Mon
Aug 8 2011 2:03pm

Reading Joanna Russ — We Who Are About to… (1977)

Following The Female Man comes a short novel called We Who Are About to…, originally published in two parts by the magazine Galaxy in 1976’s January and February issues. Dell published the novel in book form the next year, 1977. This text didn’t receive much contemporary award attention — possibly because of the early ’76 serialization followed by actual, easier-to-find book publication the next year, which would throw off award nomination periods—but it did receive a retroactive James Tiptree Jr. Award in 1996. It is one of the Russ texts still in print, published by the Wesleyan University Press.

We Who Are About to… takes on the “crashed spaceship survival novel” tropes popular in SF and pulls them apart one by one while adding a hard dose of realism. I found it challenging (in the best way) and upsetting (also in the best way); We Who Are About to… manages to turn a brief 118 pages into a more intense, personal experience than most books three times its size. I found myself taking a break from Russ’s fiction after reading it, as if I couldn’t handle another punch quite like this one so soon. It’s a brutal, sharp-edged, truly “cold equations” style story that wrenches the reader all the way to the ugly, inescapable end. The foreword in the Wesleyan U. Press edition is by Samuel Delany, and he explains it best:

“At the height of the New Wave, an sf convention that particularly exorcised editor Moorecock at New Worlds was what Kurt Vonnegut had already characterized as ’the impossibly generous universe’ of science fiction: When, in the real world, 95 percent of all commercial airline crashes are one hundred percent fatal and we live in a solar system in which presumably only one planet can support any life at all, from the thirties through the fifties science fiction was nevertheless full of spaceship crashes (!) in which everyone gets up and walks away from the wreckage unscathed—and usually out onto a planet with breathable atmosphere, amenable weather, and a high-tech civilization in wait near-by…This is the fundamental convention Russ’s novel takes to task.”

He also says that it’s “her most pristine, if not perfect, book.” I’m inclined to agree—pristine is an ideal word to use for We Who Are About to…, which is one of the most concise, beautifully written texts I’ve had the pleasure of encountering. There’s no denying Russ’s talent and skill with prose, evident from her earliest stories, but it’s on full display in this novel. The sentences, the paragraphs, each page to the very end, are put together as crisply and precisely as possible to lead to an ending that is, from the first line, inevitable. It’s a complete story, in a way that most other stories are not, and cannot be, complete.

The opening lines, following the title, are a slap:

We Who Are About to…

“About to die. And so on.

We’re all going to die.”

She, the unnamed narrator (potentially called Elaine), is aware of this from the moment their spaceship loses track of itself and they crash-land. The rest of the folk—less so, much less so. They intend to “colonize” the planet, with all of the pseudo-Darwinian science-and-survival motivated joy and belief in their own ability to succeed that one would expect in the average spaceship-crash story. It’s the narrator who points out that it’s impossible—no matter the supplies they have, no matter how much they think reproducing and building a little town will save them, it won’t.

Their mistake, after they’ve lost their own identities and subjectivities in the crash, is to try and take away the narrator’s subjectivity by forcing her to be part of their colonization. They beat her, tie her up, and intend to forcibly impregnate her via rape if she won’t concede to help colonize on her own; their justification is that she’s crazy and doesn’t know better—after all, she wants to kill herself, and she’s a member of a rejected religious cult. She can’t be trusted to make good decisions, and she’s got a perfectly functional woman’s body, so why waste her? It’s chilling to delineate it in such a fashion, but that’s where the story leads the reader.

We Who Are About to… is working on so very many levels at once that it’s difficult to talk about them as one coherent whole, despite the fact that the book is a perfectly coherent whole.

While it is, as I’ve said, a book intended to lampoon and deconstruct the “crash-landing survival story,” it’s also a book of intense, painful social critique that deals harshly with the ease with which identity can break down. The professor finds himself useless in the wilds, the otherwise goodhearted football player type realizes that there’s nothing stopping him from beating up a woman to take control of her and mentally devolves a few thousand years, et cetera. The crash obliterates identity because identity, for the archetypal characters, is social—with the removal of any chance of society ever again, they must redefine a new version of identity, and because they are forced to do so, the narrator—who remained with her own identity, as she was not exactly a social animal back home—cannot fit in; she cannot be allowed to rebel or to simply leave them. She tries; she even sends the hovercraft tool back to the camp when she escapes.

They still try to find her and drag her back, instead of letting her die alone and in peace. She, the iconic antihero narrator, must defend her subjectivity by any means necessary and available. This isn’t where the text “crosses over” into feminist territory, as there’s no bit of Russ’s work that isn’t informed by feminism, but this particular bit of the narrative stands out. The narrator kills or provides the means of death to each other character in turn, to defend her own ability to die as she likes. The brutality of it—not in the manners of death, those are fairly economical and simple—is enough to twist the readers’ guts; it’s the emotional brutality, the force of a woman pushed entirely too far just to be able to retain her own bodily subjectivity. It’s an excellent feminist allegory at the same time that it’s an inevitable part of the narrative and the thematic sensibility regarding the fragile nature of life/identity.

Then, there’s the segue into the last third of the story—oh, yes, everyone else, including the child, has died already by that point. The last third is the most difficult; if what came before was challenging, what comes next is the part that’s most upsetting. The last third is recollections told to the recording machine of the narrator’s life as she dies, slowly, of starvation. It follows her as she becomes increasingly more delusional and weak, as her body decays, as her life leaks away. She could poison herself, but she chooses not to for a horribly long while. The reader is stuck with her as she fades. It’s so goddamn intense; there’s simply no other word. Possibly, transcendental. Inevitable. The ending of We Who Are About to… is the only ending for the story, but it’s at once difficult to finish and impossible not to follow to the close.

I understand other readers’ criticisms of this book, as I’ve heard them in conversation and online—it’s too much. It asks too much, emotionally, of the reader; even in The Lord of the Flies, there is a rescue after the initial lengthy horror. There is always a rescue. Russ dangles the hallucination of rescue before her narrator at the very end, and in doing so also in front of the reader—but it’s not real.

There is no rescue. “We who are about to die,” after all. It wasn’t pessimistic metaphor. She means it.

As I said, I understand the criticism… but I don’t agree with it. Books rarely ask so much of the reader, true, but perhaps they should. We Who Are About to… is brutal, unforgiving, and also supremely, astoundingly beautiful, not simply because of Russ’s phenomenal, unmatched prose but because of the journey it takes the reader through. In fact, I might go further than Delany—I might be willing to call this book perfect, not just pristine, in the sense that it does exactly what it was intended to do, on every level it was intended to do it on, at the same time.

It’s a small book, but it isn’t a fast read or an easy one. I would still recommend it over anything else you might pick up this month, for the experience. We Who Are About to… is commentary on a science fiction trope that’s problematic, an examination of identity politics, a lampooning of society and civilization as well as the colonizing urge, a feminist text on a woman’s physical subjectivity, an examination of brutality—and still more than I can encompass here on a purely craft-oriented level. (For example, I haven’t touched on the idea of audience and text in the text itself; the use of a recording device by the narrator to tell the story to an audience of zero, within the story that is read as a text by us the real-world reader, et cetera.)

Russ was at top form in We Who Are About to…, I’ll safely posit. Even the reader who cannot handle the text, who recoils from it as “pointless” because it opens and ends with inevitable death, must acknowledge the skill of the prose and the SFnal setting as an integral part of the story. It does not glory in its violence; in fact it abhors it, but that makes the novel no less violent.

It is simply a fact. Survival—of the body, of the identity, of anything—is not on offer. There is only the inevitable, and arriving at it.

 

*

Next, a book that I have a problematic relationship with: The Two of Them.


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

49 comments
Cmm
1. Cmm
Wow, just the review is intense. But I do want to read the book now, and had not heard of it previously. Thanks for an excellent writeup!
Cmm
2. TheAdlerian
It sounds like crap.

I say that because the female lead gets to be terrible and fatalistic, etc and so the book is gripping, "perfect", and all the usual. However, if the book was told from the male perspective that started with "We are going to live!" and he keeps everyone alive even if he has to tie them up and rape them, clinically, to do so. Such a book would likely be in the porno section and we would never hear of it.

We know Philip Dick had mental problems and used hard drugs, obviously suffered, and it came out in his work. Perhaps Russ had Borderline Personality Disorder or something and this book is just as porno as if it were told from from the male perspective. Years ago I learned that art produced by crazy people isn't technically art.
Cmm
3. Samantha Henderson
TheAdlerian: yes, if had a different narrator and a different plot and a whole different throughline then, astonishingly, it would be a different book.
me mne
4. mely
TheAdlerian, Years ago I learned that art produced by crazy people isn't technically art.
Cmm
5. James Davis Nicoll
I'd like to express wonder at the crime against art represented by that Jeffery Taylor (?) cover.

I remember one reviewer back in the 1970s having the most glorious melt-down over this book. I think it was Robinson but it could have been del Rey; it wouldn't have been to his taste either.
Kevin Maroney
6. womzilla
A couple of years ago, NYRSF published a Darrell Schweitzer retrospective look at a now-forgotten Randall Garrett story, "The Queen Bee" (Astounding, Dec. 1958) which is solidly in the "marooned survivors must build new civilization on remote planet" genre. The story wallows in its explicit, wretched sexism; the "laws of space" require the women to consent to unlimited breeding with whatever men will give them children.

"The Queen Bee" was reviled in the decade or so after its publication, and I've long suspected that We Who Are About To . . . is a response to it.
Cmm
7. James Davis Nicoll
Huh. There's a Poul Anderson about a woman who finds herself marooned on a seemingly deserted planet with a couple of other women (IIRC) and a guy who insists the law requires them to start a colony RIGHT NOW. It turns out A: the law says no such thing and B: they are not marooned on a deserted but rather in one of the backwater bits of an inhabited world. Oh, and C: the guy was aware of both A and B and set up the "accident" that "marooned" them. Now I wonder if it was a reply to the Garrett?

Don't think Russ and Anderson were often on the same side but this time they might have been.
Cmm
8. James Davis Nicoll
The Anderson was "Eve Times Four", I believe.
Brit Mandelo
9. BritMandelo
@Cmm - Thanks!

@TheAdlerian - You seem to have missed the entire point of the book.

@Samantha Henderson & mely - My thoughts exactly.

@James David Nicoll

So many of Russ's books have original covers that are both (A)crimes against art and (b) nonsense, considering the contents of the novels themselves.

@womzilla & James David Nicoll

The book is explicitly a take-down of what she considered to be unpleasant or outright stupid tropes in SF; I would hardly be surprised if that particular story informed this text. She likely would have run into it or at the very least heard tell of it. (It's interesting to think of her and Anderson both commenting in different ways on the same nasty tendency in colonization narratives; I wish there was some way to know.)
Cmm
10. TheAdlerian
After I made my comment I decided to look up the woman's wiki page, and wow was I on target with the persoanlity disorder comment! She sounded like a problemed person who hated herself and humanity. In addition, "Chronic Fatigue" and things like "Fibromyalgia" are placebo diagnosis and used to be classified as conversion disorders.

That's where extreme psychological disturbance gets translated to physical symtoms of pain and exhaustion. The commercials that say "depression hurts" are talking about it in a sideways manner. Anyway, that happens to extremely stubborn people in denial of their own problems and they attempt to find medical/magical solutions instead.

So, it's likely that Russ is writing about herself not "feminism" and was another crazy person like Andrea Dworkin who was filled with hate, not liberation.

Art:

Years ago I took an art theory class and one of the ideas was that schizophrenic drawings, animal drawings, and whatnot aren't art because the intention behind them is insane/not there and so they;re just images. I said that in relation to a mentally ill person "acting out" via a book rather than writing it for philosophical intentions.
Cmm
11. Samantha Henderson
TheAdlerian: Oh, you took an art theory class! I'd no idea. That, of course, changes everything. Carry on, then.
Cmm
12. TheAdlerian
Brit,

You seem to be looking at the book with blinders on.

Firstly, I don't think that survival on another planet stories are literally about survival on another planet, just like very good science fiction isn't about science. SF is about people when it's at it's best and how we can adapt to what may come. Survival stories are about "surviving" because that's what people do, and maybe could do anywhere.

The "tropes" she's attacking are positive. And, I'm not surprised that Vonnegut complained about them because all of the books I read from him were "can't do" in nature and he looked rather deranged as well. If I had children I wouldn't ask Kurt to babysit, if you know what I mean.

Thus, Russ may have been "attacking tropes" because they grated against some perversity in her own personality. It's common for miserable people to attempt to infect others with their misery, and that's what she was doing, not just being clever. There's nothing new about it and it fits with her bio.

Anyway, I look forward to the next article.

Over and out.
Cmm
13. imnotandrei
"So, it's likely that Russ is writing about herself not "feminism" and
was another crazy person like Andrea Dworkin who was filled with hate,
not liberation."

She wrote it, but she shouldn't have...

"Years ago I took an art theory class and one of the ideas was that
schizophrenic drawings, animal drawings, and whatnot aren't art because the intention behind them is insane/not there and so they;re just images."

She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art.

TheAdlerian is responsible for the quoted material in plaintext.

The italics? Quotes from the cover of "How To Suppress Women's Writing", by Joanna Russ.

Drawing further conclusions is left as an exercise for the reader, and Mr. Adlerian, do unruffle your tailfeathers. ;)
Brit Mandelo
15. BritMandelo
@TheAdlerian

Because, of course, angry women are crazy, and the points they're making about society are just attempts to make everyone else miserable. That argument? Sort of what all of Russ's books are about.

I've also got a huge problem with the equation of depression or mental illness with insanity, but that's just not worth getting into here.
me mne
17. mely
TheAdlerian, thank you for enlightening us. Please evaluate and categorise the mental state of every artist in the history of the world according to the DSM-IV, so we can all be further enlightened as to whether something is a legitimate work of art or not. It could be your opus magnum.
Cmm
19. imnotandrei
SF is about people when it's at it's best and how we can adapt to what may come.



My, what a narrow definition of SF you have. I thought SF had the opportunity to range over people both good and bad, situations good and bad, and possibilities dire, wonderous, and sometimes both.

Any genre that restricts itself to one view of the world, and views counterpoints and critiques of that view as "infecting other people with own misery" is at best a weak and impoverished creature, and at worst a tool for propaganda.

Much of the New Wave was, as was pointed out in Delany's forward, a direct response to the scientific boosterism of previous eras; Russ' work here fits very directly in that trend.

Now, are you willing to accept "This book isn't to my taste" or do you need to go on attacking a dead woman's honesty in order to make yourself feel better?
Peter D. Tillman
20. PeteTillman
Thanks for the very well-done review. I'm pretty sure I missed this one Back When -- added to my (ever-growing) to-read list.

Happy reading--
Pete Tillman
Cmm
21. imnotandrei

I conclude that Russ knew that she was writing in a sinister vein and attempted a preemptive strike against critics.



I have no idea why TheAdlerian decided this needed to be in red; but, since, unlike him, I do not dismiss potential signs of mental instability as an indication that the person writing them is incapable of having an intention, we'll address this further.

Do you realize how this makes you sound? You're faced with two possibilities:

1) A well-respected and honored figure in the field of SF/F wrote a book about a problem, so maybe there's a problem, or
2) A single deranged person fooled *a whole huge bunch* of SF with a book written in order to protect herself from criticism, and the fact that it resonated with many, many people is...coincidence? Because there certainly isn't a problem here.

(Hint -- #2 is a lot easier to convince people of if you're not busy *fitting the description* in #1. Really. Honestly.)

She wrote it, but look what she wrote about...

To use another quote from that same book's cover. Really, you should stop trying to use it as a bingo card, OK?

I find myself, I admit, wondering why someone with such a jaundiced view read this article in the first place. If I offer a 25-cent donation, will you go buy a bridge with it?
Irene Gallo
25. Irene
We are white-outing TheAdlerian comments for being purposefully incendiary and trollish. I apologize for not catching it sooner -- because the above has become part of the conversation, we will let that much stand (if only viewed with effort.)
Cmm
26. Samantha Henderson
“Ald” –

I can explain any point you like and do so fully.

I’m still waiting for you to do so.

So far in response to this review you cite the possible characters/plot of some completely different narrative that may or may not exist.

Then you say you have learned that “art produces by crazy people isn’t technically art,” which with one swoop makes a huge percentage of art/literature/theater scholarship unnecessary, as it is no longer evidently necessary to consider the work of Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, and Tennessee Williams “art.”

Then you cite the fact that Russ had a mental illness as if that proves your point, and say that Russ was “writing about herself not feminism,” which is a bit like saying “Tennessee Williams was writing about himself not repressed homosexuality.” It also shouldn’t be surprising to you that women writing about feminism are usually writing to some extent about themselves since they’re, you know, women.

Then you take it upon yourself to define what science fiction is, a laudably ambitious goal, which doesn’t quite work.

So I will save my tears (of awe!) (and really? Telling me to go cry as if this is kindergarten?) for when you actually have a valid argument.
Tucker McKinnon
27. jazzfish
I just finished this for the first time a week or so ago. It's... brutal, a perfect takedown of Robinson Crusoe SF. It lost me in the last third. This is a fault of the reader, not the writer; and I'm glad I stuck with it, for the impact of the last five or so pages.

Also, imnotandrei@13 (and at 21) wins today's internets.
Brit Mandelo
28. BritMandelo
@jazzfish

It is certainly that. (Also, agreed. *g*)
Cmm
29. Panghule
I love how TheAdlerian tells Brit that she seems to be "looking at the book with blinders on." The book that he hasn't read. As for the absurd notion that "art produced by crazy people isn't technically art," well, roll over Sylvia Plath and tell Van Gogh the news: All those novels, poems, and paintings all you people with mental illness created? NOT ART. TheAdlerian said so, 'cause of something he half-remembered from an art theory class he took this one time.

In a way, it's good to know that Russ's work--even in synopsis--still has the power to upset the people that need upsetting the most.
Pamela Adams
30. Pam Adams
I found the last third to be the best part. Quite frankly, the narrator lost a lot of my sympathy in Part I, where she wanted to die, but wasn't willing to leave her supplies of antibiotics and other medical supplies for the others. I understand that it was unlikely that the 'colony' would live- Roanoke, anyone?- but I don't see that it was put on the narrator to decide how they would die.

I will have to re-read (when I'm strong enough!), but I believe that the "They beat her, tie her up, and intend to forcibly impregnate her via rape..." came about after she refused to hand over the medicine. Folks with better memories or a handy copy are free to correct me if I am mis-recalling.
Brit Mandelo
31. BritMandelo
@Pam Adams

It does technically come after, but I didn't see much of a connection between the two things - it seemed like they were heading for "coopting all available female bodies for reproduction" from the first moment, before the drugs ever came up.

Also, if I'm remembering right, their decision to refuse to allow her (or any woman) birth control comes after finding out she has birth control on her in the first place. Plus, many of the drugs she had on her were for recreational use or were deadly; her decision not to just hand over the stock to people who don't know what it is, what's safe, and how to use it seemed pretty responsible to me. (On the other hand, she is pretty harsh and occasionally unsympathetic; I could see her deciding to keep her pharmecopia out of her own desire to have the drugs to herself, too.)
Cmm
32. imnotandrei

In a way, it's good to know that Russ's work--even in synopsis--still has the power to upset the people that need upsetting the most.


A very good point, Panghule, and very well put.
Arthur D. Hlavaty
33. supergee
At the time, We Who Are About to seemed most obviously to be a reply to Darkover Landfill.
Andrew Love
34. Andy Love
Thanks for this review - I'll keep an eye out for the book (I'll admit that I haven't read as much Russ as I should have), and hadn't even heard of this one.

I'm interested in hearing about all the stories that are part of the SF community's conversation about unintended colonization situations. I suppose Reed's "A Billion Eves" (in which kidnapping of women via one-way travel to parallel earths by would-be Adams has become a cultural practice) might have been inspired by Anderson's "Four Eves," and there was a recent episode of "Futurama" ("In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela") with a related notion (and Niven's "What Can You Say About .... Manhole Covers," might have roots in that theme as well).

The Garrett is available on-line here in its original form, complete with the editor's preface "Elissa was intransigently determined to be the Queen Bee. And ... you know, she got exactly the role she demanded!" (Ugh.)
Karen Lofstrom
35. DPZora
I'm female and find Russ' work (all of it!) disturbing. Beautifully written, omigosh, yes! But I can't ignore the subtext. Helpless sexual longing and attraction to dominant males; terror of dominant, oppressive males; murder of oppressive males. In some of her stories (earlier ones, I think), the heroine has a male companion who is non-threatening. Younger, weaker. In one story, the male companion is a human-shaped pet: good for copulation and not much else. (Read a long time ago; I hope I've got this right.) In the later stories and books, there are no men, just female objects of desire (again, this is IIRC). Who, as I remember (possibly incorrectly), tend to be weak and non-threatening.

Possibly one reason I find the subtext so disturbing is that there's a hint of contempt running through it: contempt for people who are stupid and weak. Which is almost everyone who is not the heroine. This is a psychological sore spot for me and it's as if Russ keeps pressing it.

For me, she's an author in the category of Gene Wolfe: gorgeous, astonishing prose, but I don't enjoy stepping into her. or his, mind. But that's me. I accept that others won't feel this way.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
36. tnh
We Who Are About To has always prompted some strange reactions. I once got into a long conversation at a party with a rather self-important young man who was sure that Joanna was wrong about the marooned humans' long-term survival prospects.

Since I'd discussed the book with her at considerable length, I told him no, really, the situation is not survivable. They're going to run out of essential resources, and they have no way to get more. They're going to die. It's just going to take a while.

He kept arguing. I moved on to "Dude, she built that world. I think she knows more about it than you do." No luck. He was still sure he knew better.

===

About the drugs: Joanna suffered from various medical conditions, and she had an acute understanding of the extent to which control of your medications is control of your life.

IMO, under the circumstances, the only appropriate use of those drugs is to ease the suffering of death. So: you can use them to die comfortably and with a clear mind, or you can turn them over to people who've turned violently authoritarian and crazy because they're in screaming denial. Will they use them to ease everyone's suffering and help them keep a clear head as death approaches? Not likely.

Decisions are not being made on a fair or equitable basis. In a situation like that, you're not required to cede all your power and resources to a small number of people who've decided they're in charge.

Human society exists to perpetuate human society. The principle doesn't apply here.

===

Some literary forms are rarer than others. We Who Are About To is a science fiction/ars moriendi crossover written by an atheist. I think one of the reasons it gets such strange reactions is that many readers have no idea what they're looking at.

(Joanna understood and appreciated medieval literature, and was fairly fluent in Middle English. Not many critics seem to know that about her.)

The inevitability of death hasn't been a big theme in our genre, and how to meet death has been almost completely absent from it. Then, blammo, a major author writes an entire book's worth of it, which is also a critique of some of the field's cherished but not well-examined narratives. Is it any wonder that indigestion follows?
Brit Mandelo
37. BritMandelo
@tnh

Excellent comment, as always. I genuinely value your insight into these books and Russ herself. (I did know she was into medieval lit, but not that she was fluent in Middle English! That's interesting.)

It's difficult for any genre to deal with the inevitability of death and the acceptance of death - SF moreso, I suspect, because of that optimism/generous universe that We Who Are About to... is deconstructing.
John Adams
38. JohnArkansawyer
I'm still trying to figure out what Irene Adler has to do with Joanna Russ.
Cmm
39. James Davis Nicoll
It's interesting to think of her and Anderson both commenting in
different ways on the same nasty tendency in colonization narratives; I
wish there was some way to know.

Ask Karen Anderson if she remembers how "Four Eves" came to be written?
Cmm
40. James Davis Nicoll
ps: Davis, not David.
Per Jorgensen
41. percj
I found this novel intriguing when I read it, not the least because of the intra-genre commentary element. One thing that disturbed me was that the main character also eliminated the non-threatening other survivors (yes, I realise that she was not meant to be 'good' or 'right') right away, thus eliminating their right to fade away in control of their bodies. But then again, this could quite probably have been meant as food for thought as well.
Paul Howard
42. DrakBibliophile
IMO _We Who Are About To.._ is a depressing story.

While Russ had a valid point about the chances of survival in that situation, her "hero" should have just killed herself.

As it was, IIRC she did everything possible to kill her companions.

While some might like this story and I'm not claiming they are wrong to do so, this story (and I read the short version first) turned me off on Russ.

Of course, Your Milage May Vary applies here.
Tucker McKinnon
43. jazzfish
DrakBibliophile @ 42: the protag only started trying to kill her companions when they began interfering with her right to live or die as she pleased, and she tried all manner of non-lethal remedies first.

Also, "short version" ?

JohnArkansawyer @ 38: If he's decreeing what's art and what isn't he may have been referring to Nathan Adler http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1.OUTSIDE ] ... this was originally going to be a flip aside, but now I'm starting to suspect there may be some truth to it. *sigh*
Cmm
44. James Davis Nicoll
When, in the real world, 95 percent of all commercial airline crashes are one hundred percent fatal

I meant to question this earlier: is this actually the case or is it the sort of rhetoric that undermines the argument being made by attracting small-minded nitpickery from people like me? 30 seconds of googling followed by no attempt at all to check the numbers came across an assertion that between "1983 and 2000, more than 95 percent of people involved in U.S. plane crashes survived." Granted, SRD was writing earlier in a nearly forgoten time when technology was backwards and life cheap but I have to wonder if he is overstating the case here.

1: Also the article in question seems to indicate my usual seat, row (19 to 21), seat A, actually isn't particularly good for my survival odds. Happily I plan on using the same method my father used to survive the Tenerife disaster (2) and that is not dependent on seating.

2: Not being on the plane in question when it crashes. He was scheduled to be on Pan Am Flight 1736 but then was forced to switch for some reason. He was actually a pretty hard guy to kill; it only worked the one time.
Cmm
45. N. Mamatas
My random guess is that many plane crashes are not commercial airliner crashes, but little prop plane crack-ups.
Liz Bourke
46. hawkwing-lb
We Who Are About to... is the only one of Russ's books I've read, and, well. I agree with this post on all levels, me.

(I'm halfway through The Female Man, and have hopes of finishing it someday, out of a sense of duty to it as a book which was ground-breaking when it first appeared... but I can't find it either easy or ground-breaking to read right now - but I digress.)

We Who Are About to... hit me like a sucker-punch the first time I read it, though. It's so absolutely crystalline in its use of language, and in the narrator's defence of her right to die with dignity. Added to the fact that it turned all my expectations of a 'crashed spaceship' story on their head, I have to agree that for what it is, it's perfect. It's strangely pure in its attitude to death - I'm not sure that's quite the right word, but it'll do - particularly in that final third.

Almost compassionate, in a brutal and remorseless way. This is how society breaks down; these are the ways people rationalise away the inevitability of their extinction; and if all that's ahead of you is suffering and humiliation, you can still defend your right to die in the manner of your choosing.

I'm not intending to read it again any time soon. But it is a beautifully crafted painful treasure of a piece of art, I think.
Brit Mandelo
47. BritMandelo
@James Davis Nicoll

Hm - wonder what the statistics were when this was written? (Also, Mamatas has a point - there are a lot of tiny plane crashes without much fatality.)

@hawkwing-lb

So many of her books strike me this way - beautiful, but hard, emotionally, to read.
Cmm
48. David Auerbach
I am always happy to see this amazing, utterly uncompromising book get more attention. It's worth emphasizing that the narrator's religious fundamentalism is very important to the story, as well as something that makes the whole book even more difficult to take.

The style itself is amazing. A characteristic passage: “You know it was self-defense!…I mean, running into the brush yelling Colonize, Colonize, and all that. They were going to force me to have babies. I was going to be tied to a tree and raped, for goodness’ sake. It was a mass-delusional system…and anybody who doesn’t agree has to be shut up somehow because it’s too terrifying. So I ran away, but they wouldn’t let it be; they came back after me to drag me back into that insanity and I killed them; I had to.”

Matthew Cheney has written on it as well as a book that really alienated him. My thoughts are here: http://www.waggish.org/2006/joanna-russ-we-who-are-about-to-die/
Cmm
49. Raskolnikov
Great review. I read We Who Are About To.. last year and loved it, I found it the most powerful of Russ' works. Particular kudos to the reviewer in pointing up the beauty of the writing, it's about the last thing one would expect from a plot description, but it makes it a very compelling experience.

One other point that was alluded to is how well the pessimism and feminist narrative works to deepen it as a science fiction--it's not a case of didactic intrusion on the SFnal scenario, which is one of the stock claims made to dismiss feminist literature as an intrusion. Instead it deepens it, beyond all else the book is a lot more honest about the technical details of this setup and effective in capturing the sense of scale of interplanetary travel than most of the genre.

Length-wise the book also strikes me as fitting into a neat form of niche, longer than the general novella, shorter than almost all novels. That works for this piece very well, since there's an inherent upper limit for length given the stark non-survival at the center. At the same time, while one can imagine this basic story told in short fiction form, it wouldn't have nearly the same reach, complexity or (IMO) emotional power. Are there any other widely acclaimed SF works of about this length? From what I recall offhand Russ herself usually went shorter or longer.
John Adams
50. JohnArkansawyer
Raskolnikov @ 49:

Are there any other widely acclaimed SF works of about this length?


Double Star? The Big Time? Both Hugo winners, both favorites of mine.
Paul Howard
51. DrakBibliophile
jazzfish, I read it in Galaxy but I may not have gotten the whole thing. The last part I remember was the "hero" going off into the wilderness with a child after killing the others.

I will say that my memory of it was that she was a druggie not that she had valid reasons for her drug use.

Mind you, I think Russ was "heavy-handed" about her theme that such a colonization effort would always be a failure.

Her message might have been better done if all the characters worked together and they still died. A sad story but not as depressing as what she did write.

Her main character was IMO just as "pig-headed" as her "villians. Nobody in that story was somebody I could care about "what happens to them".
Pamela Adams
52. Pam Adams
Brit,

I wanted to say thanks for your having decided to start this series of re-reads. Russ's work may not always be fun to read (excepting Alyx), but it's important and requires me to think- s0mething a lot of my fiction choices don't do- at least not at this level.
Brit Mandelo
53. BritMandelo
@Pam Adams

That's exactly why I wanted to do these posts - plenty of books are good, plenty are great, but very few can make me think and upset me like Russ's.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment