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There is no future outside of the present.
If that seems tricky—or like something your friend who likes Burning Man and finger-painting and watching the fireplace Netflix video outside of the month of December would say— maaan, you're not wrong.
But it's also something that supersmart author, philosopher, and poet Marge Piercy would say.
Think about it this way. Imagine that you are a genius inventor-type person. You have an hour free this afternoon in which you could either create an intelligent computer to play chess with you or figure out how to breed a super-fluffy talking cat. Will the future involve lots of purring and shedding and demands for food? Or will Skynet take over the world and institute a robot oligarchy to enslave all humans? What you do now, the choice you make here, is where the future starts.
This is exactly the problem facing Consuelo (Connie) Ramos.
Or, okay, not exactly the problem. Woman on the Edge of Time does not have any Skynet, and the one talking cat has only a really brief walk-on part to express its disapproval, in the way that cats will.
But in general, it's the same problem. Connie not a super-scientist; she's a poor Latina woman committed to an insane asylum. But she has to make decisions nonetheless about what kind of future she'll have. Connie's choices about the future are very concrete. She is occasionally visited by a woman named Luciente, who claims to have travelled backwards from the future (think: the evil Terminator, but friendly-like). Luciente takes Connie with her into the future, which is awesome and ideal in a utopian-feminist-future kind of way. Everyone is happy and fulfilled in the future—a stark contrast to Connie's own life.
Luciente tells Connie that the future is in her present. It's up to Connie to choose either the good future with fluffy cats and no brain experimentation in insane asylums, or the poisoned, icky world without whales and with evil robots. (Not kidding here: there really are evil robots. No bad future is complete without them.)
So how does Connie choose?
Er… well… that's a little tricky. And that's where the crux of the novel lies: on Connie's decision how best to act now in order to change the future. And even by the end of the novel, you never find out whether she succeeds. The future is right here, right now—but that's exactly why it's so hard to see.
But hey, that ambiguous ending didn't stop Piercy's novel from getting the accolades it so richly deserves: it's now considered a classic of speculative fiction and of feminist literature. This novel is a double threat that way, and its success paved the way for Piercy to go on to have a truly illustrious literary career, including winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
You should care about Woman on the Edge of Time because the future is out there—and it will get you if you're not careful.
"Now, wait a minute Shmoop," you may well be saying. "I just read 'In a Nutshell' and there you said that the future was only in the present. Now you are saying that the future is out there somewhere else. Which is it, Shmoop? Explain yourself!"
Okay, so yes, we said that the future existed in the present, and that Woman on the Edge of Time is about how you make choices now and stick them in the destiny machine and then, ka-ching! a future pops out. This is true.
But! It's also true that the future affects the past. What you think is going to happen, the vision of the future you see, determines what you do here and now. If you imagine a future in which gravity works just as it works now, you will avoid walking out of windows. If you imagine a future in which gravity stops working, you might walk out of a window in the hopes of floating… though we wouldn't recommend it.
Walking out of a window because you think that in the (very near) future gravity will stop would be kind of crazy. But in the book, Connie is in fact kind of crazy—or at least, the authorities have decided that she's insane, and have put her in an asylum. She also has an imaginary friend who sometimes takes her to the future.
And Connie's vision of the future leads to consequences, just as surely as the whole there-is-no-gravity-in-the-future-let's-walk-out-the-window train of thought would. Connie feels she has to do something to get to the future she wants. And the "something" she decides to do is to kill four people: she kills them in the name of, or for the sake of, the future.
Now maybe that doesn't seem like it's generally relevant. Most folks don't have people visiting them from the future, whether those future-visitors are real, honest to goodness time travelers or just imaginary figments.
But on the other hand, just about everybody has some ideas about the future. You think gravity will keep working, so you don't step out of the window. You think the earth is headed for ecological apocalypse, so you try to recycle your plastics… or you don't, and you chuck your plastics out the window. Jerk. What you think is going to happen effects what you do now (right… now)
Connie's circumstances are particularly restricted. She can't recycle plastics; she can't even jump out a window. Because she's poor, and Hispanic, and considered crazy, she's watched and policed; she can't do much of anything. But she can still dream of the future — and that dream gives her the will and the strength to act.
You could see what she does as terrible, or you could see it as liberating. But either way, she wouldn't have done it without that vision of the future. The possibility of political action, or of any action, the book seems to say, depends on a belief, and a vision, not just of what's here now, but of what's going to happen tomorrow. The future is necessary—and dangerous. Be careful how you use it, or how it uses you.
The Official Marge Piercy Website
This is the home for all things Marge Piercy, including a bio, listings of all her books (fiction, non-fiction, poetry), links to articles, interviews, and more.
"Attack of the Squash People"
A page with links to a bunch of Marge Piercy's poetry.
Marge Piercy Briefly Explains Utopias vs. Dystopias
What the title says, only more depressing than you'd think, because that's how Marge Piercy rolls.
Woman on the Edge of a Review
A lengthy review of Woman on the Edge of Time.
Marge Piercy Wrote an Awesome Utopia, Or is it a Dystopia?
Another lengthy essay on Woman on the Edge of Time and the tradition of utopias/dystopias/and any other -opia you can think of.
"Most Women Are Still Playthings of Pharmaceutical Companies"
An interview with Marge Piercy about feminism, activism, and women's health issues.
Marge Piercy on Her Illegal Abortion
Marge Piercy talks about giving herself an almost fatal abortion when she was a working-class college student in Detroit.
"The Low Road"
A dramatic reading of Marge Piercy's "The Low Road," about fighting the power.
Marge Piercy Talks for a Long Time
A half-hour interview with Piercy about Detroit, her novels, feminism, and more.
Woman on the Edge of a Book Cover
The cover for the 2000 Woman's Press edition of Woman on the Edge of Time.
Woman on the Edge of Another Book Cover
The cover for the 1988 Fawcett edition of Woman on the Edge of Time.