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The Female Man, Joanna Russ

July 2, 2011

The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Ian J Simpson

Nature versus nature. An age old debate. Hugh Everett’s Many World Interpretation of quantum mechanics makes it a modern debate. Place the same person with the same genes and the same potentials in different environments with different societies and histories, and see how they develop.

In principle, a wonderful concept for a science fiction novel.

The Female Man is renowned for being a classic feminist work of science fiction. In the interest of disclosure, I am male. However, I wish to discuss this novel not as a feminist tract, but as a science fiction novel.

The plot synopsis is somewhat indescribable. Briefly, there are 4 protagonists; Joanne, Janet, Jeannine and Jael, and they all exist in various alternate histories.

Jeannine is a romantic librarian from a place where the Great Depression continued for many years. She exists for marriage; it will make her complete. Joanna’s home is the most similar to our home. It is the 1970s and she is a funny and intelligent feminist. She has chosen a male gender role in society; hence referring to herself as a female man. Janet is from the world of Whileaway, where men died out from a gender plague centuries ago. She is a peace keeper, other world emissary wife and mother of two. Alice Jael is a radical living in a world where the genders are at war and has brought the women together.

Given this, one might expect a radical piece of science fiction adventure, where women across the different realities join together in search of truth, harmony, justice and equality. What we get instead are a series of set pieces where the women move to a variety of situations where they show each other how they live and more importantly, how women live (and how they are treated by men when men are available). As with all good fiction, the characters are flawed and have motivations in diverse shades of ambiguity. They grow and learn and ultimately become better, or at least better informed, individuals. However, in contrast to most good science fiction, the plot is a side-show. The science fiction within this fiction is negligible at best. I don’t expect detailed information about how and why characters move across realities, or detailed back stories about how the plague affects only one gender, but if you are science fiction, then be science fiction. I read The Female Man in the hope of a great science fiction story, but I what I got was a lecture.

Which brings me nicely to the actual plot. I have nothing against the concept of plot-less fiction; indeed, I have a fondness for meta-fiction, the surreal or streams of consciousness. Naked Lunch is one of my favourite reads. I would compare this novel closely to the latter in terms of style. There are passages of opinion, imagined conversations, style changes and so on. Again, I have no issue with this. In fact, I welcome it. Some of the imagery and prose was very readable. Sometimes, unfortunately, it was unclear who was speaking, as perspectives regularly changed. Reading this book, however, felt like I was in a sermon, not a story. I felt disappointed at that. Sure, the characters move from situation to situation and overcome difficulties and there is coherence in the message as they learn more about each other and how they live. However, I just wasn’t entertained. Whatever the message or agenda, science fiction should be about good stories. And this isn’t one of them.

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