These are the last three books we read for my Utopian Science Fiction class, I highly recommend Woman on the Edge of Time and less so Wild Seed, I was less taken with Patternmaster.
15. Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
What really drew me in about Woman on the Edge of Time was the social status of the protagonist. Connie is an older, minority (Latina) woman who has been hospitalized repeatedly for mental instability. She is essentially the lowest of the low on society's totem pole. And it is amazing what this means society can do to her, all sorts of oppression, down to the grossest of experiments and most invasive procedures can be inflicted on her because of her inferior social position.
And yet, Connie has access to another world, a world where the social distinctions that oppress her; race, gender, class, even her mental condition (that only questionably exists in the first place) have been eradicated. Mattapoisett is a town on this new Earth, that has evolved from our own. Babies are conceived and gestated mechanically, genes are randomly mixed, both men and women serve as caretakers (even breast-feeders), and culture is detached from race. That is, each town has adopted a culture, be it Cherokee Indian, Harlem Black, or Jewish Ashkenazi, but the inhabitants of that town range widely in skin color and genetic makeup. The world of Mattapoisett is probably the most attractive to me of all the utopias we have studied, but Connie within the book and my peers in class raised understandable objections to the potential offensiveness of some of its suggestions.
If Mattapoisett is a utopia, the indication is that utopia cannot exist if people continue to construct identity as we currently do (in the Western world at least). As long as there are those who identify as "woman," "man," "black," "white," "Asian," what-have-you, then we cannot break free of the stereotypes and discrimination that come with these labels. One person in my class did bring up the idea that the white male body is our society's "unmarked" body. A white man can be whatever he wants and not have to represent his "type" of person, a luxury that is not available to women and minorities. However, if we take away these identities, if we take away, or blur, the physical and cultural markers of those identities, then we can all be unmarked bodies. We can all represent only ourselves.
Highly recommended, especially to readers of science fiction and anyone interested in gender and race studies.
See more on my thoughts on this book from an earlier post.
16. Patternmaster by Octavia Butler
Teray finally emerges from school, having secured the position of Apprentice to a Housemaster in the Pattern. His Housemaster will teach him to use the Pattern, the psychic connection between all Patternists, so that he can one day have a House of his own. Instead, he is kidnapped by another Housemaster, Coransee, who turns out to be his brother. Teray and Coransee are the only sons of the Patternmaster Rayal, the leader of the Patternists, and his first wife. Rayal is fading, and Coransee will use any means necessary to ensure the succession for himself.
The themes of freedom vs. oppression are here, but the hierarchical, practically feudal, social system is strangely accepted, and the book is overall less than satisfactory, though it raises some interesting ideas. However its prequel Wild Seed has much more depth and variety, though it is also unsatisfying in a more visceral manner.
17. Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
Wild Seed is, I believe, the first book in the Patternist series, although Patternmaster was the first written. It centers around the centuries-long struggle between Doro, a man or masculine soul who takes on the bodies of others, and Anyanwu, a black woman who can shape her body to take on any living form.
Doro aspires to shape a community of people with strange abilities like his, yet not so strange that he cannot control them. If anyone gets too out of hand, he has no objection to walking in their skin (thereby killing that body's original inhabitant). However, his abilities and callousness frighten Anyanwu, who nonetheless allows him to breed her in order to protect children she has left behind. When finally she realizes Doro will not cease his predatory ways, she escapes him, and breeds a secret family of her own.
It's strange to imagine Doro and Anyanwu creating the at once archaic and futuristic society in Patternmaster, but yet here are definitely strange abilities and parallels to the racism that infiltrates the society in which Doro and Anyanwu are depicted for the longest portion of the book.
Weird and interesting, though not a high priority read.