In last month's editorial, I talked about how I learned feminism from fiction, mainly science fiction. I've realized recently that my feminism is a little like William James's pragmatism -- a set of questions rather than a set of answers. The writers who were my first feminist teachers, women like Marge Piercy and Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ, showed me how to ask those questions. What they also showed me, though, is that important questions result in more questions more often than they result in answers, and that the questions themselves are going to change over time. I've read and re-read Woman on the Edge of Time many times in the ten years since I first encountered it, and with each re-reading I find I'm focusing on different issues. Sometimes it's the way gender has been divorced from parenting in the Mouth-of-Mattapoisett future, sometimes it's the way psychiatric treatments can be used as a weapon against those outside of the mainstream, and sometimes it's the way Piercy re-imagines consumption and culture in a world where technology has shifted the structures of supply and demand. All of these strands (and others) are always there, but my reading of them is influenced by what's going on in my life and my world at the time I read the book.
The most recent time I read it, the theme that stood out for me was the question of how to effectively fight an enemy without in some way becoming that enemy. The problem is, of course, that producing change in whatever group you oppose is best accomplished by meeting that group on its own terms. But what if doing so would require you to compromise the basic principles of your opposition? It's a question that has very real resonance in our current political climate: how do you fight terrorism without engaging in acts of terror? If you fight a group because they have violated what you consider very basic principles of human life and interaction, how do you win that fight without meeting them on their own terms? How do you fight an enemy without in some way becoming that enemy?
Marge Piercy addresses this question only obliquely in Woman on the Edge of Time, but she addresses it directly in another novel, Dance the Eagle to Sleep. First published in 1970, Dance the Eagle to Sleep takes the youth culture of the 1960s as a jumping-off point. In the book, an increasingly totalitarian American government has instituted a mandatory service program called the Nineteenth Year of Servitude, which takes the teenagers who might otherwise be involved in rebellion or social protest and forces them into military service, "overseas aid and pacification," nursing, environmental cleanup, or a number of other types of work needed to support the far-reaching governmental infrastructure. The story follows a group of nineteen-year-olds who desert their Nineteenth Year service and instead create an underground movement called the Indians. Corey, the group's visionary, sees the movement as an attempt to re-build society from the ground up; he talks about rejecting the machinery of consumption, the hierarchies of class and race, the systems of government and authority and power.
One of the first steps in writing a utopian story is isolating your utopia from other societies, by putting it on an island or a moon or a hidden mountain enclave. Dance the Eagle to Sleep isn't a utopian novel; the Indians are trying to build their new society in the spaces occupied by the old, and the novel is mainly a story of their fight for survival. As a novel it's a brilliant piece of work; as an answer to my question about not becoming your enemy, it's something of a disappointment. The Indians survive mainly by staying out of the way, and in the end the group collapses after being unable to mount an effective resistance to military attack. The real defeat is not the defensive losses, but the fact that the Indians, frightened after being exposed too forcefully to their own weaknesses, reject the alternate social structures that had defined them and turn instead to a more regimented and traditional militaristic organization. In fighting their enemy they allow themselves to become too like that enemy, guaranteeing that they would have lost the war even if they'd won the battle.
A novel by a different author that similarly succeeds as a book (but not as an answer to my question) is Pat Murphy's The City, Not Long After. The heart of this book is a future San Francisco in the aftermath of a plague that has decimated the population. Forced to build a society to replace the one lost, the remaining city residents live in a loosely cooperative way. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Danny Boy, a young man who barely remembers the time before the plague, defends the city's lack of organized structure to an older man who runs a trading post at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. The older man is trying to explain why formal economic or government institutions might be necessary, but Danny Boy can't see either the need for or the appeal in having some system where people are forced to do things they don't want to do.
The enemy in Murphy's book takes the form of a general who has managed to impose a military dictatorship on much of the rest of the northern part of the state. The general, nicknamed Fourstar, represents the worst problems of governmental institutions; he imposes not only military rule but also censorship and restrictions on behavior, all in the name of public order and security. When he attempts to bring San Francisco under his control, the classically ragtag bunch of artists and idealists occupying the city wage a guerilla war of resistance that purposefully rejects the methods of traditional military combat. The artists use misdirection and illusion to confuse and demoralize Fourstar's troops, but refuse to physically harm or kill them. The result is a beautifully chaotic depiction of nonviolent combat that still ultimately doesn't give me the answers that I'm looking for, because in Murphy's book the city of San Francisco itself plays a supernatural role in the combat, shifting city alleyways to forcibly detour troops or sending in localized fogbanks to shield citizens from tanks and heavy artillery.
When I say that these books disappoint, I hope it's clear that I mean that in a very narrow and very particular sense. Neither Dance the Eagle to Sleep nor The City, Not Long After is actually disappointing to read, and neither author should be held responsible for the fact that I'm looking to their books to give me an answer that they were never intending to provide. That's too much of a burden to place on a work of fiction. My problem, I suppose, is that I'm not sure where else I can look, but I have to keep believing that the answer is out there.
Copyright © 2004 Susan Marie Groppi
Susan Marie Groppi is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.