The Adventures of Alyx, Joanna Russ (1968)
Review by Niall Harrison
If, like me before I read it, the only things you know about The Adventures of Alyx (originally published as Picnic on Paradise) are that it’s Joanna Russ’s response to heroic fantasy, and one of the canonical examples (along with CL Moore’s Jirel of Joiry) of introducing a female character into a role perceived (or at least assumed to be perceived) as basically male, what do you expect? I think I expected Xena, or Kitiara; what I found is conspicuously different, and rather elegantly set up. Although the world in which Alyx operates is still, in many ways, hostile to women, the world’s creation myth, in which women were created before men, and men were created from an extraneous body part, creates a space for a hero like Alyx to exist. But more than that, it seems to me that thinking about Alyx as a woman is a red herring. What really differentiates Alyx from the other protagonists I’ve been talking about — at least when reading these stories in 2008 — is not her sex, but her character. Unlike Fafhrd, Alyx is not callow; unlike Elric, there is no doubt Alyx is a hero: tough, smart, practical, competent, brave. (And, notably, explicitly not conventionally beautiful, unlike most contemporary tough, smart, etc, female leads.) And unlike Scafloc, her heroism is not doomed; she wins, convincingly, every time. Nor does she suffer much internal anguish in these tales. In short, unlike her male counterparts, Alyx is not only someone you can root for, but someone you might actually be able to stand being.
The Adventures of Alyx collects four short stories and one short novel, all but one of which revolve around Alyx in the way that the Elric stories revolve around Elric — though it’s worth noting that they are tidily-structured short stories, rather than the overstuffed mini-epics of the thin white duke – and none of which are as memorable as the character they showcase. The first tale (published in 1967; originally ‘The Adventuress’, and here ‘Bluestocking’), establishes Alyx as a “pick-lock” and general adventurer-for-hire, although — again, a difference to the men — not an heir to a kingdom, or a noble line. The descriptions of her are in many ways simply descriptions of an average 30-year-old working woman. She is short, with gray eyes, black hair, and freckles. She has an intellectual bent, but has found that her chosen profession “gratified her sense of subtlety” (p 9). Not that she’s unambitious; she has visions of becoming a Destiny, although what that means is never completely clear. The plot that Russ constructs for her seems inadequate. Ostensibly, it involves Alyx recruited to escort a young lady (never referred to as a girl, though she is only 17 and acts, at least to start with, like a spoiled brat) who wishes to run away from an arranged marriage to a rich boor whose previous wives, the narrator heavily insinuates, died in dubious circumstances; in practice, it’s a story that exists primarily to provide a series of trials which Alyx can overcome, demonstrating her toughness, smarts, practicality, competence and bravery in the process. It is not, in other words, a particularly high-stakes story — a distinguishing factor that persists throughout the book; the fate of the world is never in the balance — and nor is it particularly spectacular. An encounter with a sea-monster is typical:
Then she saw the sea monster.
Opinion concerning sea monsters varies in Ourdh and the surrounding hills, the citizens holding monsters to be the souls of the wicked dead forever ranging the pastureless waves of the ocean to waylay the living and force them into watery graves, and the hill people scouting this blasphemous view and maintaining that sea monsters are legitimate creations of the great god Yp, sent to murder travelers as an illustration of the majesty, the might, and the unpredictability of that most inexplicable of deities. But the end result is the same. Alyx had seen the bulbous face and coarse whiskers of the creature in a drawing hanging in the Silver Eel on the waterfront of Ourdh (the original — stuffed — had been stolen in some prehistoric time, according to the proprietor), and she had shuddered. She had thought, Perhaps it is just an animal, but even so it was not pleasant. Now in the moonlight that turned the ocean to a ball of silver waters in the midst of which bobbed the tiny ship, very very far from anyone or anything, she saw the surface part in a rain of sparkling drops and the huge, wicked, twisted face of the creature, so like and unlike a man’s, rise like a shadowy demon from the dark, bright water. It held its baby to its breast, a nauseating parody of human-kind. (p 16-7)
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is bad, even if some of the tricks used (an extremely long sentence followed directly by a short, abrupt one, for instance) crop up a bit too frequently throughout the book. But it’s not exciting. First, the forward action of the scene is paused to tell us some stuff about what is believed about sea monsters; and most of the description is vague generalities — “huge, wicked, twisted”. Although we’re told that final image, of a distorted tableau of motherhood, is “nauseating”, the emotion isn’t evoked in us, particularly, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the image is more important for its symbolic qualities, particularly when Alyx goes on to kill it in short order.
This is not to say that Anderson and Moorcock’s stories were lacking in symbolism — hardly — but that I think Russ’s goals are somewhat different than theirs. What The Adventures of Alyx has going for it, largely, is voice. I’ve already mentioned the alternate mythology, and the narrator of ‘Bluestocking’ clearly takes some fun in poking at conventional roles, such as the (I presume) heavily ironic comments that Alyx is “among the wisest of a sex that is surpassingly wise”, and that women’s “natural weapons” are “deceit, surprise and speed” (p 19). But there is also a laconic, even mocking element to the voice — and the story construction; although lip service is paid to the idea of Alyx’s charge, Edarra, growing up during their journey together, in fact what happens is that the major part of the journey is elided, and Edarra is suddenly and magically grown up, almost between paragraphs — and a sense that the tone has been chosen not to create a world out of whole cloth, but to subvert one (ours). It’s at odds with the innocent expectation of belief that marks The Broken Sword and the Elric stories, and makes for businesslike, even brusque storytelling.
Russ is also far more impatient even than Moorcock with the boundaries of the type of story she is telling. ‘Bluestocking’, with its nod to Fritz Leiber and all, is actually the only story in the book that could be called straightforward heroic fantasy. Tale two, ‘I Thought She Was Afeard Till She Stroked My Beard’ (also 1967, original title ‘I Gave Her Sack and Sherry’), is an origin story for Alyx that doesn’t mention her by name until the final page — or looked at another way, until Alyx chooses to claim her name. Before then, she is an oppressed wife who escapes from (and, not incidentally, kills) her abusive husband before going out to make her way in the world and train as a fighter. Although she travels for a while with a captain called Blackbeard, and learns some things from him, the narrative is careful to insist that at no time does she need him. ‘The Barbarian’ (1968) looks at first like a return to the format of ‘Bluestocking’. Alyx is approached by a fat man who patronisingly claims to know a lot about her — “‘And now,’ (he pronounced the ‘now’ with peculiar relish) ‘you are getting old […] You’re thinking of settling down’” (p 50) — and who wishes to recruit her to assist him with a series of break-ins. We can tell he’s a bad guy because he’s stupid (the defects of those Russ wishes us to dislike are usually framed as a kind of stupidity, and in this case we are explicitly told his stupidity offends Alyx) and sure enough, on one break-in he tells Alyx to kill a baby, on the grounds that he claims to know she will grow up to be a cruel queen. Alyx refuses — although as much on the grounds that the man should do his own dirty work as anything else; her first reaction is not “no!” but “What on earth for?” — and subsequently tracks the man to his lair, where it is revealed, for anyone who doubted it, that he is a time-traveller, given to tinkering with history. “My hobby is world-making” (p 63), he says to Alyx, who kills him, and then smashes his machines.
And ‘Picnic on Paradise’, originally published in 1968 as Russ’s first novel, appears to be even more straightforwardly science-fictional. It picks up on the time-travel theme, revealing that Alyx has been brought forward 4,000 years in a sort of temporal archaeology accident, and recruited as an Agent. As the novel opens she’s been dispatched to the planet Paradise, a popular tourist destination caught in a “commercial war”. In an echo of the plot of ‘Bluestocking’, she’s recruited to escort a group of civilians, of varying degrees of uselessness, from A to B — quite literally, from station A to station B, in an example of Russ’s dry humour. Of course, B turns out to have been destroyed when they get there, necessitating a longer and increasingly dangerous journey through cold, mountainous, treacherous terrain to the next-nearest station, at the planet’s pole. In other words, it’s the sort of story that could comfortably be told in a fantasy setting (indeed, the level of sfnal invention on display, with humans having interbred sufficiently so that everyone is a pleasing shade of light brown, and treatments such as “Re-Juve” on offer, is in all honesty not far above what you’ll get in a middling episode of Doctor Who), which perhaps is intended as a comment on the separability (or not) of the two genres. You could even argue that the imposition of the mission on Alyx from higher up the chain of command is The Adventure of Alyx‘s equivalent of the sort of godgames that make Scafloc and Elric’s lives so miserable.
In some ways, ‘Picnic on Paradise’ is not actually very good. For an adventure story it’s baggy, featuring a crowded party of sketchily-differentiated characters, and perhaps a little too much commitment to conveying the mind-numbing tedium that polar expeditions probably come with in real life. Predictably, members of Alyx’s group start falling by the wayside one by one, and equally predictably Alyx grows from being more than a little frustrated with her charges, thinking of herself as a teacher saddled with a class of small children, to considering them to be “her people”. Somewhat to my surprise, I found the most interesting element of the novel to be the relationship that develops between Alyx and one of the male civilians, known as “Machine” and initially introduced as “an idiotic adolescent rebel” (p 74) – and not just for the contrast it presents to the relationships in the other books. ‘Bluestocking’ (very weirdly) ends with Alyx and Edarra finding some men, and the one that Alyx pairs off with may be the new husband we get a glimpse of at the end of ‘The Barbarian’; but of the nuts and bolts of Alyx in a relationship, this is our only sight. Like Scafloc and Elric, she is older than her partner; unlike them, thankfully, there is no suggestion that her attraction to Machine stems from his youth per se, although they do start calling each other “dear” and “darling” with alarming speed, and it’s not actually entirely clear what the attraction does stem from, other than, perhaps, the fact that he’s the only not-entirely-obnoxious, vaguely competent man within several hundred miles. But the scenes of them together are largely thorny and convincing. This is particularly true when Russ is dealing with the collision between Machine’s serious attitude to sex — who has what can only be described as a mechanical dedication to making sure his partner enjoys herself — and Alyx’s rather more passion-led approach. Interestingly, in this Russ positions Alyx as the child: “When you do something, you do it right, don’t you?” asks Machine, trying to explain his approach, to which Alyx promptly says “No,” before explaining that the only reason to do it is “because you want to”, as “any five-year-old child” should know. It’s an interesting exchange, because Alyx’s temper frequently gets the best of her elsewhere in these stories — not always, in fact rarely, for the worst, but not entirely admirably, either.
The collection’s final story, ‘The Second Inquisition’ (1970) changes setting, tone and style yet again — in the process making clear exactly how much control Russ has over those elements of her writing — relocating to 1925, and the narrative of a young woman still living with her parents. She describes an unusually confident visitor who is staying with them, who seems fairly clearly to be one of the tall, indefinably mixed-race people of ‘Picnic on Paradise’s time, and who sure enough turns out to be a time traveller, one of a number of agents trained by Alyx and engaged in a temporal conflict. It’s a story that picks up on one of the most moving exchanges in ‘Picnic in Paradise’, when Alyx is trying to convey to one of the civilians what the world she comes from is like, and what time travel feels like to her:
“Think of that, you thirty-three-year-old adolescent! Twenty-six and dead at fifty. Dead! There’s a whole world of people who live like that. We don’t eat the way you do, we don’t have whatever it is the doctors give you, we work like hell, we get sick, we lose arms or legs or eyes and nobody gives us new ones, we die in the plague, one-third of our babies die before they’re a year old and one time out of five the mother dies, too, in giving them birth.”
“But it’s so long ago!” wailed little Iris.
“Oh not it’s not,” said Alyx. “It’s right now. It’s going on right now. I lived in it and I came here. It’s in the next room. I was in that room and now I’m in this one. There are people still in that other room. They are living now. They are suffering now. And they always live and always suffer because everything keeps on happening. (p 127-8)
This works on several levels: it conveys the shock of transition which Alyx experienced, moving between times; it is metafictionally true, in that just before and just after this exchange we are indeed reading about the people in those other rooms; and of course it’s a reminder that geographical inequality in the real world, today, is as significant as the temporal inequality Alyx is describing. This last is, I think, reinforced by the collection’s overall trajectory from stories about a world that is remote and separate from ours, to stories about a world that is directly and intimately linked to us.
The first four Alyx stories all end with the same line, or a variation on it: “But that’s another story.” ‘The Second Inquisition’ ends with the narrator isolated, having witnessed extraordinary events and a glimpse of a world from which she is excluded, in favour of having to live in reality. “No more stories,” she says, echoing the finality of Stormbringer rather than the ongoing tapestry of The Broken Sword. The sadness of it contrasts with the upbeat expansiveness of all the other endings, but it works better. And there is a sense, too, that the stories say all that Russ wanted them to say. Others — Mary Gentle, Samuel Delany – may have found other routes into the same seams of ore, but I think Russ got the gold she wanted from this mine, and was ready to move on to others.
This review originally appeared on Torque Control.