Members of this community (and others) have been feeling that the world is out of balance since the 2016 election. There’s a feeling that people are becoming less kind and that some men (following the model that lives and tweets in the White House when he’s not at one of his golf resorts) are more misogynistic. I’ve heard that Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eight-Four is more popular than ever before. We seem to be living in a new dystopia. It’s very sad and very scary.
I’ve recently reread three novels that I think may be both prophetic and inspiring. I’m hoping that if you read them, too, you’ll inspired by their brave heras to keep on resisting. The novels are Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (1996) by Sheri S. Tepper, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) by Marge Piercy, and The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993) by Starhawk.
The woman who is on the edge of time is Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, a Mexican-American who lives in a New York barrio and has a life so dreadful that even as Piercy describes the poverty and the abuse in exquisite detail, I can’t really see it…though I bet any homeless person who lives on or under a freeway overpass could add more horrific details. Connie’s father beat her, two of her three husbands beat her, her daughter’s pimp beats her. Her brother has anglicized himself by changing his name from Luis to Lewis. Her third husband was a blind black musician named Claud; it was while she was deep in mourning (and withdrawal) that she struck out at her daughter and injured her, which led to her first imprisonment (Lewis signed the committal forms) in an insane asylum that is immeasurably worse than, say, Dotheboys Hall in Oliver Twist. The bureaucrats who run the asylums have zero interest in their patients. If a patient complains of a burnt back (the pimp knocked Connie into a hot stove) or a headache, that patient is accused of making a “medical diagnosis.” The favored treatment? Huge doses of Thorazine, which has terrible side-effects. Connie finds herself “stymied, trapped, and drugged with Thorazine that sapped her will and dulled her brain and drained her body of energy.”
It is while she is in the asylum that Connie begins to feel a presence of some sort. This turns out to be psychic “calling” from Luciente, an androgynous woman who lives in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, in 2137. Luciente, who is somehow physically present when she visits Connie, persuades her to let the contact go forward. When Connie visits Mattapoisett in an ambiguous state that is both psychic and physical, she enters a hippie paradise (remember, this novel was written in 1976) filled with free people who garden, compost, ride bicycles, eat healthy (mostly vegetarian) food, have manufacturing and technology (including solar power and computers), raise their children communally, and speak a politically correct language in which the pronouns “he” and “she” are replaced by the gender-neutral word “per.” It isn’t a true utopia, of course—there are echoes of Brave New World and they have government by consensus—but Connie visits many times and eventually learns about individual rights. She also learns that they have an enemy that arose from “corporations and the Pentagon” and which occupies Antarctica, space platforms, and some large cities; all the free people have to do six months of “defense.”
Looking at Mattapoisett through our 2017 eyes, we realize that many of our modern cities are trying to incorporate those Mattapoisett values. We’re aiming at racial and cultural diversity. We have bike lanes in city streets. Green spaces and community gardens. Recycling programs, solar and wind power, cleaner water. The High Line Park in New York City.
So now Connie has a sort of escape from the asylum. In a visit about halfway through the book, she enters a meeting in which Luciente and the others are discussing people like her. They’re nearly all “crazy” people. “At certain cruxes of history,” a character says, “forces are in conflict. Technology is imbalanced. Too few have too much power.” A bit later, Connie learns that there was a thirty-years’ war fought by ordinary people that led to a revolution that led to Mattapoisett. But, says Luciente, “we’re struggling to exist.” It’s people like Connie—“crazy” people who sound saner than the attendants in the asylums—that are on the edge of time and can perhaps turn society toward Mattapoisett values.
And then Dr. Redding arrives with experimental equipment that will change “crazy” people’s brain function to “normal.” He and his team are clichéd control-freak physician-scientist-businessmen—think Nurse Ratched+Gordon Gekko on steroids—with no emotional affect except some semi-concealed fear of the crazy patients into whose heads they insert electrodes and tiny radios. Connie is interviewed and selected to be a “participant.” She can’t allow this to happen to her! But the selected patients are moved to a New York hospital, where their heads are shaved and tiny “machines” are inserted into their brains. Now the doctors can control their mood with a push of a button.
During this time, Connie cannot connect with Luciente, however much she tries. Instead, she arrives one night in a different future: the windowless room of a woman named Gildina, who has been surgically engineered to be a sex toy (huge breasts, tiny feet, minuscule intellect) and who eats packets of food made from coal, algae, wood by-products, and artificial flavors. When Connie asks Gildina if she ever goes outside, say, for a walk, Gildina replies that the outside is full of air and “you can’t see through air.” Connie is nearly captured when a huge eunuch bursts into Gildina’s room.
Spoiler alert: When Connie gets back to the hospital, she can still think for herself. She sees that she is now “enlisted in Luciente’s army” and makes a huge sacrifice to help the good future hopefully arrive and survive.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the Neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.