Extra(ordinary) People, Joanna Russ (1984)
Review by Nic Clarke
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Russ’ fiction is neither comfortable nor accessible reading. I recently started On Joanna Russ (2009), a volume of literary criticism edited by Farah Mendlesohn; three articles in, the word recurring most frequently seems to be ‘fierce’. Russ’ fiction is knotty, prickly, exhilarating, and it sometimes feels as if you need several brains just to take it all in. Every sentence is a challenge to your expectations as a reader. If these stories were striking (and they were) to a 1960s and 1970s audience unfamiliar with, and largely unprepared for, feminist narratives in their fantasy and science fiction, I find myself equally wrongfooted on encountering them in 2009 and 2010, albeit for different reasons. Rarely did these stories follow anything remotely like the course I thought they would.
Russ continually remakes the ground beneath your feet: evoking genre frameworks to play with and comment on them, hitting surprising emotional and thematic notes while skipping over whole chunks of plot and characterisation that, accustomed to a particular set of narrative strategies, I expected to see. Had it come from the pen of almost any other writer of sf/fantasy, the pivotal moment in the Hugo Award-winning ‘Souls’ (originally published 1982, and collected in Extra(Ordinary) People) – in which Viking raiders come to an abbey headed by the remarkable Abbess Radegunde – would have been the sack of the abbey. And, indeed, this is the pivotal moment; but we are not shown it, because the narrator (recalling, years later, his time in the abbey as the nosy but fondly regarded ‘Boy News’) is protected, both physically and emotionally, by Radegunde. Before he has even registered the violence breaking out, she conceals him with her body such that he is “almost suffocated” – and sees nothing.
What he shares with us, instead, is the increasingly tense build-up to the sacking, in which Radegunde – having greeted news of the Vikings’ arrival with the terse observation “‘God protects our souls, not our bodies’” – does her best to avert violence, and the lengthy, difficult aftermath, in which victims and attackers alike struggle to come to terms with what has happened, and Radegunde takes her own particular revenge on the Vikings. Radegunde plays expertly on the raiders’ shared customs and individual weakness, running verbal rings around them in an effort to persuade them to accept loot offered freely, rather than taken as pillage:
“Heed my counsel. Why play butcher when you can have treasure poured into your laps like kings, without work? And after that there will be as much again, when I lead you to the hidden place. An earl’s mountain of treasure. Think of it! And to give all this up for slaves, half of whom will get sick and die before you get them home – and will need to be fed if they are to be any good. Shame on you for bad advice-takers! Imagine what you will say to your wives and families: Here are a few miserable bolts of cloth with blood spots that won’t come out, here are some pearls and jewels smashed to powder in the fighting, here is a torn piece of embroidery which was whole before someone stepped on it in the battle.”
The narrator evidently enjoys the memory of her speeches, even though they are (in the immediate term) ineffective. Even the war band’s leader/spokesman, Thorvald, can only marvel (“‘If I sold you in Constantinople,’ he says, ‘within a year you would become Queen of the place!’”).
One possible reading of the story is that this is a woman who talks too much, and whose cleverness disturbs and alienates the Vikings, so that they eventually lose patience and carry out their attack. But what the narrator cannot quite hide, I think, is that the attack is an inevitability; the raiders are thrown, for a brief while, by the tenacity and quick wits of Radegunde, but ultimately they have come for violence – and they have the weapons. Words are not enough to make them feel the consequences of what they do.
Or at any rate, not the amiable, twinkly-eyed, slightly mocking words of the first half of the story. In the aftermath, surrounded by women left crippled and maddened, Radegunde sheds her folksiness and becomes fierce – especially when one or two of the warriors show signs of wanting absolution. Initially, her anger is expressed in terms of the culture she is in:
“All that child wants is someone more powerful than your Odin god or your Thor god to pull him out of the next scrape he gets into. [...] The Christ does not wipe out our sins only to have us commit them all over again and that is what he wants and what you all want, a God that gives and gives and gives, but God does not give; God takes and takes and takes. He takes away everything that is not God until there is nothing left but God, and none of you will understand that! There is no remission of sins; there is only change and Thorfinn must change before God will have him.”
Gradually, though, she sheds such references, too; and it becomes apparent that this isn’t the historical tale I thought it was, but something science fictional, and the whole meaning shifts. Because Radegunde isn’t the unlikely abbess she appeared to be, either – she has witnessed many, many more violent events than this one – and in her otherness she has an exquisite way of inflicting revenge. “‘I lent him my eyes, that is all’”, she tells the Boy News later: she inflicts upon Thorvald empathy, and thus makes him share her anger.
Of the other stories in the volume – which are (very) loosely linked by snippets of introductory dialogue that frame the stories as lessons presented to an unnamed child – I enjoyed the more lightweight ‘Everyday Depressions’ (original to this collection). It is framed as a series of scatter-brained and faintly unhinged letters from an author to her (surely long-suffering) editor, about a lesbian Gothic romance she is working on. It is, of course, all very meta – and (fiercely) funny – with commentary on structure, plotting, gender politics and sexual morality:
Lady M, having been the innocent instigator of the carnal behaviour, of course feels responsible for Miss B’s death. Sex, you see, is not only unspeakably evil in itself; it leads inevitably to SUICIDE.
‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ (1982), meanwhile, tackles gender even more strongly, focusing on two people – who, like Radegunde in ‘Souls’, seem to be either not human, or post-human – crossing the Atlantic in the late 19th century aboard the SS President Hayes. One (whose diary entries provide the narration) appears to be an adult male, the other a young girl, but from the exchanges between them it becomes apparent that both their ages and their genders are shaped to fit the environment in which they’re travelling, rather than a fixed or fundamental state for them. When a fellow passenger, a doctor, takes a shine to the narrator, farce ensues – but not without a note of sadness, for the limitations that the doctor’s society places on his experience of the world, by making him see only gender binaries, and everything else as a harmful deviation.
This review originally appeared on Eve’s Alexandria.