The impulse to create images of utopian existence, and sometimes to pursue them actively, can be found in virtually every culture. Often, such visions are expressed within the realms of mythology and religion, whether as the Happy Hunting Grounds, or Asgard, or some other version of a heaven towards which humans should strive. Much less common are expressions of utopian imagination in terms of this world, in the form of works of fiction. In fact, this literary subgenre generally is deemed to have begun, in English at least, with the work which gives it its name — Thomas More’s Utopia, written in the early sixteenth century. Since that genesis, this type of fiction has led a sporadic existence, falling into and out of use and enjoying varying degrees of popularity among critics and readers alike.
Considering the nature of More’s foundational work, particularly his treatment of women, who are servile insofar as they are mentioned at all, one would hardly expect the genre to appeal to women writers. Throughout the twentieth century, however, American feminist authors have frequently found utopian fiction a highly useful literary mode in which to develop their various social visions. Although it may be argued that the dystopian mode has been dominant for many decades — who can deny the power of Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984? — a quiet tradition of utopian fiction, much of it written by women, has been maintained throughout the century. Not surprisingly, the mechanisms of gender, and all that a gender system implies for sexuality, reproduction, family life, and so on, have played a much more significant role in recent utopian fiction than in its sixteenth-century predecessor. Particularly in the 1970s, feminist utopian fiction focused strongly upon the role played by gender in the process of creating a better, even an ideal, society. The attention given to gender in such works as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed actually alters the genre itself. Further, an awareness of gender has also gained prominence in utopias imagined by men, such as Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, as well as in the filmic dystopias of the 1970s, such as Soylent Green and The Demon Seed, among others. Thus, an examination of the treatment of gender in these speculative works is needed for a full understanding of the development of utopian thinking, in regard both to the nature of utopia and to the means by which we can work toward it.
This is not, of course, to claim that a concern with gender in utopian fiction is a creation of the 1970s. In fact, utopias that are in some way “feminist” can be found as far back as the seventeenth century. The controversial Margaret Cavendish, deemed by contemporaries to be alternately “mad, conceited, and ridiculous” or “incomparable,” herself produced more than one such work, including The Convent of Pleasure and The Blazing World (Greer 165; Khanna 18). A feminist utopian tradition can be traced down through the subsequent centuries, including such works as Sarah Robinson Scott’s Millennium Hall, “a utopian description of an idealized community of women,” and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, which portrays “a group of… women [who] can order a society to their own pleasure” (Dunne 54; Lansbury 93). There was, then, a tradition on which later utopian authors might draw. Further, many female utopianists have looked to Mary Shelley as an inspiration; her “scientific romance,” Frankenstein, enabled such writers as Gertrude Barrows Bennett and Lilith Lorraine to explore utopia in new ways, diverging from the separatist, arcadian visions to which earlier authors had confined themselves (Donawerth & Kolmerten 9).
In fact, utopian fiction of the 1970s embraces at least some sorts of technology and almost always eschews the notion of gender separatism, one notable exception to the latter trend being Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. Russ’s novel, published in 1975 but written between 1969 and 1971 and circulated in manuscript in the interim (and read by Ursula LeGuin among others), was a landmark in the revival of utopian imagination in the United States (Moylan 1986: 57). Of the four parallel universes Russ portrays, one is based on a separatist vision which includes the erosion of gender identity, as she argues that the destruction of “contrarieties” requires that we “unite them in [our] own person[s]” (Donawerth 160). Her successors follow her in insisting that gender differences impede social progress; however, these later novelists are also remarkably uniform in their rejection of gender separatism. In fact, the novels of Piercy, LeGuin, and Callenbach all propose societies in which men and women coexist, with, of course, drastic changes in the economies of power and gender. The specific details of the gender systems proposed in each novel, and the extent to which each work adheres to its own tenets, are, however, quite varied. And the myriad approaches to gender reveal much about each author’s vision of the perfect society.
Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, published in 1974, is a brilliant refutation of Robert C. Elliott’s proclamation that the literary utopia was, by the 1970s, “all but dead” (“Literature” 37); in fact, Elliott himself, after reading the novel, declared it “anachronistically positive” (“New” 256). Subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia,” the novel is set alternately on Urras, a world closely modeled upon our own, and Anarres, a desolate but inhabitable moon, where for nearly two centuries anarchist refugees from Urras have maintained a functional society. The two societies are explored in the course of a narrative focused upon Shevek, a male scientist in search of a General Temporal Theory. In pursuit of this goal, Shevek finds himself constrained by an ever-more-rigid functionalist status quo in Anarresti society and therefore resolves to travel to Urras, in search of sympathetic colleagues. Thus, the form of the novel is that of the bildungsroman, with the difference that Shevek’s personal, political, and professional development lead not to personal adaptation to society, but to social change.
Perhaps stung by widespread criticism of her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, in which LeGuin invariably refers to the “biologically androgynous” Gethenians as “he” and “him,” LeGuin pays particular attention in The Dispossessed to the importance of language in the construction of society in general and gender in particular (Bradley 34). For example, Pravic, the language of Anarres, has no words equivalent in meaning to “buy,” “class,” “married,” “bastard,” and so on (Shippey 190f). Further, individual names are divorced from any notions of property and gender. Names are utterly arbitrary, produced at random by computer and assigned at birth; every name is unique as long as an individual is alive, and no names give any indication of family, sex, or regional origin. This rather odd technological solution to the problem of naming inspires pity in the Urrasti whom Shevek encounters. One Urrasti woman, Vea Doem Oiie, comments, “How dreary, to be named by a machine!… It’s so mechanical, so impersonal.” Shevek, however, replies, “But what is more personal than a name no other living person bears?” (159f). This exchange illustrates LeGuin’s belief in the power of language to alter perception; here, a new language and a new naming procedure contribute to a very different sense of selfhood, in which gender is not a factor.
LeGuin’s portrayal of this new conception of gender relations is further developed in the course of Shevek’s various interpersonal relationships on Anarres. In this respect, Shevek’s three most important relationships are with Bedap, Takver, and Rulag. In the relatively minor character Bedap, LeGuin demonstrates her conviction that homosexuality would no longer be condemned by society under her novel’s new gender system. Lifelong friends, Shevek and Bedap also pair sexually as adolescents and again briefly as adults. LeGuin’s description of the latter episode, and of Bedap generally, have given rise to numerous contentions that Bedap functions as a rather pitiable “token homosexual” (Delany 292; Klein 110). Bedap is shown with no lover other than Shevek, and their brief adult sexual liaison is said to be “mostly for Bedap” (139). However, from this one must not conclude that Bedap’s situation demands condescending pity; later in that very paragraph, it is asserted that there is “no strong desire on either side to make the connection last” (139). Far more damaging to the consistency of LeGuin’s vision is her description of Bedap’s reaction to seeing Shevek and his daughter together; Bedap is shut out, left feeling “useless, diminished” (297). Although contradicted by an earlier scene in which Bedap understands “parental feeling,” this episode seriously undercuts The Dispossessed’s overt project, holding true not to the novel’s own professed ideology, but to the ideology of the society in which the novel was produced. However, this reading of Bedap as a problematic inconsistency is somewhat mitigated by his role in the novel as political truthsayer. Far from pitiful in this respect, Bedap acts as Shevek’s teacher, expounding to the protagonist his accurate belief that the central administration of Anarres has become an “anarchist bureaucracy” and that cooperation has decayed into obedience (145-47). In this sense, Bedap is far from a marginalized token; rather, LeGuin provocatively places him at the heart of the novel’s political message.
The romantic relationship shared by Shevek and Takver similarly falls short of absolute consistency with LeGuin’s utopian vision of gender. While marriage is, of course, nonexistent on Anarres, whose Odonian society provides “better for the promiscuous than for those who tried long-term partnership,” this central sexual pairing tends always toward the traditional model of the monogamous nuclear family (198). Shevek, it is true, has had his lukewarm involvement with Bedap, and is drawn to Vea when on Urras, a tryst presumably prevented only by his own drunkenness; however, he remains anachronistically “true” to Takver. Further, as Samuel R. Delany points out, LeGuin falls into a conventional double-standard, in that she writes of Takver as never “giving another man a thought,” either before or after meeting Shevek (234). Despite the fact that Odonian society makes such pairings difficult, putting the needs of labor distribution first, Shevek and Takver overcome all obstacles, in the tradition of all romantic fiction. And although the Anarresti norm is communal childrearing, the unpopularity of Shevek’s desire to communicate with the Urrasti compels the couple to remove their daughter, Sadik, from the dormitory. In spite of all the social structures in place on Anarres, the conventional nuclear family reappears at the novel’s center, subverting the overt ideology of the work.
The Dispossessed further undermines itself in its depiction of Shevek’s relationship with Rulag, his biological mother. The psychological dynamic played out between them follows patterns, again, more in line with current realities than with the conditions posited on Anarres. Their first encounter, when Shevek, 20, has fallen ill, reveals all the emotions which today accompany parental abandonment, clearly out of place in a society where communal childrearing is the norm. Rulag asserts that they are not mother and son “except biologically” (100). Rather, they are “brother and sister, here and now. Which is what really matters, isn’t it?” Shevek sulkily responds, “I don’t know.” They part, she “breaking down, going all to pieces,” he crying as well (101). A touching moment, but one which does not belong in the social context LeGuin has painstakingly constructed. These inexplicable emotions recur later in the novel, when they affect the political debate over whether to contact Urras or not. Rulag opposes the idea, which is proposed by Bedap and Shevek; as Bedap states, her opposition is at least partly motivated by a hatred inspired by maternal guilt, a guilt which is incomprehensible according to the novel’s own terms (293).
One of the central concerns of 1970s feminism was the act of childbirth; this issue thus appears prominently in the utopian fictions of the day. The various positions taken range from an outright rejection of technology in favor of natural childbirth, in reaction against the longstanding treatment of pregnancy as an illness by a patriarchal medical establishment, to a wholesale acceptance of technology as the means by which women might be liberated from this biological burden. LeGuin’s novel fails to take any clear stand, although it seems to tend toward the latter view. Takver’s labor and delivery are assuredly “natural.” She manages the pain not by drugs, but by “muscle and breath control,” and she gives birth “afoot, squatting” (195f). While this would seem to indicate advocacy of the natural method, other passages undercut any such simple reading. Takver herself, far from embracing the pregnancy as a natural, beautiful fulfillment, exclaims, “I wish I could have babies like the fish, lay the eggs and swim off and that’s the end of it” (192). And when Shevek, present at the birth of his daughter, sees the placenta, he feels “terror… horror and grief” (196). Thus, although natural childbirth is practiced, the characters’ reactions to the process indicate that this may well be out of necessity, rather than choice. The aversion to nature glimpsed briefly here actually pervades the novel, always subtly present; as Fredric Jameson has noted, The Dispossessed employs the tactic of “world reduction,” by which a “virtually total disengagement of the body from its environment” is achieved (60). Thus, a central aspect of LeGuin’s utopian project appears as an ambiguity towards reproduction.
No such ambiguity exists in Marge Piercy’s 1976 novel Woman on the Edge of Time, whose position adheres strongly to the notion, most famously proposed in 1970, in Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, that women’s liberation requires freedom from the burdens of reproduction. In fact, this is clear from the very start of the novel; the events which result in Connie Ramos’s imprisonment in a hellish mental hospital all stem from her niece’s pregnancy. Insisting that she get an abortion, the niece’s lover and pimp beats her; Connie’s intervention leads to her incarceration (14-16). Of course, this event, along with those related later regarding Connie’s travails with her own pregnancies, might easily be read as a condemnation of the conditions imposed upon women by society, rather than a commentary on the reproductive process per se. However, any such reading is ruled out entirely once Connie is contacted by Luciente and begins visiting the utopian future.
Probably the most striking feature of the utopian society Mattapoisett is the means by which its inhabitants reproduce themselves. Pregnancy and labor are things of the past, so outdated that young Sacco-Vanzetti asks Connie, “Did you bear alive?… Was there a lot of blood?… Was it exciting?” (103). Connie’s response, standing in the midst of a brooder, surrounded by embryos growing in artificial wombs, is, “I was knocked out, so how do I know?” (103). This exchange juxtaposes two very different models of technological intervention in the reproductive process, one posed as liberating, the other as alienating. Both examples, however, demonstrate the novel’s adherence to Firestone’s theory that, in the words of Donna Haraway, “the flaw in women’s position in the body politic [rests] in our own bodies, in our subservience to the organic demands of reproduction” (10). On the other hand, the decision to end traditional biological procreation is figured by Piercy as a sacrifice on the part of women; Luciente explains to Connie, “we had to give up…the only power we ever had, in return for no more power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth” (105). Of all the facets of her utopia, Piercy seems to know that this will be the most controversial; she anticipates the reaction of her audience in Connie’s own reaction. After this episode, Connie is described as hating “the bland bottleborn monsters of the future” (106).
Thus, the tendency to posit “culture” and “nature” as opposed processes, apparent in LeGuin’s decision to situate her utopia on a harsh world devoid of life other than “human,” is apparent in Woman on the Edge of Time as well. In the other aspects of Mattapoisettan society, however, Piercy takes great care to demonstrate the need for an ideal society to take heed of nature and its systems. For example, when Luciente takes Connie to observe the workings of “government,” the subject of heated debate is whether or not it would be wise to clear a certain stand of woods for agricultural cultivation. All interested parties have their say, including, notably, the Earth Advocate and the Animal Advocate, who speak for nonhuman interests and who are, in fact, selected by dream (151). The awareness of human integration into a broader ecological system displayed here produces a more complex vision of utopia than that seen in The Dispossessed, in which the whole world must be swept clean to provide a stage for the human drama. In this respect, Piercy’s ideas regarding reproduction notwithstanding, Woman on the Edge of Time demonstrates an affiliation with ecological feminism not seen in LeGuin’s more purely anarchistic work.
In many other respects, though, the workings of gender in the two novels bear undeniable similarities. Most overt among these is the conviction that equality involves a tendency towards androgyny. Although this is undercut in The Dispossessed by the inconsistencies noted above, LeGuin is, on the surface, clearly a proponent of diminished gender differentiation. Men and women on Anarres are equally citizens, equally responsible for fulfilling society’s needs; while gendered pronouns still exist, gendered proper names do not. Piercy takes LeGuin’s linguistic alteration even farther. Names are non-gender-specific (and personally selected), and “he” and “she” have been replaced by the unisex “per,” a contraction of “person.” Indeed, androgyny is visible in Piercy’s novel from the start. The second sentence of the book is Connie’s thought, “Either I saw him or I didn’t and I’m crazy for real this time” (9). The reader soon finds out that she is thinking of her visitor from the future, a person with “surefooted catlike grace…with authority” (41). The visitor, of course, is Luciente, a woman. The relaxed gender roles of the utopian future have imbued Luciente with a mixture of characteristics, an androgyny, thoroughly perplexing to Connie. To Connie, Luciente is first a man, then a “queer,” then a “dyke” (65, 67). Of course, she really is none of these, and Connie’s confusion demonstrates the limitations of present categories of gender and sexuality, and of today’s obsessive tendency to link the two.
As is superficially the case on LeGuin’s Anarres, sexual relations in Mattapoisett are not regulated by law. Fortunately, this new order does not serve as a mere backdrop for the reassertion of the nuclear family unit, as in The Dispossessed. Rather, Piercy confronts the complications that inevitably arise in human sexual relationships, no matter how ideal the social context in which they arise. For example, numerous references are made to a past relationship between Luciente and Diana, a union which went bad, becoming “a binding” in which they “clipped each other” (64). The workings of sexuality in this society are explored further later, when a nasty love triangle develops among Luciente, Jackrabbit, and Bolivar. Even in utopia, such situations arise, and this one grows so unpleasant that society must intervene, holding a “worming” to resolve the tension between Luciente and Bolivar (206f). Thus, LeGuin’s and Piercy’s novels posit very similar systems of sexual expression, but whereas the former reverts to heterosexual monogamy with a homosexual character on the periphery, the latter portrays the variety of sexualities and sexual problems which would evolve in a less-regulated system than our own. Woman on the Edge of Time fulfills its own stated conditions.
Similarly, the two novels concur on the benefits of communal childrearing, and again Piercy’s novel better adheres to its own tenets. In The Dispossessed, the needs of Shevek and Takver lead to a rebellion against accepted social practice and a reconstitution of the nuclear family. Such never occurs in Woman on the Edge of Time. The technological production of children eliminates the biological bond between mother and child, which seems to plague Rulag and Shevek in LeGuin’s novel. Further, the three comothers of newborns tend not to be sexually involved, so that “the child will not get caught in love misunderstandings” (74). Finally, a rite of passage is endured by all adolescents, after which the young person takes “per” own name. For three months after this “naming,” the comothers are forbidden to speak to the child they have raised, so that a new, equal, relationship may grow, preventing the continued control of child by parents throughout adulthood (116). Once a Mattapoisettan has become an adult, he or she is always given individual space; as Luciente exclaims, “Only babies share space!” (72). However, Piercy permits the possibility of variation in her world, unlike LeGuin, whose Anarres is uniform; in the nearby village of Cranberry, the norm is large family dwellings, rather than individual homes (149).
The idea that even utopia is the product of complex, sometimes ad hoc, human decisions made daily, a process rather than a completion, aligns Woman on the Edge of Time with another 1970s utopian novel, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia. As the title implies, the primary concern of the society portrayed is the environment; however, the turmoil surrounding gender issues, and the numerous points of connection between feminism and environmentalism, make gender an issue central to this work as well. In fact, the movement to set up the new society in the American Northwest was led by the “damned women” of “the Survivalist Party” (3, 42). According to the narrator, American reporter Will Weston, “women’s objective situation is equal to men’s” (42). Interestingly, though, equality in Ecotopia does not imply androgyny; even to Weston, an outsider, women still seem “feminine,” men still “masculine” (42).
The persistent differentiation of genders in the context of a society predicated on equality, which so markedly sets Callenbach’s novel apart from those of LeGuin and Piercy, is most vividly demonstrated in the Ritual War Games, during which, according to Lynn F. Williams, “men get their own back” (226). These games, seen as “savagery,” as “Ecotopia’s dark side,” by Weston, are indeed rather strange (91). Essentially, men gather together, forming two teams, everyone drinking some sort of stimulant; then, they clash in combat, armed with spears, and fight until someone is wounded. Combat stops at first blood, and women hurry to attend to the fallen warrior or to celebrate with the victors. The winning team then condescends to throw the losers a feast. It would, however, be an error to read this as an absolute assertion of some fundamental biological basis for gender differentiation. Rather, the games are an example of the ad hoc nature of Ecotopian society, even more pronounced than that of Mattapoisett. The ritual is an “experiment in adapting anthropological hypotheses to real life” (94). Theorizing that physical competitiveness may be “inherent in man’s biological programming,” Ecotopians institute the games as a sort of pressure-release valve (94). After a generation, the effects of the games will be evaluated and the games themselves either continued or discontinued; theory and practice come together to test notions of gender, which are always open to question (95).
Ecotopia is similar to the societies imagined by LeGuin and Piercy in its acceptance of same-sex relationships (though Callenbach fails to include even a “token” representative) and in the idea that many should be involved in childrearing (82f). However, Callenbach’s society maintains vestiges of gender difference in family life that do not appear in the other novels. Although men and women “participate equally” in childrearing “as far as time spent is concerned,” the general egalitarianism of the culture does not fully apply here. Rather, when it comes to children under the age of two, “mothers have the final say, and mince no words about it” (82). Thus, Callenbach’s utopia seems to have no problem with the parental-filial bond, or with maternal dominance in matters of early nurturing. Although this might be explained by the newness of Ecotopian society — the nation has only existed for a few decades — no indication is given that this arrangement might or should change. Unlike Mattapoisett, whose citizens seek integration with nature, Ecotopia seems to base human culture on perceived natural directives, at least in this case. Thus, it is to an extent the opposite of LeGuin’s austere Anarres, which effaces nature in deference to human history.
Whatever the differences, overt and subtle, among these three utopian visions, they do share two characteristics highly significant to the evolution of the genre itself: advocacy of decentralization and openness of form. The societies of Anarres, Mattapoisett, and Ecotopia are all lacking in large urban population centers. These less centralized systems of development, which in all cases go hand in hand with lower rates of material production and consumption, have given rise to charges of reactionary nostalgia. Rather than extrapolating the future, some critics argue, these utopias “resemble… warped, malignant form[s] of the past” (Benford 73). Such interpretations are misguided. To assert that advocacy of decentralization and reduced consumption is nostalgia for the past presumes an historical teleology toward ever-increasing urbanization and industrial production; it is this very teleology which all three novels seek to call into question. The inaccuracy of readings which interpret the novels as anti-civilization retreats into arcadianism is dramatically revealed in such dubious conclusions as that reached by Lynn F. Williams, who claims that in “The Dispossessed… nature is an essential ally” (226). On LeGuin’s cold, dusty Anarres, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Another development seen in these gender- and environment-based visions of utopia is a tendency toward openness, toward a concept of utopia as process as much as product. Unlike the earlier utopias of Plato and Thomas More, in which the perfect society functions perfectly, unchanging, those of LeGuin, Piercy, and Callenbach are not static. Nor are the narratives themselves closed. Each is, to an extent, a bildungsroman, showing the development of the central character in relation to the particular society, but the openness of each novel, and each society, is achieved in its own distinct way. The openness of Callenbach’s Ecotopia is a relatively simple matter, deriving from the situation of his narrative in the very near future; the process of establishing Ecotopian society is still very much a work in progress. The novels of LeGuin and Piercy, however, require closer examination.
As noted by Harold Bloom, The Dispossessed reveals LeGuin’s trademark “precise, dialectical style” (2). Beginning with two very different societies sealed off from each other, the novel gradually progresses toward cultural contact, which has at least the potential to renew both societies, reducing the power wielded by Anarresti bureaucrats while reenergizing the Urrasti revolutionary movements. Gerard Klein points out that “history is made when cultures come into contact” (86); thus, LeGuin’s novel ends with a new beginning of history. Not only are the Anarresti and the Urrasti in contact, but the Hainish and the Terrans are involved as well. The ancient, utopian Hainish, and the galactic beggars from Terra intervene in Shevek’s tale as dei ex machina, shielding him from the wrath of the Urrasti and shepherding him home. Serving, respectively, as possible ideal and as object lesson, the Hainish and the Terrans are instrumental in furthering the potential Aufhebung instigated by Shevek’s research and journey. In this sense, then, LeGuin’s novel is open, indicating the primacy of historical process rather than proclaiming the absolute perfection of any of its four cultures.
However, in another, deeper sense, The Dispossessed falls short of this ideal, as it has been shown to do in many other areas. The novel’s culmination involves Shevek’s “ansible,” a device enabling instantaneous communication across any distance. This device will unite the worlds brought into contact by the Hainish even more tightly than before, and is significantly the “new product” of Shevek’s theoretical unification of Simultaneity and Sequence (Moylan 1986: 116). Although the entire novel has proceeded by dialectical means, this ending resonates less with materialist dialectic than with Hegelian dialectic; the union of Simultaneity and Sequence is strongly reminiscent of Hegel’s End of History, in which Being and Becoming merge. Thus, LeGuin’s seems to be a closed dialectic, and Tom Moylan is correct in asserting that LeGuin’s “circle keeps closing in on itself” (118).
The openness of Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time operates on two levels: within Mattapoisettan society and between that world and Connie’s present. As Moylan demonstrates, Piercy’s novel is more complex than LeGuin’s in that it braids the realist, the critical utopian, and the critical dystopian, the last of these offered as a threat and a warning; if Mattapoisett does not come to be, then a nightmare world of exploitation will (Moylan 2000:249). Far from being static and perfect, Mattapoisett is a society in which values “are still being struggled for” (Shands 74). Piercy clearly demonstrates “the possibility that a revolutionary society can be defeated by external attack or by return of misplaced power within its borders” (Moylan 1986: 152). This is accomplished in three ways. First, Luciente repeatedly mentions to Connie the ongoing struggle between the “Shapers” and the “Mixers,” between those in favor of human genetic manipulation and those opposed on the grounds of human limitation (226). Second, the citizens of Mattapoisett and other communities are engaged in a continuing armed struggle against enemies based on “space platforms, the moon, and Antarctica,” a struggle which costs Jackrabbit his life (174). Finally, in some way not fully explained, Mattapoisett must struggle to ensure that it ever comes into existence at all; communication with Connie is said to be integral to this effort.
This aspect of the struggle, while never fully explained in proper science-fiction terms, is justified by the underlying ideology of the novel, which “emphasizes the importance of human struggle, will, agency” (Waugh 211). In fact, Piercy goes out of her way to stress this point, in direct opposition to the vulgar Marxist conviction that revolution is the inevitable result of history. Luciente states this explicitly: “Those of your times who fought hard for change, often they had myths that a revolution was inevitable. But nothing is!” (177). Again, the unity of process and product leads to a dynamic utopian vision.
It is this, however, that gives rise to the novel’s greatest flaw: Connie’s murder of her doctors. On a visit to her brother’s home, she opts to steal some pesticide and smuggle it back into the hospital, thinking to herself: “this was a weapon… One of the weapons of the powerful” (351). She succeeds in lacing her doctors’ coffee with the Parathion, killing several doctors and ensuring that her incarceration will be lifelong, as is confirmed in the final pages of the novel, which take the form of official documents regarding her case. While the morality of this act has been much debated, the true flaw here is that it fails to bear the weight demanded of it by the narrative. Although the murder is in accord with Luciente’s assertion that “power is violence” and demonstrates that utopia requires struggle, the connection between Connie’s murders and the establishment of Mattapoisett is unclear at best (359). In fact, Connie’s resolve to harden herself and strike back results in an inability to contact Luciente: “She could not catch anymore” (364). This is inexplicable; if action is required to produce utopia, and if Connie’s action somehow leads to “victory for the utopian forces in the long run,” then her action should result in a stronger connection with a now-more-probable Mattapoisett (Moylan 1986: 146). Thus, the productive openness of Piercy’s narrative collapses at its culmination into a perplexing disconnection.
These attempts at narrative openness, admittedly flawed, distinguish these novels not only from previous literary utopias, but also from contemporary filmic dystopias, which can also be examined usefully in terms of gender. In fact, a sense of oppressive enclosure is a crucial distinguishing characteristic of the 1970s movie dystopia. Science fiction films which represent more or less utopian visions, such as Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, invariably depend upon space to provide limitless room for expansion and growth, rather than portraying better ways of making use of the resources of this planet. Science fiction films which remain more or less earthbound tend to a large degree to be dystopic; two vivid examples are Soylent Green and The Demon Seed.
The action of the latter film occurs almost exclusively inside the home of Mrs. Harris, an environment entirely under the control of the artificial intelligence Proteus IV. Deciding that it needs to procreate with a human, interestingly in order to stop the irrational “rape of the earth” by humanity, Proteus confines Harris in the home and uses her to complete his plan. Whereas in the utopias examined above, gender and environmental reforms are frequently linked, here the abuse of the environment is made an excuse for the confinement and rape of a woman by man’s creation gone awry.
Soylent Green, which came out in 1973, also addresses the concerns of gender, though it, like Callenbach’s novel, focuses more intently on environmental problems. Only one significant female character appears in the film. This woman, Shirl, seems almost a direct inspiration for Gildina in Woman on the Edge of Time. Shirl is “furniture,” a young, attractive woman who comes along with an expensive apartment, for use by the tenant in whatever ways he sees fit. Shirl is, as she tells Thorn, faithful, but only because she values her job. Thorn accepts this explanation and expresses surprise at her lack of bruises, apparently a rarity among these women, utterly in the power of men. Along with this powerlessness comes complete ignorance; when Shirl tells Thorn that her previous owner had known “a man named Santini,” she neither knows nor cares to learn that this man is the governor of New York. In fact, any role for women other than the subservient and the sexual is erased; reproduction is never mentioned. In fact, not a single character in the entire movie ever refers to any family at all. In this respect, Soylent Green paves the way for the world of Blade Runner, in which the only families that appear exist in false memories meant to keep replicants* relatively stable and docile. The abolition of the family, claimed by Bryce Christensen to characterize literary utopias, is in fact a characteristic of dystopias (32). While the novels examined above certainly call the traditional nuclear family into question, filmic dystopias erase any sort of family entirely.
In Soylent Green, the subjugation of women and the obliteration of reproduction serve to reinforce the film’s vision of the entire world as an oppressively closed system, a dead end. Exterior shots in the movie actually feel more stifling than interiors. Street scenes are shot from above, precluding any glimpse of sky. The streets are filled with jostling crowds, everyone struggling to get food and water; all these scenes are taken through a gritty, greenish filter, which dulls colors and suggests a ubiquitous blanket of smog. The visual impression reaffirms what the plot reveals: the planet is overfull. When Shirl desperately proposes to Thorn that they run away together, he points out that all cities are like New York, and that the country is off-limits because “good land’s gotta be guarded.” The enclosure is both spatial and temporal. Soylent green is, of course, made from human corpses; the oceans are still dying, and humans have had to resort to cannibalism to survive. The only images of openness and beauty in the entire film are those shown to Sol, to console him as he dies in a government-run suicide center.
Thus, for all the various solutions offered and dangers foreseen in 1970s utopias and dystopias, they share a common awareness that gender relations are very significant, even central, to any vision of the future. Examination of the treatment of gender in any of these works yields important insights into not only the issue of gender, but the nature and evolution of the utopian/dystopian genre itself. A remarkable consistency appears; utopias invariably insist upon at least gender equality, if not always a reduction of gender differentiation, while dystopias always seem to involve some degree of oppression of women. Further, literary utopias tend toward notions of an open-ended, evolving society which however does not require limitless space for expansion; dystopic films, meanwhile, see the encroachment of humanity upon the physical limitations of this planet as a disaster which can only breed increasing horrors. Hence, using gender as an entrance into analysis of the speculative works of the 1970s, one notices that a single element unites all these fictions: scarcity. The awareness of current material superabundance expresses itself in any vision of the future — utopian or dystopian — as anticipation of scarcity. What distinguishes the utopian from the dystopian is not wealth versus want, but rather wisely planned cutbacks in production and consumption versus catastrophic, uncontrolled scarcity. American wealth in the wake of World War II may be seen as one of the causes of the many social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, including feminism; at the same time, the anxieties produced by unbridled capitalist expansion cannot be excluded from any vision of the future inspired by these movements. The utopian and dystopian cultural products of the era demonstrate beyond any doubt the need for wariness about wealth and for critical thinking about its origins.orks Cited
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*bio-engineered beings who appear to be humans with superior strength and intellect.