This is the first of the “Reading Joanna Russ” posts that will be a two-parter. The first part will be up today, the second tomorrow.
The next book in Russ’s oeuvre is the collection of short fiction Extra(ordinary) People, originally published in 1984 by St. Martin’s Press with a reprint following in 1985 by The Women’s Press. It has since gone out of print and remained so, like her other short fiction collections. Extra(ordinary) People contains only five stories, the majority of which are novelette to novella length, including the Hugo-winning (in 1983) “Souls.” Three of the stories are reprints, all published in the early ’80s, and two are new to the collection. There’s also an overlying frame narrative strung between the lot.
The book opens with an epigram from Alice Sheldon: “‘I began thinking of you as pnongl. People’ [said the alien] ‘it’s dreadful, you think a place is just wild and then there’re people—'” It’s a strange sentiment to open the book with, one I admit I haven’t quite parsed completely in relation to the stories contained within, which are for the most part concerned with identities as masks, or masks as identities, or some variation on the nature of performativity. It seems to have something pointed to say about perception and Othering, the unexpected incursion of real people into a landscape that “should” be without them; in relation to that, the issues of performativity, society, and the perception of identity in the book are destabilized somewhat.
The epigrams continue through the volume; each story has at least one, some two. Like the introductory quote, they are rarely a direct commentary. The connections are instead oblique in a manner that reveals more about the thematic content of the story itself, instead of the immediately obvious (excepting the epigrams of “Everyday Depressions,” which are about writing, as is the story, in a way that seems perfectly clear). The other unifying feature of these stories that makes Extra(ordinary) People a more cohesive and linear volume than The Zanzibar Cat is the frame narrative strung lightly between them: it is of a young person being taught about history by a robot tutor, who is using these stories as anecdotes, and the young person asking if that was how the world was saved, each time. The stories, which would otherwise seem unrelated except in their remarkably similar thematic content, are therefore made undeniably related as products of the tutor as storyteller—and recursively, Russ as storyteller, implying that there is a purpose behind the organization and choices of fiction contained in this volume.
But aside from all of the concerns about how the stories fit together and what they’re saying: Extra(ordinary) People is my favorite of Russ’s collections, a forceful, beautiful, astounding book that leaves me low on words to compensate for how I respond to it. I will try my best, though, and make an attempt at analyzing what all of these stories are saying, doing; how they are brilliant; and why I love them. Russ’s short fiction is nearly always great, but the stories in Extra(ordinary) People—and the ways they work together—are a tour de force.
The five stories in Extra(ordinary) People are “Souls,” “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman,” “Bodies,” What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?,” and “Everyday Depressions.” Three of those deal expressly with gender performance and the gendering of bodies, while the other two deal with identity and masks, as well as sexuality/gender—performativity is all over the place in this collection, in every story, the shadow behind the proverbial thematic curtain.
“Souls” was the winner of the 1983 Hugo for Best Novella; it’s historical sf revolving around “the Abbess Radegunde and what happened when the Norsemen came.” The tale is told to us by the man who was her young assistant and companion at the time, from a temporal position well past the events. On the surface, “Souls” is a multifarious story of interpersonal relationships, violence, social control, and survival—but then you hit the end, and it all coalesces into a story about an alien (“angel”) left here on Earth without her people and the way she (though the pronoun usage here is not entirely accurate) makes do among a set of beings who are, truly, lesser.
“Deprived of other Banquet/I entertained Myself—, by Emily Dickinson”, the story opens. That epigram, when read at the beginning, seems unconnected to the story initially—read again, after the ending, it’s absolutely perfect. The symmetry is breath-taking. Entertaining herself in the absence of other banquet was exactly what the kindly Abbess Radegunde, who was not Radegunde, did. The performance of this identity as a way to pass the time had grown so personal that it takes the arrival of the Norsemen, and their attack on the abbey, to shake her loose of it and open the doors of her mind again. The mask had become the player; the player had lost her self to the mask—until it became necessary to cast it off.
The casting-off process and the slow change of Radegunde’s personality are deftly handled. She has become unrecognizable by the end to the reader who had spent much of the story appreciating her kindness, her generosity, her gently heretical interaction with the religion she was a teacher of, and her immense personal capacity for reading and understanding others. At the last, she is not that person anymore; the mask has fallen away. She is instead disconnected, disaffected, and to a great extent capriciously cruel; her adaptations to pass in the society she had lived in have been discarded, making her as alien to the narrator as she is to the reader.
And it’s a mark of Russ’s skill that we never lose compassion and appreciation for Radegunde, even when it is tempered with incomprehension and not a little fear through the eyes of the narrator. The slip from sympathetic to vastly alien in a character’s presentation can be jarring—Russ makes it inevitable, and acceptable, and even, possibly, beautiful.
“Souls” is about performance, and about masks, and about what makes us human. It’s also about violence, gender, religion, and history, to name a few other bits. It would take an essay of four times this length to deconstruct and evaluate all of the tasks “Souls” performs at once, all of its commentaries and oblique references and manipulations of the reader. It is, truly, a novel packed into a novella. (Plus, the brilliance with which the told-tale format works in “Souls” is envy-inducing, it’s so well-executed.) I recall reading somewhere that “Souls” was not one of Russ’s favorites of her own work, but I found it stunning. The prose is what I have come to expect from her—precise to the point of being scalpel-sharp; not a wasted word, inflection, or implication anywhere.
The linking page between “Souls” and “Mystery of the Young Gentleman” has the child asking if the telepathic aliens saved the world, and the tutor scoffing that of course not, “they went away in the twelfth century A. D. on business of their own and never came back.” (61) Then, the tutor introduces the next story by saying that here may have been some remaining telepathic contagion, because
And then comes one of my favorite Russ stories, “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman.” “Mystery” is before its time (1982) in that it is, really, a genderqueer story—the lead, who tells the tale, identifies as neither man nor woman, though they play both and more in the story because others cannot or will not read their identity correctly. They also engage with the “medical” definitions of queerness in a necessarily vicious, deconstructive way when manipulating the old doctor to keep him away from their secrets and their young charge. The narrator is not a nice person, perse, but they are willing to do what must be done to keep themselves and their young charge safe for the trip up into the mountains, where the rest of the telepathic society lives.
The complex and multifaceted engagement with the nature of gender performance, identity, and sexuality in “Mystery” hearkens to Judith Butler’s ground-breaking books on performativity, Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter—but those books weren’t published until the ’90s. The insights into the nature of gender and the possibilities of genderqueer/agendered identities that “Mystery” revolves around—without special commentary saying “look at this!,” just presenting it as the way in which the lead defines themself—are genius. It’s also a fast-paced, adventurous, spy-story sort of tale that fits well with the pulp adventure novels the young woman is reading at the end of the story and through which the narrator forms our view of their narrative. There are card-sharks, performances of masculinity, careful manipulation of social expectations, the seduction and neutralization of the doctor as the narrator plays him for a fool who cannot grasp the truth about gender and attraction, the danger of being caught out as Other if the masks are not worn precisely and perfectly—it’s a pulse-pounding story.
And that last bit, that deserves some extra attention. The reason for the narrator’s manipulation of the doctor is that the masks have to be kept just right, and cannot be skewed, for the very real danger of their discovery as truly Other—telepathic—people. Instead, they must affect discovery as a “dangerous” queer man, preying on the medical definitions of male erotic desire and the doctor’s bumbling but still serious insistence on “fixing” them and publishing a case study. It’s not a real thing—the narrator is fully aware that that construction of male sexuality is nonsense—but the doctor believes it is, and so that is the mask to be worn. In the company of the card players, they play a heterosexual young man from out West. Only in the company of the young telepathic charge, who has yet to understand the significance of her difference and the narrator’s difference, do they present as genderqueer/agendered. The young woman doesn’t get it yet, though. “Her head, like all the others’, is full of los hombres y las mujeres as if it were a fact of nature [ ] If I say las hombres y los mujeres, as I once did and am tempted to do again, she will kick me.” (70-71)
Whether or not the narrator is female-bodied or assigned female at birth (some critical readers have insisted on gendering the narrator as a woman because of these shaky “facts,” despite the story’s clear proof otherwise), their identity is unarguably either genderqueer or agender and stable as such regardless of whatever masks must be worn for safety—for passing. The epigram to this story, from Jane Austen’s Henry and Eliza, is about a young woman trying to escape a prison fruitlessly for awhile before she perceives a “small saw and a ladder of ropes” (63) as a way out. At the end of it all, I take “Mystery” to be in many ways a story about the sometime-necessity of passing for survival, and that epigram seems to fit the reading. All of the masks the narrator wears and the manipulations and chicanery they undertake are for their own safety, and the safety of the young woman in their charge. Sometimes, you just have to pass, and do it as best as you can—before you escape, and make it up into the mountains where you can be again.
It should also go without saying, of course, that Russ’s precision here is employed to avoid gendering pronouns with ease and skill—another reason I’m baffled by readers and critics who insist on gendering the narrator as female. This story was like a bolt of lightning, the first time I read it, when I considered the context of its publication and the year it was written. Russ was so often ahead of her time with the incisive truths in her stories—”The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’s” genderqueer narrator is a part of that tradition.
The frame tale then says that that wasn’t how the world was saved, because the telepathic minority died out without affecting the outside world much at all. However, a utopia was established eventually. That leads us to the next story of performativity and gender, “Bodies.” (And, the next post, tomorrow.)
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and occasional editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.