We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ
The first realistic novel in the English language is generally reckoned to be Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719. In the three hundred years since, stories of marooned travellers have proven very popular – so much so the term “Robinsonade” was coined to describe them. When science fiction came into being in the first decades of the twentieth century, the Robinsonade effortlessly colonised the new genre. Alien worlds replaced desert islands, but little else changed – except, of course, the tools at the marooned person’s disposal. Ingenuity, leading either to rescue or a more comfortable existence, was a perfect fit for sf. And for much of the genre’s history, the Robinsonade remained pretty much unchanged, with perhaps one or two exceptions – such as Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday, in which an astronaut marooned on Mars survives with the help of the local fauna.
But if there’s a common shape to Robinsonades, Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To… deliberately – perversely, even – subverts it. Because Russ is not interested in ingenuity in the face of adversity, or the perils hardy survivors must overcome, she’s interested in the group dynamics which come into play when a group of people find themselves shipwrecked. Especially a group containing both men and women…
A group of five women and three men crash-land on an uninhabited planet – although it does handily possess a survival shelter which they can use until rescued. However, it’s not entirely clear when they will be rescued, and the narrator – the novel is framed as an audio diary by one of the marooned women – is doubtful they will ever be found. She is also doubtful they will survive very long, even though the planet seems relatively benign. For a start, they’re not entirely sure they can eat any of the local flora, and they only have supplies for about five weeks…
None of the group have useful skills: there’s a bureaucrat, a couple of academics, a retired couple and their young teen daughter, and a young man and a young woman… But the one thing they all do possess is opinions. And they’re not afraid to share them with the rest of the group. The three men want to start a colony, and so insist the women must consent to become breeding chattel. They even set up a kangaroo court to try and add legitimacy to this decision. The narrator, however, is having none of this. She disagrees with every suggestion because she doesn’t see the point of it. Unsurprisingly, this brings her into conflict with the rest of the group – not just the men, but also a couple of the women who have aligned themselves with the men. She tries running away, but they find her. So she escalates the conflict, kills the others one by one, but eventually succumbs to hunger herself.
There’s nothing in We Who Are About To…, other than the initial set-up, which remotely maps onto a Robinsonade. This is a novel driven by despair, not hope. The narrator is realistic enough to realise the chance of rescue is not just slim but non-existent, which means that any strategies for extending the survivors’ lives are pointless. This is an alien world, its habitability is an illusion… And though the narrator repeatedly points this out, she is ignored. This is clearly because the long-term viability of the group is less important to some of its members than the opportunity to wield power over the others – cf the kangaroo court mentioned earlier – especially the men over the women. And there’s a clear sense of entitlement from the male characters, as if the women’s biology gives the men leave to take control… It works in their favour that the narrator is a person they can easily turn the rest against – not only is she female, she is also outspoken, cynical, has an occupation the others do no understand (she’s a musicologist), proves to possess a useful pharmacopoeia she refuses to share, and is revealed to be a member of a religious group considered irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst.
Russ had a distinctive voice and it’s present in We Who Are About To… just as much as it is in her other works. Framing the novel as an audio-diary makes a strength of that voice. Because this is not a cheerful novel, it is an angry novel – told by someone who has good cause to be angry. We Who Are About To… is an important science fiction novel, but, as seems to be the case for many sf novels of the 1970s and many sf novels by women writers, it does not have half the reputation it deserves. Currently, only the 2010 Wesleyan University Press edition is in print. Let’s have less of Robert Heinlein’s unpublished manuscripts in print, please, and more of these overlooked, perhaps even deliberately forgotten, important sf novels by women back in book shops – with the logo of a major imprint on their spine, of course. In fact, doesn’t We Who Are About To… belong in the SF Masterwork series?