Connie, the heroine, is a 37 year old Mexican-American living on welfare, who is incarcerated in a mental hospital and subjected to "mind-control" treatment. The realism of the narrative makes this really chilling (it is reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest) and, combined with the knowledge we gradually acquire of her life story, it paints a bleak and far too plausible picture of how our society has institutionalised oppression of the weak. The story culminates with Connie's resolution to fight back, with a recognition that she is fighting a war on behalf of others as well as herself.
This narrative is interwoven with accounts of Connie's mental visits to the future. Here she is gradually introduced to a village community that is part of a global society organised on broadly anarchist lines. At first it appears to be a "backward" and nontechnological society, but it gradually becomes clear that the people have a positive attitude to machinery, but use it only in ecologically sound ways. There are some interesting ideas on parenting (children are born in artificial wombs and have three parents, and men can be modified to suckle), coming of age rituals, etc. We are given a good idea of the social "glue" that binds the society together and maintains social order, and also glimpse some outlines of a formal, but distributed and decentralised, decision-making structure. But these are just some of the ideas abstracted from the story — Piercy's portrayal of her utopia is not didactic, and it is through the lives of the people who live there that we really come to see the breadth of her vision.
To return to the comparison which prompted this review: Le Guin's The Dispossessed was very clearly in the classical anarchist tradition, though it incorporated some ideas from modern linguistics and ecology. Woman on the Edge of Time is much more inventive in its speculations as to the potential uses of modern technology. Biotechnology is most prominent, but Piercy's ideas about the possible roles of computers are quite prophetic considering Woman was written in 1976. It also draws more visibly on radical (and particularly radical feminist) ideas. Both works supply only a sketch of the methods of maintaining social order and coordinating decisions: Le Guin is both less ambitiously utopian and more honest about the likely problems in this area, making her utopia (despite its other-worldly setting) more plausible if less appealing.
With so many provoking ideas and a compelling narrative, Woman on the Edge of Time is a great novel — certainly the best work of science fiction I have read in years.