The first Joanna Russ story I read was “When It Changed,” her famous account of a colonised planet where the men all died, and the women have found a new way of living. It touched a longing in me—except the partner I saw beside me, in a world free of gender roles, was my boyfriend. Later, I backtracked and enjoyed the “Alyx” adventures: stylish sword and sorcery, written in the Sixties, with a female protagonist. The fourth story, a slim novel called Picnic On Paradise, is a game-changer.
Alyx has been scooped out of S&S land (literally, scooped: snatched from an execution by drowning in the ancient Mediterranean by the mysterious Trans-Temp Miltiary Authority) and sent to the winter sports sector of a “resort planet,” where a group of tourists, stranded in a warzone, need to be couriered to an evacuation point. As the story opens she’s just arrived from TTMA HQ: through a Portal into a kind of Spaceport first-class lounge, all squirmy, eye-hurting mall-décor, and (to the eyes of this tough little Ancient Med sword-for-hire) bizarrely decorated, naked giants. The junior lieutenant in charge refuses to believe she’s the Trans Temp Agent. She convinces him by tying him in knots (weight and height don’t count against skill and daring, as Alyx is always happy to demonstrate), and strips off her shift in polite response to the tourists’ nakedness. Everyone’s horrified! “You have on your history,” explains the artist, Raydos, referring to her worn, scarred little body, “we’re not used to that.”