We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ

wewhoareWe Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1977)
Review by Joachim Boaz

We Who Are About To… is the third of Joanna Russ’ science fiction novels I’ve read over the past few years. For some reason I was unable gather the courage to review The Female Man and might have been too enthusiastic about And Chaos Died. We Who Are About To… is superior to both (although, not as historically important for the genre as The Female Man). This is in part because Russ refines her prose — it is vivid, scathing, and rather minimalist in comparison to her previous compositions — and creates the perfect hellish microcosm for her ruminations on the nature of history, societal expectation, memory, and death.

Highly recommended for fans of feminist + literary science fiction.

The classic situation: multi-dimensional explosion hurls a spaceship en route to a new colony onto a barren planet. Due to the nature of starship travel (folding space) there is zero chance of contacting others. Rescue is never a possibility. The unnamed narrator, a musicologist, leaves an audio diary — her words, recorded in secret almost every day, is the version of events we read.

Russ manipulates this common sci-fi scenario. None of the characters have survival skills. The planet contains no aliens or fascinating vistas. Rather, a human drama unfolds — a twisted, dark vision. Be warned, Russ does not conjure the Star Trek miracle syrup plot device à la ”different characters who initially don’t like each other learn to work together and conquer the problem and conjure a communication device that rescues them from the clutches of certain death”. The reader knows the end result from the first sentence of the first page.

Similarly to D G Compton’s brilliant Farewell, Earth’s Bliss, Russ’ varied cast is adeptly characterized from the very beginning. {The cast} The women: the narrator (a baroque musicologist, an activist past, neo-Christian leanings, a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals), Mrs Valeria Graham (a middle-aged wealthy woman who purchased her husband and daughter, wears an Indian sari), Nathalie (a soldier trainee who despises civilians), Cassie (an ordinary woman, the only one whom the narrator cares for), and Lori (Valeria’s twelve-year-old daughter, hypochondriac, serial music lover, doted upon). The men: Mr Graham (strong, manly, plastic surgery), Alan (attentive, careful, polite, flatterer, in love with Lori), and John Ude (professor of ideas, evasive, The Smile).

The narrator suffers an acute crisis upon crashing on the planet due to the fact that no one will ever find them and that no one will remember them — the pharmaceuticals are close at hand. Added to that, the planet is alien, the planet isn’t Earth: “To die on a dying Earth — I’d live, if only to weep” (p 27). Is there any point in waiting to die? The others discover her drugs and take them away, or at least some of them.

The others delude themselves with visions of colonization, utopian societies, the innocence of primitives: “Day two. It began. I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Everyone running around cheerily into the Upper Paleolithic. We’re going to build huts. We’re going to have a Village Fire that Lori Graham will tend because she is the Fire Virgin or something” (p21). Unfortunately, the gene pool of the survivors is too small to create a society. And, no one besides the narrator is too concerned with introducing children into the eventual horrors of life on the planet when the supplies and medications run out and they are forced to eat the potentially toxic plants. The visions of a proper society, a proper duty to propagate, are too ingrained in their minds — the women, viewed by the men as walking wombs, incubating the future… All the women besides the narrator decide to get impregnated — “John Ude was very tender and careful with his walking womb” (p59).

When it’s her turn, she drugs everyone and runs away… And when they wake up from their stupor they come looking for her. Her womb is prized.

“Next day, don’t know what day it is. Probably five. Who cares. If history were not fantasy, then one could ask to be remembered but history is fake and memories die when you do and only God (don’t believe it) remembers. History always rewritten. Nobody will find this anyway and they’ll have flippers so who cares” (p113)

The most powerful moments of the novel focus in on the painful isolation the narrator feels. Not only is she separated from Earth but her very words, recorded so diligently, will be read by no one. If a rescue party had the smallest chance of finding them long after their deaths then they would at the very least be a shred of history, a minute connection to others, but even that is impossible. The other survivors do not want to accept the inevitable and delude themselves with fantasies about creating a society even if it would doom their children to painful deaths. Their fantasies that do not accept the reality of the situation. The narrator wants to control the inevitable. And she takes matters into her own hands…

Russ’ prose tears into the heart of things.

“Cassie, Cassie, come out to play.

Come over for a chat.

I don’t mind if you’re rotting” (p133)

It is poetic and visceral and often, hilarious: ”Then [Lori, 12] added, without the slightest transition, ‘I like serial music. You know, the late twentieth-century stuff where it goes deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle for half an hour and then it goes doodle just once, and you could die with excitement’” (p52). For anyone who listens regularly to minimalist music… Well, I suspect you are laughing.

We Who Are About To… is the best I’ve read this year.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

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