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Picnic on Paradise, Joanna Russ

January 16, 2015

picnicPicnic on Paradise, Joanna Russ (1968)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Joanna Russ’ first published novel Picnic on Paradise delightfully subverts traditional SF pulp adventure tropes. Although not as finely wrought as The Female Man, And Chaos Died, or her masterpiece We Who Are About To…, Picnic on Paradise is worthwhile for all fans of feminist SF and the more radical visions of the 60s.

Unfortunately, the metafictional implications/literary possibilities of the Alyx sequence of short stories and novels – of which Picnic on Paradise is part – are not realized until the publication of the short story ‘The Second Inquisition’ (1970).

She was a soft-spoken, dark-haired, small-boned woman, not even coming up to their shoulders, like a kind of dwarf or miniature – but that was normal enough for a Mediterranean Greek of nearly four millennia ago, before super-diets and hybridization from seventy colonized planets had turned all humanity (so she had been told) into Scandinavian giants. (p 1).

And so Alyx enters the fray… She’s a Trans-Temporal Agent, snatched from a near death situation and her difficult past (abusive relationship, realities of childbirth in the ancient world, et) in the time of the Phoenicians for a dangerous mission. The mission, extricate a series of “rich tourists” and nuns from a rare surface war on the planet Paradise from point A to point B. Unlike normal wars where the entire surface of a planet would be blasted into oblivion and re-terraformed by the winning side, Paradise is a tourist resort with little financial value other than its gorgeous mountains and vistas. But, there is a hitch: “no fires […] no weapons, no transportation, no automatic heating, no food processing, nothing airborne” (p 10) are allowed as they would be picked up on an infra-red spectrum at levels higher than the local wildlife. Weapons would narrow in and kill them on the spot.

Alyx, from the ancient city of Tyre, would have no problem trekking across the dangerous planet without modern necessities, but the inhabitants of this sterile, technologically dependent, rather coddled future would most likely die within days. Her survival skills and “sheer ignorance” of the modern world is the reason Alyx is assigned to the mission.

She has to contend with an intriguing and varied cast of individuals whose interactions with her and each other critique a range of social/cultural issues. First, there’s Maudey who is obsessed with plastic surgery: “You ought to have cosmetic surgery […] I’ve had it on my face and breasts. It’s ingenious. […] And you have to be careful dying eyebrows and eyelashes, although the genetic alterations are usually pretty stable. But they might spread, you know. Can you imagine having a blue forehead?’” (p 31).

And Maudey’s daughter Iris, who is the rebellious teenager desperate to escape her mother. The nuns are adherents to some vaguely defined Buddha inspired religion using sex and drugs to access the religious experience. Gunnar, an amateur explorer, initially challenges Alyx doubting the diminutive woman has the requisite skills necessary to lead the expedition. He belittles her before she proves him otherwise, “they had never, she supposed, seen Gunnar on the ground before. Or anyone else. Then Maudey threw up” (p 22). Gunnar starts to admire her. The Machine, a normally mute teenager, hides from his past but shows interest in Alyx’s. And then there is Raydos, an artist and “intellectual.” And finally there is Gavrily, a man who holds great influence.

In the first part of the novel the journey from point A to point B goes mostly without a hitch: Alyx learns about each of tourists and reaches some understanding of the foreign world in which she has been plunged. But then they discover that point B has been abandoned, and they must trek into the mountains to find some other way to escape: and unfortunately, “Paradise was not well mapped” (p 44).

At the time of publication Picnic on Paradise was and continues to be a radical vision. Alyx, although 26, is an “middle-aged” in her original time who has seen and suffered more than anyone can in Russ’ future. Her body is prematurely old and in no way adheres to western conceptions of beauty. Those around her are shocked and deeply suspicious of her abilities. But Alyx possesses an incredible drive to survive – the antithesis of the 1960s clichéd pulp woman in distress.

An outsider inserted into a varied cast is one of Russ’s favorite techniques: it is most adeptly used in We Who Are About To…. Despite their unappealing angst and frustration with Alyx, we come to feel for them as Alyx molds them into a group able to survive the planet. Their initial childlike perspectives on the world are perfectly embodied by the following passage:

“I ran away from home,” said Iris, “at the age of fifteen and joined a Youth Core. Almost everyone has Youth Cores, although mine wasn’t a delinquent Youth Core and some people will tell you that doesn’t count. But let me tell you, it changed my life. It’s better than hypnotic psychotherapy. They call it a Core because it forms the core of your adolescent rebellion, don’t you see, and I would have been nobody without it, absolutely nobody, it changed my whole life and my values. Did you ever run away from home?”

Yes, said Alyx. “I starved” (p 31).

Picnic on Paradise is a dense, well-written, and moving adventure. The appealing polemic is neatly integrated into the plot and Russ dismembers some of the more pernicious clichés in SF. Russ continues to impress me. Pick up a copy.

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

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