By Marge Piercy
Wow, I can’t believe I have made it to 42 years old and never read this before!
A gripping, readable, thought-provoking book that I know will live on in my mind long after I’ve finished reading it. It’s that rare gem, easy to read and digest but also textured, ambiguous and complicated.
The hardest parts were all the ones in Connie’s own time, where I was angry and frustrated by the injustice of it all. This really is a masterful depiction and critique of it. Through her experience we get to see just how an individual can be crushed by inequalities of gender, race, and social class. Though she herself is not blameless there is no question that she would have turned out differently and behaved differently in Luciente’s time.
The brutality of the psychiatric treatment on her and the other inmates (there is one character who is essentially in there to be ‘cured’ of being gay), is particularly nasty, but unfortunately accurate in that these things did happen (and in some places still do). That makes its contrast with the future world of Luciente particularly stark. In this future world they haven’t sought to ‘cure’ anything, they have worked out better ways of managing it.
As she visits this future world the book has Connie constantly reacting and questioning just as we, the readers, would which is a clever storytelling device and the reader accompanies her through a process of understanding and learning.
I know others really disliked the ending, but I loved it. I could feel her growth as a character and her new awareness and strength. And yes, it is deliberately ambiguous, and all the better for it.
The things I loved most about Luciente’s world:
- The natural way everyone is per or person. It is very easy to get used to and shows us a glimpse of just how rational and easy a genderless language can be.
- People’s differences are respected and celebrated and space is given for them to explore themselves and choose their own name
- The link with nature is restored
- Healthy balances in production and consumption seem to have been largely achieved, although with plenty of ongoing tensions and debates
- Parenting seems a lot more sensible, giving children the chance to think and speak and develop, to choose their own path, and it recognises something that I think our current culture likes to ignore -that children ‘mature’ a lot quicker than we think, and that they understand a lot more than we like to acknowledge.
- There is an implicit acknowledgment that to allow individuals true freedom there needs to be a managed, functioning collective society behind it. This is a truth universally ignored, so it was liberating to see it realised fully here.
- Their approach to death is wonderful. Just to let everyone talk and reminisce and then to move on, seeing it as part of the cycle of everything.
- Decisions are reached collaboratively and through debate, and power is shared. Luciente fully acknowledges that it’s exhausting, but it is too important to be devolved to just a handful of people.
What I like about this utopia is that they haven’t eradicated wars or desires or jealousy or disagreement or mental health problems, they have just worked out better ways to deal with them. They take time out to deal with their mental health if they need it and then come back to the community. Again, progress is not really technological (although in some ways it is , but only to serve to make things more sustainable), but it manifests in other ways.
The theme that seems to get people talking most is that of motherhood and gender identity. The book suggests that to have true equality women have to give up their sole rights to being mothers. The biological link is severed. It seems shocking at first, but I went on the journey with Connie and, like her, came to realise it was a necessary and worthwhile sacrifice.
This particular debate has such relevance for the present day. I co-parent with my ex, and we have a 50-50 split in childcare. I have never been happy with that. I’m their mother, I should have them waaaay more than 50%. Even now, 3 years in, I still feel a pang of emptiness and loss the days they are not with me. But then is this just ego? Is this just me selfishly wanting them totally to myself (I used to fantasise that my ex would just run off and leave us so I could have the children exclusively to myself, however hard it would be… but what a selfish thing to wish for, to wish for my kids to have no father and for him to have no relationship with them? I’m pleased I got over that one).
But to have true gender equality the ‘mother’ role needs to be equally open to both genders. The link to biology is broken too, so in that culture I would not be raising offspring that had anything to do with me biologically, which shouldn’t be a radical idea really, as adopted children are loved by their parents just as birth children are. In fact, it takes ego out of it. Nobody would be raising their child to be a mini me, or to keep the ‘family line’ going, concepts which I thought were old fashioned but which sadly seem to be still going on. In Luciente’s world mothers choose to be so for the joy of raising a child, and they raise the children to be admirably self sufficient, and to follow their own path, even choosing their own name when they reach maturity.
The possible drawback is, a biological child of mine may have ADHD like me or a personality like mine, so am I more likely to understand and guide them but….. Often times we bring our own baggage to these encounters, and if it’s a culture that allows for neurodivergence surely it matters less, as whoever are the mothers will be able to handle it. Interestingly I was drawn from the start towards the character of Jackrabbit, and realised throughout that per is very ADHD. We learn during the wake that one of the mothers couldn’t cope with mothering Jackrabbit and so stepped down from the role which I thought was interesting. So the impact of ADHD is still there for the individual and those around them, but is given so much more freedom. Look at the beauty and love Jackrabbit brought into the world, given the freedom to do so.
What interests me with the motherhood issue is that Connie’s objection (and it chimes with a lot of present day feminists) is that childbirth, breast feeding, being the nurturer are the only things women have for themselves, so why give up that last realm. I hear this echoed in some of my friends who object to trans people being able to call themselves female. But if by opening up that realm and sharing it, it allowed all genders to be equal then surely it’s worth it? Surely it’s a price worth paying to be able to participate as an equal in everything else? I think so and by the end of the novel so does Connie, but it is a challenging change of perspective to embrace.
(As an aside: I personally have never liked or been comfortable with the idea of a female culture, of things only women know or do or understand. I have more male friends than female ones and both my children are male, so that doesn’t leave me with much! And my identity as a woman is only important to me insomuch as society treats me differently because I am a woman and I live that experience everyday, something which only other women understand because they live it too. But I don’t see that as the foundation of an identity or a culture, I just see it as necessary solidarity whilst we bring down the patriarchy, then after that let’s do away with the whole gender thing. )
I was also interested in the fact that it remains multicultural but that the link with race is broken. I was thinking back to ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ and the debate about the Asian baby being raised by white parents. I was firmly on the side of the biological mother in that one. But there surely the problem in that situation was that the child would grow up in a world of and for white people, and would be aware that she looked different. That’s why growing up without Asian role models and culture would be such a loss to her. But if the world she inhabited and grew up in was completely racially mixed, so that there were some people who looked racially similar to her and some that didn’t, then it wouldn’t matter anymore. I think that is the utopia to be aimed for and it is so beautifully, compellingly depicted in this book.
Of course, it is not obvious whether Luciente’s world is real, or whether it’s just Connie’s hallucination. The novel makes perfect sense with either, and they are both equally plausible*. It has been deliberately written that way and I am fine with that. I don’t feel a desire to answer it one way or the other and am comfortable with the enigma. I am more interested in the utopia and the ideas it brings up.
*There are bits towards the end where it seems more like it’s in her head (though I would argue it’s no less ‘real’ for that).