Friday, February 20, 2009

Week 7: Piercy, Feminist Utopia

Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (WET) is the subject of several essays which I reviewed this week. Among these I found:

> Ferns ("Dreams of Freedom") usefully describes the development of the traditional utopia and, thus, provides a helpful context in which to better understand LeGuin's and Piercy's departures from that tradition.

> Booker ("Edge of a Genre") offers a nice analysis of how Piercy "draws the lines between utopia and dystopia quite clearly, and the resultant dialogue between the two is an important source of energy for the book" (p. 340).

> Moylan argues that WET neatly navigates the time paradox in a very tidy fashion that, frankly, I did not discern in my own reading.

Though I do not share Piercy's politics, this is not the space to debate them. Yet I readily tip my hat to the author's literary accomplishment in innovating the utopian genre. So with these observations as a setup, this week I will explore two questions:

1. How well does WET navigate what Jameson calls "The Barrier of Time" and how does her solution compare with other sf universes?

2. Our in-class discussion last week about "conservative utopias" prompted me to take a page from Gearhart ("Feminist Utopias in Review") and see if, in a similar way, I could devise a template for defining conservative utopian fiction. Or is "conservative utopia" an oxymoron since "conserving" and "change" are opposites?


Time travel stories have always held a special fascination and enjoyment for me. So I've read and viewed numerous sf treatments of this subgenre.

In his chapter on Piercy, Moylan confidently tells us that the future residents of Mattapoisett deliberately intervened in 1976 to set in motion a chain of events that would lead to revolution and ultimate victory.

But my reading did not see the time paradox as being tied up so neatly. It appeared to me that Luciente and her cohorts never articulate their time travel project so explicitly as Moylan makes out, nor identify Connie as "the" key to their future.

Consider: When Luciente encourages Connie to attempt a second escape, Luciente accepts Connie's admonishment that Luciente doesn't know the odds and is indulging in heroic fantasy. Further, though Luciente encourages Connie in general to resist, Luciente makes no specific attempt to arrange the poisoning incident.

Instead I was constantly bothered throughout WET that, besides one or two weak protestations, Luciente and her cohorts meddled in the past with little apparent concern (as they say in sf) "polluting the timeline."

This brings me to the different ways I have seen time treated in sf works:

> In Wells' The Time Machine (1895), the Time Traveler describes to his friends how objects must have four dimensions to exist: length, width, height, and duration. Why, then, can we not travel along the fourth dimension as we do the other three? (Wells later admitted that sf, to be convincing, must have some suitable patter at such moments.)

> In Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" (1952), reputed to be the most re-published short story in sf, a time traveler to the Age of Dinosaurs innocently steps on a butterfly and thereby alters the future.

Another such treatment is the classic Star Trek: TOS episode "City on the Edge of Tomorrow" in which McCoy accidently travels to 1930s America and innocently saves the life of a woman who, in the new future, becomes a pacifist leader and delays US entry into WW2, thereby leading to a Nazi victory and an alternate future without space travel.

In film, this "arrow" metaphor of time is seen in The Terminator and in Star Trek: Nemesis, where beasties of the future travel back in time to attack humanity before it has the capacity to resist.

> In Asimov's The End of Eternity (1955), the inventors of time travel establish a society that secretly intervenes to eliminate catastrophe from human history. They compute and then travel to key historical moments of maximum potential change to ensure that history takes the right turn. But their work is ongoing since their interventions are like casting a stone in a pond. The ripples in time occur for a few centuries until the effects gradually decrease and dissipate.

It seemed to me that Luciente and Mattapoisett must have taken this view of time. Rather than see time as an arrow whose deflection changes everything, they see time as an inert mass which can only be stirred in its broad outlines. Thus they could encourage Connie (and others?) to resist as individuals and contribute in small ways to a revolutionary climate, knowing the broad sweep of the future (and their own existences) would be intact in its basic essence.

> In The Time Tunnel (1966), one of my all-time favorite 1960s sf TV classics, the scientists of America's time travel project are positivists to the core. They take dominion over time, as they do over nature, with no compunction. In episodes where two of the scientists are trapped in an untenable situation (e.g., the Alamo) their cohorts of 1968 heroically intervene (yes, in one case even sending modern weapons!) to save the lives of their two colleagues.

> In a late 1980s or early 1990s episode of Star Trek: TNG the crew accidentally creates a "distortion in the time-space continuum" and brings hundreds of thousands of Enterprises into their own space. Time is seen as a series of infinite branchings and these starships, all from different branches, have been unintentionally thrown into the same branch.

> In the movie Somewhere in Time (1980) the hero lives in 1979 but is inexorably drawn to a woman who lived in 1912. So he rents a Victorian hotel room, dresses in period costume, obtains a pocketful of coins from 1912, removes everything in the room dated later than 1912, and merely "thinks" himself into 1912. Mind over matter! My wife and I saw this movie on Valentines Day (it's a perfect date movie) but both agreed that the patter of Wells' 1895 Time Traveler was much more convincing.

Okay, I've indulged in some tripping down memory lane. But this raises two questions:

1. Which of the conceptions of time, as described above, does Piercy adopt in WET?

2. Does it overcome Jameson's "Barrier of Time" and work as a concept for imagining a utopia? If so, why? If not, why not?


Gearhart proposes that a feminist utopian fiction is one that . . .

> Contrasts the present with an envisioned idealized society (separated from the present by time and space)

> Offers a comprehensive critique of present values/conditions

> Sees men or male institutions as a major cause of present social ills

> Presents women not only as at least the equals of men but also as the sole arbiters of their reproductive functions

Now let me propose that a conservative utopian/dystopian fiction is one that . . .

> Contrasts the present with an envisioned idealized society (separated from the present by time and space)

> Offers a comprehensive critique of present values/conditions

> Sees large (Big Labor, Big Business), centralized (Big Government, USSR), elitist (Big Media, Liberal Establishment), or secularized institutions as a major cause of present social ills

> Presents traditional values as under attack

From this definition, let me sketch out a list of utopias/dystopias written or appropriated by conservatives . . .

> Charles Williams wrote seven novels during 1930-37 which, though out of print in his native Britain, are sold in the US by an evangelical publishing house and retain a following in those circles. The books depict worlds in which time and space are transcended. Williams was among the circle of Christian writers that included Tolkien and Lewis.

> Nineteen Eighty-Four and its dystopian vision of Big Brother was, as I can testify, a symbol of Big Government that captured the imaginations of conservatives in the 1970s. Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) was also a favorite fable of anticommunist conservatives.

> Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945) by C. S. Lewis depict, respectively, the utopia of a Venus whose Adam and Eve are saved from the Fall, and the earthbound dystopia of science hijacked by satanic influence.

> The Last Battle (1956), also by Lewis, offers a utopian vision of the afterlife in which heaven is depicted as a mountain, but the mountain gets bigger the higher you go, and each successive level is more "real" than the previous level.

> Atlas Shrugged (1957) by Ayn Rand, with its dystopia of cloying welfare-state economics control and the utopia of a secretly established laissez-faire community, is still required reading for young libertarian conservatives (and still dismissed by social conservatives for its laissez-faire sex and implicit atheism).

> The Third World War (1982) by Sir John Hackett was a popular book among conservatives, portraying a fictional war between NATO and the Warsaw that breaks out in 1985 when the latter invades Western Europe. Things go bad for NATO at first but resistance stiffens, the Soviets nuke Birmingham, England, and NATO retaliates by nuking Minsk and the USSR collapses. Yet the author also provides an alternate ending in which the Soviets win.

> Red Dawn (1984) is the ultimate anticommunist dystopia. In this John Milius film starring a young Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, the Cubans parachute into Colorado as an advance force for a Soviet land invasion. The first thing the Cubans do, of course, is confiscate everyone's guns. Adult males of military age are put in reeducation camps. But a group of high school students launches a guerilla war that holds up the invasion long enough for the US to prevail.

> This Present Darkness (1986) by Frank Peretti was a landmark in the evangelical publishing world. The novel depicts, in ways perhaps analogous to Piercy's juxtaposition of two worlds by means of telepathy, how evangelicals are contacted by angels to thwart a plot by demons using a New Age Consciousness Society as a front to take over a small college and extend their influence over the Pacific Northwest. (The book, though a religious bestseller, is criticized for its theology even by evangelical scholars.)

> The Left Behind series, launched in 1995 by authors LaHaye and Jenkins, are set during the biblical time of the Great Tribulation when the world is ruled by the Antichrist. An exposition of the eschatology would be too thick for this space. But for evangelicals the Tribulation is the ultimate dystopia.

Does my template, a la Gearhart, work for defining conservative utopian fiction?

Or do we stick with the suggestion, raised last week in class, that modern utopias are all from the Left. Why? Because only the Left wants change while conservatives, by definition, want to conserve?

Which is it?

1 comment:

Dennis said...

Hi Mark, Trying to find how to get in contact with you.


Dennis McCaskill