We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1977)
Review by Cheryl Morgan
The classic science fiction story of the 1950’s tells how bold space travellers suffer misfortune out in the void but, through application of scientific skills and raw human courage, they triumph over adversity. Joanna Russ, who has built an entire career out of puncturing stupidity, could hardly let a target like that go begging. Thus her novel, We Who Are About To…, newly re-released by Wesleyan University Press. Samuel Delany, in his introduction to the new edition, explains the set-up far better than I could.
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 to provide twists in subsequent adventures.
The same, of course, could be said of Star Trek, except that the guys in the red suits often didn’t long survive the crash.
Of course there would not be much of a story if Russ’s space travellers had all been killed in the crash, so let us suppose that some sort of lifeboat system was available and that our heroes somehow manage to land safely on an inhabitable planet. Now all they have to do is survive. To do so they have to come to understand their environment, adapt to it, and most importantly conquer that terrible threat to survival, human nature.
Whereas the typical science fiction story will feature a cast made up of military and scientific types, all convinced of the virtues of order, disciple and cooperation, and possessed of exactly the combination of skills required to allow them to thrive in an alien environment, Russ postulates that her shipwrecked travellers are merely passengers. The crew has bravely gone down with the ship, frantically making last minute attempts to save it before something terminal happens to the engines. Those that are left are rather too used to having things done for them.
The majority of Russ’s characters start out exactly as you would expect from a traditional SF story. They make plans, they talk grandly of colonizing the planet on which they find themselves. They dream of rescue. Only the narrator of the story actually understands just how little they know, and how much trouble they are in. Her attempts to explain the hopelessness of their predicament to her fellow castaways merely get her marked down as a troublemaker who needs to be disciplined by the rapidly developing community.
Then the men sit down and decide that what the colony really needs is more hands. The only way to get that is for the women to have babies, and therefore the women must all agree to allow themselves to be made pregnant as quickly as possible, regardless of the potential risks in the absence of medical facilities, and whether they like it or not. Things go rapidly downhill from there.
No matter how you dress it up, We Who Are About To… is not a pleasant book. The narrator is not at all a nice person, and she very clearly cracks up under the strain of understanding the reality of her situation. Most of the other characters are fairly unpleasant too. And everyone comes to a bad but believable end. There is no happy ending, nor should there be one. It is a book that needed to be written, and Russ did a fine job of producing it. What is more she managed to say what needed to be said in a little over 100 pages. This is, I think, a book that all science fiction fans should read, just to encourage them to ask questions about other books. Once again, well done to Wesleyan for helping it stay in print.
This review originally appeared on Emerald City.