We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ

wewhoareWe Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Martin Wisse

We Who Are About To… is arguably Joanna Russ’ most famous and controversial novel after The Female Man. That novel became famous because of its outspoken feminism, still rare in science fiction at the time; if we’re honest, still somewhat rare today. We Who Are About To… committed a greater sin however, by attacking the optimistic, can do attitude of classic science fiction, the belief that any adversity can be overcome by man’s unique fighting spirit. It’s not just that the protagonist doesn’t win in the end; even Asimov the arch-optimist had written ‘Founding Father’ ten years earlier, a story in which four astronauts fight but fail to terraform a planet before it kills them. No, the real problem is that she rejects the choice out of hand and chooses not to fight, not even to try.

That of course went against the grain, with plenty of science fiction fans being outraged about it, if I can believe the contemporary fan publications. But We Who Are About To… is about more than just rejecting science fiction’s traditional morality, it’s also a novel about how die. Slightly over half way through the story the central conflict of whether or not to fight has already been resolved, in favour of not to. The rest of the story is all about how you die. This part of the book has received less attention than the first half.

The plot is simple. A small, mixed group of interstellar travellers crashland on an unexplored planet barely liveable, far away from civilisation. Their hopes of being picked up are almost nil. They have shelter in form of the lifeboat that has set them down and enough supplies, water and tools for several months. They’ve no idea if there’s life on the planet and whether or not they can eat it, or it can eat them. The outlook is bleak, but they are all determined to make a go for it. All, but one, our protagonist, who is the only one to realise that rebuilding civilisation is not on the cards and wants nothing to do with it.

She argues as such, but is overruled. Civilisation is going to be restored, which means the women will need to start populating the world and make babies. Our hero obviously doesn’t agree with this and fight backs, eventually escaping the camp and moving away somewhere where she can die in peace. In the end she ends up killing everybody when they won’t leave her alone, then dies herself.

Russ does load the dice a bit. The narrator herself is an elderly, slightly embittered, cynical, “difficult” no-nonsense woman, not dissimilar to some of Russ’ heroines from The Female Man. We see events only from her point of view and she has little sympathy for any of her fellow passengers, who all come across as nasty stereotypes one way or another. The successful business man and woman and their bratty daughter, the strong but dim ex-football player, the smug, status aware but intellectually stagnant professor, the blonde floozy, the bitter young woman who hates everybody. Almost from the start they are all hostile against her, the men all determined to play pioneer, the women, apart from her, content to go along with this. The others are more than happy to force the narrator into going along with their agenda, tying her to a tree and raping her if need be. It’s not subtly done, which somewhat lessens the impact, but sometimes you need a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

Once the narrator has escaped and killed her shipmates, not without some regrets, the story’s focus switches to how she deals with dying. She doesn’t commit suicide, just moves away from the lifeboat back to the cave where she hid before and stops eating. It takes time for her to die this way and she has long days to think about her life and to deal with any regrets she had about it, or about what she did to the other survivors. She hallucinates, but is never unaware that these are hallucinations, she gets weaker, slips away more and more and finally dies quietly: “well it’s time”.

This was the same way my wife died when she stopped treatment last year, well, without all the killing of course and how Russ described it was both familiar and emotional for me. She got the process right, the way in which it seems to drag out, then goes much more quickly than you expected, then suddenly the end is there. For me this was far more confrontational, far more powerful than the first half of the story.

I’m not sure in the end whether We Who Are About To… is actually a good novel, rather than a strident one. It was certainly a necessary one, a much needed kick in the pants to science fiction’s innate sense of human superiority.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

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Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh

Downbelow StationDownbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Review by Adam Whitehead

AD 2352. Humanity is divided into two factions, the Company which rules over Earth and the Sol system, and the Union, which rules over the outer colonies and worlds. In between are a narrow band of independent stations, nominally loyal to the Company but open to all traders and merchants. For years the Company and Union have been at war, but Earth’s appetite for conflict is dwindling. In the end they have withdrawn practical support for their offensive fleet under Captain Mazian, leaving him a rogue agent whose goals and loyalties are suspect.

Caught in the middle of these turbulent times is Pell Station, circling the planet Downbelow in the Tau Ceti system. The closest independent station to Earth, it is a logical place for refugees from the warzone to flee to, straining resources to the limit. The Konstantin family which controls Pell Station struggles against the competing demands of Mazian’s fleet, the refugees, the station’s existing complement and the Company, and must also guard against infiltration from the Union, whose vast resources are finally gaining the upper hand in the conflict.

Downbelow Station was originally published in 1981, winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel the following year. It seems to be regarded as the best entry-point for Cherryh’s Alliance-Union setting, a vast future history spanning centuries of mankind’s expansion into space and its division between different factions, and the various conflicts it faces. The setting encompasses several dozen novels published out of chronological order and divided into confusing sub-series, making it perhaps the serious SF counterpart to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld work in being slightly daunting for newcomers. Luckily, Downbelow Station makes a solid starting point for those interested in exploring the setting.

The novel’s setting is classic space opera. An opening prologue sets out the history of humanity’s expansion into space and the background of the Company Wars before we are dropped straight into the action, with the personnel of Pell Station, the mining settlement on Downbelow and the carrier Norway all struggling to handle the refugee crisis. Cherryh successfully gives the impression that this is an ongoing story and history, where we are simply dropping in to observe a crucial moment and are then pulled out again at the end. This process works quite well.

Overall, the book is solid, with some interesting characters who are drawn with depth, but where what is left unsaid about them (particularly Mazian, Mallory and Josh) is as important as what is. There’s also a nice inversion of cliché, with an initial figure who appears to be the typical bureaucratic buffoon is later revealed as a more intelligent and interesting character. There is also a fair amount of ruthlessness in the book, with major characters disposed of with little forewarning, but also a reasonable amount of humanity and warmth. Cherryh has a reputation for creating interesting alien races, and whilst the native ‘Downers’ of Downbelow are initially simplistic, they rapidly become better-drawn as the story proceeds as their full potential emerges, even if they’re not really all that ‘alien’.

On the minus side, after the initial burst of action accompanying the refugee fleet’s arrival, the novel takes a good 200 pages or so to fully work up to speed. During this period the book becomes bogged down in Cherryh’s sometimes odd prose and dialogue structures (terse, short sentences short on description are favoured throughout). The lack of description extends to the worldbuilding and even space combat. We are given very little information on what weapons the ships use in battles (mentions of chaff suggest missiles, but we are never told that for sure), whilst the economic structure of the merchant ships and the independent stations appears under-developed. Those used to the immense, Tolkien-in-space-style SF worldbuilding of modern SF authors like Peter F Hamilton and, to a lesser extent, Alastair Reynolds, may find the thinness of the setting somewhat unconvincing (at least at this early stage). In addition, Cherryh’s use of technology is somewhat inconsistent. None of the humans use implants, there are no AIs or robots, and everyone taps commands manually into computer consoles, yet at the same time there are also sophisticated memory-altering techniques and FTL drives.

Downbelow Station is ultimately a good novel and an intriguing introduction into what could be an interesting SF setting. However, it suffers from occasionally obtuse writing and some unconvincing worldbuilding, and it certainly isn’t better than The Claw of the Conciliator, The Many-Coloured Land and Little, Big – the books it trounced to win the Hugo.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.