even to the point of suppression of individual liberty and imposition of a potentially oppressive conformity. However, despite this demand for complete social homogeneity, More's Utopia is still a strongly patriarchal society. The principal political unit is the family household, and households are generally ruled by the eldest male member of the family. Upon marriage women transfer to the household of their husband's family, while males remain members of their own family for life. Within the household, meanwhile, the hierarchy of authority is clearly defined: "Wives are subject to their husbands, children to their parents, and generally the younger to their elders" (41).

It is important, however, to recognize that More is not unusual in his vision of the subservience of women in his otherwise homogeneous society. Indeed, it seems clear that More sought to include women in the egalitarian basis of his society—women have opportunities for education and employment in his Utopia that far outstrip those available in early-16th-century England. That More was unable to imagine a society in which women were genuinely the equals of men thus stands as a reminder of the profound embeddedness of gender prejudice in Western society. The idea that men should be regarded as inherently superior to women was apparently for More such an obvious and natural one that it never occurred to him that gender inequality should be among the various other social hierarchies leveled in his ideal society.

Most of the literary utopias that followed in the next four centuries after More similarly failed to make the imaginative leap required to envision true equality for women, even though utopian thought itself is centrally concerned with the imagination of alternative societies that surmount the prejudices and conventions of the status quo. But some prejudices and conventions are more difficult to overcome than others, and the lack of genuine attention to gender issues in so many utopian and dystopian works right up to the present day suggests that patriarchal habits are among the most ingrained of all of the characteristics of Western civilization. Feminist thinkers of the last century or so have been well aware of this fact, of course, and among other things they have responded with their own alternative utopian tradition that has been centrally concerned with demonstrating the possibility of thinking beyond thousands of years of patriarchy. Women like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and Mary E. Bradley wrote late-19th-century utopian works with feminist affinities, and the early-20th-century work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Moving the Mountain, Herland, and With Her in Ourland) can be regarded as the beginning of a full-blown feminist utopian tradition.

This tradition gained considerable energy with the feminist movement of the late 1960s and the 1970s. Indeed, during this period writers like Piercy, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel Delany, and Joanna Russ produced works that re-energized the utopian genre as a whole, moving toward an open-endedness that sought to overcome the tendency toward monological stagnation that had long haunted conceptualizations of utopia. Tom Moylan argues that such writers attempted to create in their works what he calls "critical utopias," retaining an "awareness of the limitations of the utopian tradition, so that these texts reject utopia as blueprint while preserving it as dream" (10).1 Such utopias are able to function effectively as critiques of the status quo, while maintaining a self-critical awareness that prevents them from descending into empty utopian cliché.

On the other hand, in the context of a 1980s America dominated by Reagan-Bush conservative politics and highlighted (if that is the word) by the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, feminist writers found it more and more difficult to see better times ahead. Of course, the writers of feminist utopias have always been aware that their positive visions were imperiled by the existing patriarchal order and have thereby often included dystopian warnings within their utopian texts. Suzy McKee Charnas, for example, sets up her utopian Motherlines with Walk to the End of the World, an earlier dystopian fiction. Meanwhile, both Piercy and Joanna Russ (The Female Man) present alternative futures that suggest multiple possibilities, some utopian, some decidedly dystopian.2 And by the mid-1980s Margaret Atwood produces The Handmaid's Tale, a feminist text that is almost purely dystopian. Indeed, as Fitting notes, feminist visions of the future tended in general to show a dark turn in the 1980s, probably due to political reverses that damped the feminist optimism of the 1970s: "More recent fictions no longer give us images of a radically different future, in which the values and ideals of feminism have been extended to much of the planet, but rather offer depressing images of a brutal reestablishment of capitalist patriarchy" ("Turn" 142).

Piercy's work is particularly interesting because of its ability to maintain clear links to the tradition of feminist utopias while at the same time opening important dialogues with the masculine utopian classics and with the traditionally masculine dystopian genre. For example, Woman on the Edge of Time closely parallels More's Utopia in form. More's book includes two parts, the first of which describes the social ills of early-16th-century England and the second of which outlines an alternative society in which the problems of Part One have been solved. Indeed, the book's satirical and critical effect derives largely from the contrast between these two societies, which in essence casts More's England as a sort of dystopia. Similarly, Woman on the Edge of Time presents Piercy's contemporary America as a society that is already a dystopia for marginal members of society like her protagonist Connie Ramos, then contrasts this dystopian America with an ideal 22nd-century utopia based on tolerance, nurturing, communality, ecological responsibility, and the complete effacement of conventional gender differences.

Piercy's Ramos is a 37-year-old Chicana woman who has been a victim of the white male power structure in America throughout her life. Her status as an outsider to mainstream American society thus places her in much the same position as the protagonists of numerous dystopian fictions. And her victimization becomes particularly vivid when she is wrongly diagnosed as a violent paranoid schizophrenic and incarcerated in a nightmarish mental institution that serves as a sort of microcosm of the oppressively carceral society in which she lives. Meanwhile, Ramos's telepathic trips to the future utopian community of Mattapoisett place her very much in the vein of the classic visitor to utopia, and what she encounters there is an idealized vision that clearly grows out of a number of political movements in Ramos's (and Piercy's) own time, including feminism, socialism, and environmentalism. This utopian community manages successfully to integrate advanced technology, social planning, individual liberty, and a close connection to nature, based on Third World cultures and the culture of the Wamponaug Indians. All citizens of Mattapoisett are valued and loved, and all are treated equally regardless of race, gender, or other differences. In short, this society accepts and even welcomes precisely the differences that have marginalized Ramos in her own world.

The contrast between Mattapoisett and 1970s America is reinforced by the presentation of a second possible future, a dystopian one that grows out of an intensification of the already-existing problems of oppression, environmental destruction, class difference, and sexual exploitation. Piercy's dystopian alternative occupies only one chapter (the fifteenth) of Woman on the Edge of Time, but it is a striking vision that ranks in power with the classic dystopias of Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell. In its treatment of gender issues (as in the depiction of the woman Gildina as a mutilated sexual object), it goes well beyond any of these predecessors in power. In this society women function only as the property of men and the men themselves are little more than machines. The message seems clear: we can continue the way we are going until we reach this dystopian state, or we can change our ways and work toward utopia.

In Woman on the Edge of Time Piercy draws the lines between utopia and dystopia quite clearly, and the resultant dialogue between the two is an important source of energy for her book. Indeed, recalling Mikhail Bakhtin's emphasis on the importance of generic heterogeneity as a source of dialogic energy in the novel, a great deal of the power of Woman on the Edge of Time arises from confrontations among genres and the worldviews they imply. In addition to the opposition of utopian and dystopian genres, Piercy's vivid depiction of the present-day experiences of Connie Ramos introduces the genre of realistic fiction into this dialogue. And the book ends with a supposed reproduction of some of Ramos's medical records from various mental institutions, thus introducing still another genre. This last genre involves a direct statement of the official ideology of the medical establishment and of the social values it represents. Meanwhile, the content of the realistic passages in the novel conducts an explicit critique of this official ideology, even as the realistic form itself is in constant danger of being co-opted by that ideology. After all, realistic fiction involves a relatively straightforward reproduction of official reality that tacitly acknowledges conventional assumptions about the nature of that reality. By attacking the mental health system through what appears to be a transparent, "rational" narration of its treatment of Ramos, Piercy runs the risk of subtly reinforcing the ideology of rationalism that makes it possible safely to contain Ramos's potentially subversive energies simply by declaring her mad. But Piercy's mixture of realism with fantasy of both utopian and dystopian kinds is clearly designed to challenge that ideology by presenting explicit defamiliarizing alternatives. In particular, she projects a utopia based on fundamentally different principles than those which inform her contemporary society, then depicts a nightmarish dystopia whose principles are in fact recognizably similar to those of present-day America.

There are, of course, pitfalls in this procedure. In particular, as Bakhtin points out, dialogue in the novel is greatly influenced by the perspective of the reader. Though Piercy's position in Woman on the Edge of Time is clear, the line between utopia and dystopia can be a fine one. Many of the practices of the society of Mattapoisett are rather extreme, and some readers may not find conditions there ideal at all. Indeed, Mattapoisett shares many characteristics with classic dystopias. And it is always possible that a given reader will focus on the realistic portions of Piercy's text, which might then undermine the fantasy sections rather than the other way around. Among other things, the book leaves open the possibility that both the utopian and the dystopian futures are merely projections of Ramos's fantasies.3 A doggedly literal reader might then conclude that the alternative futures presented in the book are nothing more than hallucinations which prove that Ramos is indeed mad.

Piercy, in short, avoids a repetition of oppressive practices by refusing to demand that her book, however didactic, be interpreted in any given way. The ending of the book is similarly ambiguous. Ramos fatally poisons several members of the hospital staff, which might be (and has been, by most critics) taken as Piercy's endorsement of necessary political violence. But there is certainly some question as to the political effectiveness of this multiple murder, though it might be read as an indictment of a system that insists so blindly on defining Ramos as violent and dangerous that it eventually makes her that way. As Carol Farley Kessler suggests, Ramos's eventual violent reaction to the violence that has been done to her might be taken as a comment on the way violence in our society triggers more violence, showing "the violence that our dystopian present perpetrates upon the innocent and sensitive powerless in our midst" (315). But one could also read this ending simply as a demonstration that the diagnosis of Ramos was in fact right all along.

Such ambiguity in what is primarily a didactic work is obviously risky, but on balance the openness of Woman on the Edge of Time to variant readings is a point in its favor that allows the text to escape the finality and stasis that have traditionally been associated with utopian thought. Moreover, if Piercy's novel gains a certain dynamism from its internal dialogue among different genres and styles, it also picks up considerable energy from dialogues with other related texts. For example, the openness of Piercy's text can trace its genealogy back to H.G. Wells's A Modern Utopia, which set the tone for many modern utopian works with its insistence that the ideal society of the future "must be not static but kinetic, must shape not as a permanent state but as a hopeful stage, leading to a long ascent of stages" (5). Indeed, Wells's modern utopia, like Piercy's Mattapoisett, is highly open to diversity and difference, and one of its central characteristics is its dynamism. Moreover, Wells's text itself is structurally and rhetorically complex, including different and sometimes contradictory voices that tend to keep interpretation of the text from being finalized.

Of course, Woman on the Edge of Time shows much more awareness of feminist issues than does Wells's text, though Wells does include a chapter entitled "Women in a Modern Utopia." However, while Wells pays lip service to the notion of equality between men and women, his solution to the "woman problem" would mostly involve programs of planned parenthood and of the payment to women of maternity benefits, projects that might ease the suffering of individual women but that do not seem to address the fundamental attitudes toward gender that underlie that suffering. Indeed, that Well's discussion of marriage and childhood dominates the "Women in a Modern Utopia" section of his book indicates his acceptance of the fact that such issues are the principal ones with which women are concerned.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that Wells is writing in a turn-of-the-century climate far different from the one in which Piercy writes, and many of his ideas are firmly rooted in that context.4 In terms of its contemporary historical context, Woman on the Edge of Time clearly has more in common with modern "open" or "critical" utopias by writers like Russ, Delany, and Le Guin than with the earlier work of Wells. As Peter Ruppert notes, such open utopias typically achieve their openness through increased reader participation. In particular, he suggests that "in making the reader aware of his or her own role in shaping what the future will be, Piercy shows that the struggle for utopia depends on our actions in an open-ended historical process" (139). In this sense, the works of writers like Russ, Le Guin, Delany, and Piercy also have much in common with the plays of Brecht, which similarly employ complex literary strategies to engage their audiences in a critical examination of their roles in the historical process and which also avoid simplistic and unequivocal statements of any single ideology in favor of numerous voices that complicate, but enrich their messages.5 Indeed, an understanding of the resonances between Piercy's text and those of predecessors like More, Wells, and Brecht greatly enriches the reading of Woman on the Edge of Time, as does an appreciation of the similarities between Piercy and contemporaries like Russ, Le Guin, and Delany.

Interestingly, the intertextual dialogues that constitute such an important part of Piercy's text are later extended by Piercy herself, who rethinks many of the principles of Mattapoisett in her later He, She, and It. Like the earlier Woman on the Edge of Time, He, She, and It is considerably enriched by dialogues with other texts, including sf predecessors like Russ's The Female Man and the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson—as well as Woman on the Edge of Time itself. However, far from derivative, He, She, and It manages to effect a fascinating dialogic combination of these various sources to emerge with a voice all its own. Less angry (or formally innovative) than either Woman on the Edge of Time or The Female Man, He, She, and It differs from both in the patience with which it details a credible vision of the future, la Gibson. However, where Gibson's postmodernist bricolage style is a highly visible element of his work, Piercy almost seems intentionally to present her future in a straightforward, matter-of-fact prose style that avoids intruding into the believability of her imaginative vision of the future. Meanwhile, this realistic prose style combines with the sf content to generate some of the same kinds of generic dialogues that inform Woman on the Edge of Time. In addition, Piercy's feminist sensibilities obviously contrast strongly with Gibson's, and she goes well beyond Gibson's high-tech cyberpunk world by drawing upon other genres and realms (like Jewish mysticism) that greatly enrich the dialogic power of her text.6

Among other things, Piercy's later book undoes much of the anti-technologism of the earlier one. Granted, Piercy's Mattapoisett is actually quite high-tech, but its technology is decidedly kinder, gentler, and more biodegradable than that of the Western patriarchal tradition. Moreover, the contrast between the utopian and dystopian futures of Woman on the Edge of Time comes dangerously close to being a version of the opposition between nature and technological culture that has informed a number of feminist arguments in recent years. Acknowledging that technology has been a central tool through which the white male power structure has perpetuated its power, this argument in its purest form would suggest that those opposed to this power structure should reject technology altogether and attempt to escape its clutches by moving back to nature.

But the political wisdom of ceding something as powerful as technology to one's opponents is questionable in the extreme. As Donna Haraway argues in her now-famous essay "A Manifesto for Cyborgs," feminists and other oppositional groups would probably do better to contest the realm of technology rather than simply surrender technology and all the power that goes with it to the white-male-capitalist establishment.7 Piercy takes this suggestion to heart in He, She, and It by depicting a future oppositional culture that is if anything more technologically adept than the official society, much like the Mephis of Zamyatin's We. Indeed, Piercy has identified Haraway's essay as a major influence on He, She, and It. In particular, Haraway places special emphasis on the sf notion of cyborgs as an image of transgression of conventional boundaries (especially between human and machine) the problematic status of which challenges essentialist models of identity upon which the power structure of Western society has traditionally been based. And He, She, and It includes cyborgs as a central part of its dual utopian/dystopian message.

He, She, and It describes a mid-21st century society that has much in common with the dystopian vision put forth in Chapter 15 of Woman on the Edge of Time, liberally spiced with details taken almost verbatim from sources like The Female Man and the cyberpunk future of Gibson. For example, the feminist message of He, She, and It is enhanced and clarified through numerous parallels with The Female Man, while Piercy's challenge to the conventional traditions of dystopian fiction and science fiction is most specific in her appropriation of Gibson's high-tech masculinist fiction very much along the lines of the appropriation of conventionally masculine technology outlined in Haraway's cyborg manifesto.8

Piercy's overt adoption of so many images and motifs from Gibson's work represents both a congratulatory nod to the power of Gibson's imaginative vision and a powerful reminder of certain gaps in that vision. In particular, Gibson has been criticized by numerous critics for the apparent masculine bias of his work. For example, Andrew Ross presents an extensive discussion of the rejection of the feminine in the work of Gibson and other cyberpunk writers, arguing that this work is centrally informed by typical white male fantasies and anxieties (145-56). Piercy's use of so much of Gibson's vision of the future as a framework for her own feminist fiction calls attention to the lack of attention to feminist concerns in Gibson's work and in that sense reinforces the critiques of Ross and others. At the same time, Piercy's demonstration that Gibson's vision is not necessarily inimical to feminist thought can be seen as a valuable supplement to Gibson's work. Indeed, Piercy's suggestion that feminists can make productive use of Gibson's ideas rather than simply rejecting them can be read as a literary equivalent of Haraway's argument that women should attempt to use technology for their own purposes rather than simply abandoning it as a masculine preserve.

In the future America of He, She, and It environmental degradation has left much of the continent virtually uninhabitable, while the population has been devastated by famines, wars, plagues, and other disasters. Conventional nations have ceased to exist, and most political power lies in the hands of the "multis," large multi-national corporations (much like Gibson's zaibatsus) whose employees live and work either in domed cities on earth or on space stations. In addition to the corporate domes, there are a few "free towns" that have managed to remain independent of control by any one multi, usually because they produce some product in demand by several different multis. The rest of North America is covered by either barren wasteland or the "Glop"—a violent, dirty, crime-ridden, gang-ruled Megalopolis that stretches from what had been Boston to what had been Atlanta.

This Glop, like Gibson's "Sprawl," is a sort of dystopian projection of contemporary urban problems. Drugs are rampant, conventional law and order have broken down almost completely, and masses of people live in abject poverty. In the anarchic atmosphere of the Glop, even the powerful multis have little direct political control, though they do exercise a subtle influence, especially through the workings of an Adornian Culture Industry (again recalling Brave New World) that keeps the populace in thrall to a constant flow of images designed to avert critical thought. The staple of this industry is the drug-like "stimmie," which—like Huxley's feelies and even more like Gibson's simstims—produces a wide range of artificial sensations that replace real experience with simulation and divert energy and attention from the real world.9

But Piercy's vision is more hopeful than Huxley's or Gibson's. The anarchy of the Glop leads to a great deal of crime and violence, but the Glop's relative independence from direct domination by the multis makes it a potential source of social and cultural revival. This hope of revival is symbolized in the name of "Lazarus," leader of the "Coyote Gang," a rebel group that is actively working to unify the Glop work force in order to oppose exploitation by the multis. The Coyote Gang is a locus of utopian energies as its members seek, through education and cooperation, to build a better world within the dystopian climate of the Glop. And the gang's racial mix (recalling that of Mattapoisett) indicates the diversity from which the Glop draws much of its potential for cultural rebirth: "Most of the people were black-or-brown-skinned, but almost every combination was represented: red hair, brown eyes and black skin; light skin, black hair, blue eyes; and other permutations. Most people in the Glop were of mixed race nowadays" (312). This diversity is also inherent in the language of the Glop, whose inhabitants speak their own "patois, language rich and gamy with constantly changing slang" (308). This language, in short, is a sort of literalization of Bakhtinian heteroglossia that incorporates diversity and genuine historical change, both of which are anathema to the multis.

In contrast, the multis employ a sterile technical/business language that leaves little room for the expression of ideas contrary to official corporate policy. Their domed enclaves are clean, well-lighted places in which corporate employees live in material comfort, relatively safe from crime, disease, and the ravages of environmental devastation. But for Piercy it is the very orderliness of these enclaves—as opposed to the mess of the Glop—that represents the real dystopia, because this orderliness is indicative of a rigid corporate structure that leaves no room either for individual freedom or for the possibility of eventual change. Within a given class, individuals dress alike, live in identical housing, and even have themselves surgically altered to have similar physical appearances according to standardized models provided by their own Culture Industry, "faces as much like the one on the view screen as each could afford" (7). And this emphasis on physical sameness echoes the demand for ideological conformity in which all employees are expected to think and act in accordance with official prescribed corporate policies and goals. As in 20th-century corporations, employees of the multis occupy strictly-defined places in the corporate hierarchy. But the multi hierarchies extend beyond the workplace to include every element of social and cultural life, including sex: "Which persons you might make love to was as defined by your place in the hierarchy as the people to whom you bowed and the people who bowed to you. Sexual privileges depended upon your rank and place" (340). Such privileges also depend upon gender, with males enjoying decidedly more advantages than females. For example, while there are women professionals, there are also large numbers of "cosmetically recreated" women ( la Gildina of Woman on the Edge of Time, though less extreme) who serve purely as sexual perquisites for successful men. Corporate success dictates that positions within the hierarchy be determined to a certain extent by merit, but one of the greatest "merits" that one can have from the perspective of the multis is to be a white male.

The strongest utopian energies of He, She, and It are concentrated in Piercy's depiction of Tikva, a free town in New England that maintains its political and economic independence by producing high-quality security software that is very much in demand by the multis. Tikva echoes the Mattapoisett of Woman on the Edge of Time in many ways, though its citizens are oriented much more overtly toward technology and less toward nature, perhaps reflecting the influence of Haraway's warnings against the romanticization of nature as a locus of resistance to white male power. Indeed, the Tikvans prove more than able to hold their own in the high-tech future. When the giant Yakamura-Stichen (Y-S) multi launches a war against the town, it is the multi that suffers disastrous consequences, including damage to its crucial computer data base and the death of most of its top executives.10 Still, Tikva's inhabitants respect nature and keep in touch with it as much as possible, though environmental conditions dictate that the town itself remain inside an electronic "wrap" that wards off the killing rays of the sun in a world with no ozone layer and with a runaway greenhouse effect. Tikva is a mostly Jewish community (though it is characterized by tolerance in religious and other matters) whose strong communal spirit draws much from Jewish tradition. It is also highly democratic, with all citizens having an equal voice in the affairs of the town. In particular, Tikva is characterized by complete equality between the genders and by tolerance for all forms of non-exploitative sexuality.

As indicated by the title, gender issues are preeminent in He, She, and It. For one thing, the book features a number of strong female characters who avoid conventional stereotypes (both patriarchal and feminist) by contesting traditionally male areas of technology and warfare. Malkah, a brilliant software designer now in her seventies, has led an active heterosexual life with numerous lovers but has always insisted on remaining emotionally and intellectually independent of the men with whom she has been involved. Malkah's daughter Riva is an internationally-renowned Robin Hood-like data pirate who steals information from the rich (usually the multis) and gives it to the poor (usually in the Glop). Riva is intelligent, resourceful, and skilled in both computer science and martial arts. Her partner (and lover) Nili is a Jewish woman from a community founded in the ruins of an Israel destroyed by nuclear war.11 Recalling both Gibson's Molly Millions and Russ's Jael, Nili is a formidable warrior whose artificially-enhanced muscles and reflexes make her more than a match for the security forces of the multis. Finally, the book's central character is computer specialist Shira Shipman, the daughter of Riva and granddaughter of Malkah. As the book begins Shira has led a relatively conventional life as a wife, mother, and employee of the Y-S multi. Though as talented as her illustrious mother and grandmother, Shira has thus far been unable to fulfill her professional potential because of the patriarchal structure of the Y-S world and because Y-S considers her suspect due to the terrorist activities of Riva, activities of which Shira is entirely unaware.

Much of the plot of He, She, and It involves Shira's gradual declaration of independence from her conventional past and exploration of her own emotional and intellectual capabilities. A major element of this exploration concerns Shira's relationship with Yod, an android created by the Tikvan scientist Avram to aid in the defense of the town against the powerful multis. As a result Yod is a deadly weapon, programmed by Avram to be a master of both physical and computerized violence. Yod is also strictly illegal, weapons in general being legal only for the multi security forces and humanoid robots having been universally banned after early experiments led to violent demonstrations on the part of a human population afraid of being rendered obsolete. But, despite his status as an illegal weapon, Yod is also endowed with a very human-like capacity for abstraction and even for emotion. He has been programmed by Avram according to the masculine ideology of the Enlightenment. But he is intellectually androgynous, also programmed by Malkah with a "feminine" ability to feel and to share that counters the masculine drive for power and domination. Malkah explains:

"Avram made him male—entirely so. Avram thought that was the ideal: pure reason, pure logic, pure violence. The world has barely survived the males we have running around. I gave him a gentler side, starting with emphasizing his love for knowledge and extending it to emotional and personal knowledge, a need for connection." (148)

Yod thus transgresses not only the conventional boundary between human and machine, but between male and female as well. Yod's duality is also enhanced by his participation in both the high-tech tradition of science fiction and in the kabbalistic traditions of Jewish mysticism, to which he is linked through Piercy's inclusion of the parallel story of the "golem" Joseph in early-17th-century Prague. This story, told to Yod by Malkah in segments that run throughout the text, helps him to gain a sense of his own identity and background. Meanwhile, the invited comparison between Yod and Joseph adds to our understanding of the multiple traditions in which Yod participates while at the same time connecting the oppressive conditions of Piercy's future dystopian America (and, by extension, Piercy's contemporary America) with a history of past barbarisms that include the medieval and early modern pogroms and the twentieth-century Holocaust.12 Moreover, by linking Joseph and Yod, whose stories separately participate in the generic traditions of Jewish mysticism and science fiction, Piercy is able to effect a dialogic interaction between two ostensibly very different genres, enriching the dialogic texture of her book while at the same time suggesting that these two genres may have more in common than is immediately obvious.

But Yod's most important "dialogic" characteristic is his androgyny. In a reverse response to the notorious question of Alan Jay Lerner, in Yod Piercy has created a man who can indeed be more like a woman. Physically male, Yod is so human that he is able to engage in a torrid sexual relationship with Shira, who had previously thought herself incapable of sexual passion after a series of unfortunate experiences with sexually insensitive men. But the relationship between Shira and Yod is continually informed by gender role reversals in which she finds herself occupying the aggressive role that she has traditionally associated with males. Sex for Yod is a matter of intimacy rather than conquest or possession, and he derives his pleasure primarily from pleasing his partner, which he has been programmed by Malkah to do with considerable skill: "Yod was really a beautiful instrument of response and reaction. The slightest touch of pressure on his neck, and he understood what she wanted and gave it to her" (190). As a lover he is tender, considerate, and indefatigable. His penis becomes erect on command and stays so as long as necessary for Shira's satisfaction, even after his "small discharge" of innocuous fluid. Moreover, this marvelous organ is scrupulously clean, with "no tang of human or animal scent" (190). Yod's entire body is free of the kind of physical imperfections that characterize human men:

His tongue was a little smoother than a human tongue but moist. Everything was smoother, more regular, more nearly perfect. The skin of his back was not like the skin of other men she had been with, for always there were abrasions, pimples, scars, irregularities. His skin was sleek as a woman's but drier to the touch. (174-75)

Yod is, in short, an "ideal" man, and in that sense he resembles Haraway's notion of the cyborg as a product of both "social reality" and fictional expectations. However, in his conformance to a variety of stereotypes of the ideal sensitive male, Yod differs substantially from Haraway's notion that the problematic gender of the cyborg is considerably more "dangerous" than that of the sensitive male, whose very androgyny may in fact involve an attempt subtly to appropriate power.13 Read literally as an idealization, Piercy's Yod is certainly a less interesting figure than Haraway's cyborg. It seems clear, however, that Yod can usefully be read not as an ideal figure but as a parodic reversal of traditional Western fantasies of the "ideal" woman. For example, his lack of any sort of physical messiness can be read as a comment on the traditional male fear and loathing of the physicality of women—a phenomenon embodied, for example, in the distaste for "meat things" shown by many of Gibson's male characters. And Yod is clearly a sort of male parody of those artificially-created ideal women who, from Galatea forward, have functioned as central images of the objectification of women in Western civilization.14 In the end, however, Piercy eschews such fantasies and thereby declines to reproduce in reverse the tradition of attempting to define women according to masculine specifications. When Yod is destroyed during a mass assassination of Y-S executives, Shira has all of the necessary data and material to recreate him (maybe even with a little fine tuning of her own), but she declines to do so, recognizing that no one has the right to create sentient beings according to one's own specifications. Rather than seek fulfillment in an ideal man, Shira learns to find fulfillment in her own emotional and intellectual capabilities.

In general, Piercy's book gains a great deal of energy from its dialogue with masculine texts and traditions of the past. The specific content of her utopian and dystopian visions directly confronts a number of masculine stereotypes (most specifically the science fiction of Gibson), and her deft use of the genres of dystopian fiction and science fiction contests traditionally masculine territory much in the way Haraway suggests marginal groups should contest the control of technology. Piercy also emphasizes the presentation of utopian alternatives to complement her dystopian vision, and in this she continues to participate in the modern tradition of women's utopias. But her dystopian fictions claim a place for feminist statement in that traditionally male genre as well, demonstrating that utopian and dystopian visions need not be incompatible. The recent feminist appropriation of dystopian fiction indicates that the genre is extremely flexible as a mode of social commentary. Moreover, the mixture of utopian and dystopian energies that characterizes much recent feminist imaginative writing shows that dystopian warnings in no way require the complete surrender of any hope of a better future.


1. See also Raymond Williams's discussion of the "open" utopia, in which he uses Le Guin's The Dispossessed as a central example. And see Fitting's discussion of the attempts of writers like Delany, Le Guin, Piercy, and Russ to "describe societies which are far more open and problematic than earlier utopias" ("Positioning" 25).

2. For a comparative discussion of The Female Man and Woman on the Edge of Time, see Bartkowski's chapter on the two books.

3. Thus Lucy Freibert suggests that Connie "generates" the utopian society of Mattapoisett out of frustration at the treatment she receives as a mental patient (76).

4. For example, Wells's concern with eugenics arises from a concern with racial degeneration that was a widespread obsession with many American and Western European thinkers of the time. On this phenomenon, see Kershner. Wells's own concern with degeneration is especially clear in texts like The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Time Machine.

5. Of the writers of modern open utopias, Russ is indebted to Brecht in a particularly direct way. See Bartkowski (59-61).

6. Gibson's use of mystical elements (like the voodoo motif in Count Zero) is neither as extensive nor as effective as Piercy's in He, She, and It.

7. One might compare Ernest Everhard's argument in Jack London's The Iron Heel that socialists should not reject the technology of the industrial revolution, but appropriate it for themselves: "Let us oust the present owners of the wonderful machines, and let us own the wonderful machines ourselves" (89).

8. In her acknowledgements at the end of He, She, and It Piercy identifies both Gibson and Haraway as important sources for the book, though she does not specifically mention Russ (445-46).

9. Interestingly, Piercy's "stimmie" industry is centered in Vancouver, British Columbia—Gibson's home.

10. This war (and much of the other action of the book) occurs largely in the simulated computer environement of the "Net," obviously based on Gibson's cyberspace. Indeed, Piercy herself at one point uses the term "cyberspace" to describe this environment (400-01).

11. This community is itself a sort of women's utopia, which is, among other things, all female, like the "Whileaway" of Russ's The Female Man.

12. Here again, Brecht provides a precedent, via his use in plays like Mother Courage and Galileo of seventeenth-century settings to comment upon conditions in his own present.

13. Compare Haraway's statement in her interview with Constance Penley and Andrew Ross that "I would rather go to bed with a cyborg than a sensitive man" (18). Haraway goes on in the interview to suggest that her cyborg is more female than male, a "bad girl" whose uncertain gender arises largely from a refusal to assume traditional feminine roles (20).

14. One might include among these parodied images the "meat puppets" of Gibson—women who become prostitutes by essentially switching off their minds and then renting out their bodies. Russ includes a similar parody of the traditional figuration of women as sex objects in The Female Man with her depiction of Davy, an artificial man whom the future woman Jael keeps primarily for sexual purposes (196-98). Indeed, Piercy's Yod (though much more human and complex) shares a number of sexual characteristics with Russ's Davy.


Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Bartkowski, Frances. Feminist Utopias. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Booker, M. Keith. Techniques of Subversion in Modern Literature: Transgression, Abjection, and the Carnivalesque. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991.

Fitting, Peter. "Positioning and Closure: On the 'Reading Effect' of Contemporary Utopian Fiction." Utopian Studies 1:23-36, 1987.

—————. "The Turn from Utopia in Recent Feminist Fiction." Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative. Ed. Libby Falk Jones and Sarah Webster Goodwin. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990. 141-58.

Freibert, Lucy M. "World Views in Utopian Novels by Women." Women and Utopia: Critical Interpretations. Ed. Marleen Barr and Nicholas D. Smith. NY: University Press of America, 1983. 67-84.

Haraway, Donna. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s." Socialist Review 15:65-107, March/April 1985.

Kershner, R. B., Jr. "Degeneration: The Explanatory Nightmare." Georgia Review 40: 416-44, Summer 1986.

Kessler, Carol Farley. "Woman on the Edge of Time: A Novel 'To Be of Use.'" Extrapolation 28:310-18, Winter 1987.

London, Jack. The Iron Heel. 1907. NY: Bantam, 1971.

More, Thomas. Utopia. Trans. Robert M. Adams. NY: Norton, 1992.

Moylan, Tom. Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. NY: Methuen, 1986.

Penley, Constance and Andrew Ross. "Cyborgs at Large: Interview with Donna Haraway." Technoculture. Ed. Constance Penley and Andrew Ross. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. 1-20.

Piercy, Marge. He, She, and It. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

—————. Woman on the Edge of Time. 1976. NY: Fawcett, 1977.

Ross, Andrew. Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits. London: Verso, 1991.

Ruppert, Peter. Reader in a Strange Land: The Activity of Reading Literary Utopias . Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

Russ, Joanna. The Female Man. 1975. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Wells, H. G. A Modern Utopia. 1905. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.

Williams, Raymond. "Utopia and Science Fiction." SFS 5:203-14, #16, Nov 1978.


The intense political commitment that informs Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and He, She, and It (1991) is not unique in dystopian fiction, a genre that lends itself to political statement and social criticism. Piercy's avowedly feminist stance is, however, relatively unusual in a genre that has traditionally been dominated by male writers and masculine concerns. Moreover, both books reinforce their political statements with innovative literary techniques. In particular, both books generate considerable dialogic energy from mixtures of different social discourses and genres. Woman on the Edge of Time, for example, is a largely utopian work that contrasts an idealized future feminist utopia with the conditions of Piercy's contemporary America. But it contrasts this utopian future with a projected dystopian alternative, while at the same time complicating its message with a number of complex modernist writing strategies that help the book escape the finality and stasis that have traditionally been associated with utopian thought. The later He, She, and It, meanwhile, draws upon the work of writers like Joanna Russ, Donna Haraway, and William Gibson to update Piercy's feminist intervention in the dystopian/utopian tradition in ways that account for the recent social impact of computer technology. Together, Piercy's two dystopian works indicate the potential of this traditionally masculine genre for feminist political statement. (MKB)

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