Extra(ordinary) People, Joanna Russ (1984)
Review by Ian Sales
Recent years have seen the works of Joanna Russ rightly reclaimed as classics of science fiction. During her heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s, she was very successful, garnering eight nominations for the Nebula Award and winning once, but earning only two nominations for the Hugo, one of which was a win. Her The Female Man (1975) has long been considered an important work – and is now in the SF Masterworks series – but much of her short fiction no longer seems so popular. This is a shame, as it is considerably better than that of many of her contemporaries, and large number of her stories have stood the test of time well. The five pieces of fiction in Extra(ordinary) People are excellent examples of this.
‘Souls’ (1982) was Russ’s only Hugo win. I read and reviewed it last year – see here – and on reread, the clues scattered throughout the text suggesting that the Abbess Radegunde is far from usual for the time the story is set not only seem more obvious… but also indicate she is almost non-human – reading at the age of two, for example. Then there’s the ease with which she addresses the raiding Vikings, even going so far as to crack a blue joke with them. But that unsettling sense that, despite the setting, Radegunde is a science-fictional creation still doesn’t help when it comes to deciphering what is really going on. It’s as if Russ deliberately offers an obvious reading of the strange figures in the wood – ie, aliens or time-travellers – but some of the foreshadowing doesn’t quite fit, and Radegunde’s subsequent revenge on Thorvald, the leader of the Vikings, undermines that assumption yet further:
“I cannot make long thy life – that gift is beyond me – but I give thee this: to the end of thy days, long or short, thou wilt know the Presence about thee always, as I do, and thou wilt know that it is neither good nor evil, as I do, and this knowing will trouble and frighten thee always, as it does me, and so about this one thing, as about many another, Thorvald Peacemaker will never have peace.” (p 54)
‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ (1982) was shortlisted for the Nebula. It first appeared in Speculations, an anthology in which the authors’ names were given in code, and needed to be deciphered to determine who had written which. It’s tempting to wonder if Russ’s story was considered easily identifiable. Certainly, like much of her short fiction, it requires work by the reader – there is a lot happening, but very little is explained. This is one of Russ’s strengths, and a reason why much of her fiction continues to be readable today. ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ is written in the form of a journal by the eponymous young gentleman, who is travelling from London to New York aboard the SS President Hayes. It is June 1885, and he is accompanied by a twelve-year-old Spanish girl, Maria-Dolores. Except the young gentleman is not a young gentleman, and nor is Maria-Dolores who she purports to be. When one of the passengers, whom the young gentleman describes in his diary as “Dr Bumble”, takes a fancy to young man, a fancy he cannot explain, he decides it is because the young gentleman is in fact a woman in disguise. Except…
“An actress? Half a head taller than yourself? Where in Europe, on what possible stage? And this business of dye for the skin – which doesn’t smell, won’t wash off, and can’t be detected even in the most intimate contact, not even by a medical man?” (p 87)
There are clues throughout ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ which indicate the young gentleman and Maria-Dolores could either or both be male or female, but the last page suggests their identities are not so easily categorised. Like ‘Souls’, ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ reads for much of its length like historical fiction, and only takes an unexpected swerve into genre in its final pages. And, also like ‘Souls’, it resists an easy reading, genre or otherwise. It has become one of my new favourite pieces of short fiction.
The narrator of ‘Bodies’ (1984) is a resurrectee in the distant future, and she is writing a letter to another such person. Both are from the twentieth century – James, the recipient of the letter, from London in 1930, and the letter writer from Portland in the 1970s – and they have been resurrected two thousand years later. And it’s a world neither can really understand – not that its inhabitants understand them either. For one thing, it’s hinted they have non-binary genders. The letter-writer is asking James for understanding, that he accept his new life and come to terms with it, but she’s also explaining that she’s lonely, that she too finds this future world strange and alienating and that she needs his company. Like the preceding two stories in this collection, ‘Bodies’ is a story which needs work by the reader, and while it suffers a little because its setting is not historical but an invented future and so prone to feeling dated, it does showcase the strong voice which characterises much of Russ’s fiction. This story is original to the collection.
‘What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?’ (1983) is another epistolary story, this time from a woman who has been sent undercover to a parallel Earth. In the world of the story, an infinite sequence of parallel realities have been discovered, where “the relation of cause to effect” varies by distance from the narrator’s “prime” Earth, called Ru 1.0. The narrator has been sent to Ru +0.892437521, which she has nicknamed Ruritania, disguised as a demon prince (ie, a male demon), called Ashmedai, in order to subtly steer local politics. Unfortunately, things don’t go quite according to plan – there’s a princess involved, of course – and then it transpires Ru 1.0 isn’t 1.0, after all. Again, Russ uses the letter format to put across the voice of her narrating character, and while it’s tempting to claim there’s a Russ “type” in protagonists, much as other sf authors of the same era relied on a handful of characters for their fictions, the narrator of ‘What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?’ and, say, ‘Bodies’, do possess a characteristic forthrightness. ‘What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?’ originally appeared in The Seattle Review.
‘Everyday Depressions’ (1984) is also original to Extra(ordinary) People and is structured as a series of witty letters by a writer to her editor in which she outlines the plot, and her thoughts regarding, a book she may or may not write. The novel will be a Gothic romance – there are numerous references to the literature of that time, such as Jane Austen’s novels – albeit between two women. There’s also a character called Alice Tiptree (obviously a reference to Alice Sheldon). In fact, the story is full of literary references and in-jokes and, while not at all genre, it makes a number of important points about gender politics and sexuality.
Between 1959 and 1996, Joanna Russ wrote fifty-six pieces of short fiction, and yet only three collections of her fiction have to date been published. There’s no denying the impact Russ had on the genre, nor the quality of her writing – which strikes me as more than reason enough for a volume of her collected short fiction. Recently, Ursula K Le Guin has had a two-volume collection of short stories published, there are plenty of male sf authors with complete collections available; and yet it seems only in recent years has Russ’s career been given the attention it rightly deserves. For such an outspoken author, this seems… peculiar. Perhaps it was her message, perhaps too many people didn’t want to hear it. Whatever the reason, the time is clearly right for Russ to be represented by more than just The Female Man. And the proof of that is in Extra(ordinary) People just as much as it is in any other piece of Russ’s short fiction. ‘Souls’ is an award winner and an excellent novella; ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ immediately became one of my favourite pieces of short science fiction. Let’s have Russ’s short fiction back in print, please. She was very, very good at it, and the genre needs to celebrate its good writers – not the ones its readers remember fondly from when they were thirteen years old…