We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Bart
After finishing a book, I usually read up on other reviews and stuff before starting my own. There’s no use in repeating what others already have written. When I came across a review by L. Timmel Duchamp – an SF author herself – published in the February 2006 issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction, it quickly dawned on me it was no use of even starting the review I had in mind, as her text said about everything I wanted to say – references to Robinson Crusoe included – but better. It also opened up my understanding of the novel. Not that I had totally missed one of the political messages of the book, but I hadn’t perceived its full importance:
As I read it, the soliloquy not only allows the narrator to put herself – once a “Neochristian” – on trial for murder, but also explores enough of her history to make it possible for the reader to understand her series of responses to the situation following the crash. Through the soliloquy we discover that the narrator’s despair is not so much existential as political in the most fundamental sense of the word. At the time of the crash, the narrator was in full flight from a life of political activism and idealism that had smashed on the rocks of discursive politics. As part of a burgeoning movement of dissent, she learned the painful lesson of who may speak in a polis controlled by vast political and financial machinery (which these days we generally name “global capitalism”).
The main gist of what I want to say is that We Who Are About To… is a lot more than a feminist novel. Framing the novel only as such – an easy mistake as Russ is the author of the better known The Female Man, and maybe even more importantly as identity politics is important in today’s discourse on culture – does the novel a tremendous disservice. Not that its feminist stance is not important, on the contrary, and well-done at that. But I’ll refrain from elaborating further, and urge you to read the entirety of Duchamp’s take – if you’ve read the book already that is, as the first experience of this book suffers badly if you’ve had too many spoilers.
What’s left for me to say? I thought maybe of writing a text on how the unnamed protagonist of this book is a kind of opposite to the childbearing character in PD James’s Children Of Men, but doing so would also focus on the feminist side of the novel, and that wouldn’t be in sync with what I wrote above.
For that same reason I’ll refrain from elaborate comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that’s about forced pregnancies as well. Atwood’s book is 10 years younger, but it’s a lot less radical in conception. More importantly: as a social analysis, it is also a lot less believable.
Then Lord Of The Flies popped into my head, and sure, there are parallels aplenty, if you just look at what Wikipedia has to say about Golding’s themes:
At an allegorical level, the central theme is the conflicting human impulses toward civilization and social organization—living by rules, peacefully and in harmony—and toward the will to power. Themes include the tension between groupthink and individuality, between rational and emotional reactions, and between morality and immorality.
What’s maybe left underdeveloped in Duchamp’s review, is the existential, philosophical aspect of We Who Are About To… Not that I have a lot to say about that either, just that at certain times the main character seems to live out her life simply being – and explicitly referring to Eastern modes of thinking: acceptance, the works, including Tao – yes, Tao, again. I think it’s one of the important themes in the book, and I could quote a few bits here and there, but ultimately it would be like reading a rehash of stuff you’ve already read on all those millennial lifestyle blogs – I know they didn’t exist in the 1970s, but hey, what kind of reader of speculative literature would you be if you’d object to a bad time-travel paradox?
There’s one final thing I want to highlight, and that’s Russ’s visionary power. Certain aspects of male chauvinist psychology are brilliantly evoked in the following passage, and without a lot of words Russ nails a part of the reason why movements opposing the importance of identity politics have gained so much traction recently.
Alan looks happy. I mean it: not triumphant, not overbearing, simply happy. He glows. The twenty-first century can’t have been kind to this enormous fellow, and now he’s discovering other interesting things to do: chopping down trees, lifting rock with his bare hands, fighting, knocking down women. Too bad he’s so young…
It might read like caricature, but I’m quite sure it isn’t. The increased empathy of the last couple of decades indeed hasn’t been kind to the mindset of those people that reserve their moral concern for a circle that’s less expanded than the circles of the progressive discourse that was dominant before Trump got elected.
I guess I’m only left with a quick assessment. The prose is snappy and confident. Russ shows keen psychological insight more than a few times. As far as plot and structure goes her choices are awesome: this book is not what you think it will be when you start reading it with only the feminist-planet-crash blurb in mind. Russ made some radical decisions, and it’s best those aren’t spoiled.
In short, We Are About To… is a brave book, not an easy, generic read. It’s definitely recommended for fans of vintage scifi that do not mind their stuff a bit different.
This review originally appeared on Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It.