The Zanzibar Cat, Joanna Russ (1983)
Review by Ian Sales
Although she was first published in the late 1950s, Joanna Russ’s first collection did not appear until 1983 – which at least meant she had plenty to choose from for its contents. And it seems Russ decided to select pieces mostly from the 1970s. With good reason, one suspects – as Marge Piercy writes in the book’s introduction: “One unavoidable observation as I read through these stories is the growth of Russ’s feminism … I doubt if ‘The New Men’ or ‘Poor Man, Beggar Man’ would be in any interesting way different if written by a man … If I seem to find Russ’s more feminist stories more successful than her less feminist stories, it is not only, I believe even chiefly, because I agree with her politics, although of course with any writer that always help. It is because her imagination is more liberated…” (p x). I have been saying for several years it’s past time we had a complete collection of Russ’s short fiction – and it would be a large book, since she published fifty-six stories between 1959 and 1996. However, The Zanzibar Cat, which includes a number of early works, does demonstrate that perhaps not everything she wrote actually belongs in such a collection. This is a much weaker collection than her later Extra(ordinary) People (1984) and The Hidden Side of the Moon (1988), although it does contain several of her more celebrated pieces. Incidentally, it’s worth noting The Zanzibar Cat was originally published by Arkham House, but a paperback edition was published the following year by Baen.
‘When It Changed’ (1972) is perhaps Russ’s most famous short story. It won the Nebula, was nominated for a Hugo, and won a retrospective Tiptree in 1995. And for good reason. The world of Whileaway has has been female-only for thirty generations, after the death of all the men in a plague shortly after the world was settled. But now men form Earth have arrived, and the local sheriff has been called to remote farmhouse to meet the visitors. Russ drops the reader straight into the story, and the casual sexism displayed by the men is brilliantly handled – the visitors keep on asking where are the men, and once they learn the truth… there is a conversation between the narrator and the leader of the visitors which is masterly in how it shows male privilege:
“I’m talking to you, Janet,” he said, “because I suspect you have more popular influence than anyone else here. You know as well as I do that parthenogenetic culture has all sorts of inherent defects, and we do not – if we can help it – mean to use you for anything of the sort. Pardon me; I should not have said ‘use.’ But surely you can see this kind of society is unnatural.” ( p 8 – 9)
A bona fide classic.
‘The Extraordinary Voyages of Amélie Bertrand’ (1979). This opens with the subheading “hommage à Jules Verne” which, to be honest, would be pretty obvious from the plot anyway. Set in the 1920s, the story takes places entirely at a small rural railway station near Lyons. The narrator is travelling on business and must change trains there. But as he walks through the passage linking the two platforms either side of the ticket office / waiting room / café, he seems to be thrown into a strange tropical landscape. A hand grabs him and hauls him back, and he finds himself back at the railway station. The woman who saved him explains that she too fell prey to the same phenomenon, and in fact spent many years exploring that other world – and on subsequent visits had even visited the jungles of Venus and the ranches of Mars. Although the woman’s adventures are well described, the fact the story is almost entirely told robs it of any immediacy. The pastiche is not entirely successful either – the premise appears to draw on a deep pool of pulp fiction inspirations, rather than Verne’s scientific romances.
‘The Soul of a Servant’ (1973). In a northern Russian (I think) town cut into the side of a mountain, the governor and his family await the barbarians. The town is commanded, and managed, by the narrator, who is from the south and is looked down on by the locals. The governor’s niece, however, finds him fascinating, although she is clearly playing at forbidden love rather than forming any real attachment. And then soldiers from the town capture some barbarians – and on seeing how they are being mistreated, the narrator realises he has more in common with them than the town’s inhabitants. Piercy remarks on the off-page rape, which “is used as a male writer uses it … the story buys the male rationalization, in its viewpoint character, that a woman being flirtatious, which may be the only form of friendliness she has been allowed to express, is asking for it”. It’s a well-deserved criticism as the violence serves no real purpose in the plot, and the setting is sketched in so thinly it’s unclear how it is meant to be taken.
‘Gleepsite’ (1971). This is a short and enigmatic story, set in a post-apocalyptic world. According to a footnote, the title is the name of an imaginary material and “[this] story is about another ‘imaginary material’ – the huiman imagination itself. Can it do as much as the the narrator thinks it can do?” The end result in places reads more like a writing exercise than an actual narrative.
‘Nobody’s Home’ (1972). A somewhat dated and hippy-ish vision of the future, in which a “stupid” (but “bright-normal” by present-day standards) is invited home by a family, only for them to grow quickly tired of his inability to fit in with their supposedly extremely high intelligence, this characteristic being chiefly illustrated by a silly verbal game played by the children. Although Russ displays her usual skill at setting up her world quickly and efficiently, some of the details are a little too much of the time of writing. This is a story which has not aged especially well.
‘My Dear Emily’ (1962). The first of two vampire stories in this collection. In this a young woman is liberated by being in thrall to a vampire. Her family insist she is ill, but she no longer considers herself bound by convention – the story is set in San Francisco during the 1880s – and behaves accordingly. It’s an atmospheric piece, but there’s little in it to make stand out above the huge number of vampire stories out there.
‘The New Men’ (1966). The second vampire story, this time set in communist Poland. A travelling Soviet official spends the night at the ruined mansion of a Polish count when his car breaks down deep in the countryside. There’s a nice play on dialectics, historical process and Marxism, but the story does end on a somewhat obvious twist.
‘My Boat’ (1976). The way a story is told is as important as what the story says, and I’m not convinced Russ chose the best way to tell ‘My Boat’ even though the premise is clever and works well. The story is framed as a verbal tale told by a screenwriter desperate for work in conversation with his agent. He recounts an episode from his youth, when the first black pupil joined his school, a girl called Cecilia Jackson. Although very shy, she proves to be a gifted actress, if somewhat erratic, and becomes friends with the narrator and his best friend, Al. One day, all three head to the marina to spend the day on Cecilia’s boat, and while on it – a rowing boat that has seen better days – the narrator witnesses a change come over Cecila and Al, and also the boat. Cecilia becomes a queen, and Al her Francis Drake-like consort, and they begin talking about mysterious lands (from Lovecraft’s “Dreamlands”, in fact). When the narrator jumps onto the jetty to untie the boat, he is accosted by a police officer, and while the two of them are looking away, the boat disappears.
‘Useful Phrases for the Tourist’ (1972). The title pretty much says it all. Mildly amusing.
‘Corruption’ (1976). An agent infiltrates another world, where everyone lives in sealed arcologies because the outside atmosphere is toxic. But the more time he spends in his undercover role, the more he sympathises with the society he is supposed to destroy through sabotage. Nonetheless, he follows his orders. The prose style is experimental – the story is broken down into eleven short sections, most of which begin with, “Look – “. I first read this in Aurora: Beyond Equality, edited by Vonda N McIntye and Susan Janice Anderson, and published in 1976, which is where it first appeared. On reread, it seems a much stronger piece, the prose depicting the regimented society of Outpost effectively, as well as the protagonist’s conflict over his orders.
‘There Is Another Shore, You Know, Upon the Other Side’ (1963). A young Italian man in Rome meets a young English woman, is much taken with her, and there follows a fairly straightforward holiday romance, his charm versus her diffidence. She doesn’t always meet him as promised, and she’s extremely vague about her own situation. Because she’s a ghost. As he discovers at the end of the story. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what this story adds to its overcrowded genre. It feels resolutely ordinary.
‘A Game of Vlet’ (1974). A captain of the guard discovers an assassin sneaking into the palace, but the assassin claims he has only come to challenge the king to a game of vlet. But the king’s new consort appears, and she accepts the challenge instead. The set the assassin has brought is “virgin” – unplayed, and untouched by human hands – which means that the game will be reflected in the real world. And so it is. But the assassin is not as good a player as he thought he was. This one is strong on atmosphere, as each move the players make is reflected in the world about them and violence overtakes the palace.
‘How Dorothy Kept Away the Spring’ (1977). Dorothy dreams a fairy tale with herself as the heroine, because her mother died recently and she is lonely. The fantasy elements feel as though they owe a little too much to The Wizard of Oz, a text which I suspect carries more sentimental baggage on the other side of the Atlantic. The end result reads over-long, its simple message diluted by a combination of whimsy and childish invention.
‘Poor Man, Beggar Man’ (1971). Cleitus the Black, who saved Alexander the Great’s life at the Battle of the Granicus but was later killed by Alexander during a drunken fight, visits Alexander as a ghost as Alexander’s army prepares to cross the Indus. Cleitus argues with Alexander, telling him he should return to Babylon and consolidate his rule, and not attack further into India. Alexander refuses, so Cleitus persuades Alexander’s wife, Roxana, to run away to the nearest Indian village and hide – in the hope her disappearance will change Alexander’s mind. During the search for her, Alexander gets lost in a nearby forest and becomes separated from his men. Cleitus comes to him and shows him something which persuades him to not cross the Indus (Roxana had returned of her own accord while they were looking for her). Russ freely admits in an author’s note that she has mangled the chronology of Alexander’s life… which makes you wonder what the point of the story is.
‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’ (1975). In the introduction, Piercy describes this is “as much prose poem or essay as story” – at least the first section of it. ‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’ is actually two stories, ‘Daddy’s Girl’ and ‘Autobiography of My Mother’, previously published in separate issues of Cornell University’s literary magazine. I found the second section more successful than the first, whose stream of consciousness narrative feels more like a work in progress. ‘Autobiography of My Mother’, however, is reminiscent of some of other Russ’s stories – particularly ‘Bodies’ (1984) – as it directly addresses the reader, and in the way it pulls together a narrative from a variety of incidents and anecdotes, presented in a variety of forms.
‘The Zanzibar Cat’ (1971). Another homage, this one of Hope Mirrlees. I’ve not read Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, so many of the references in this story were lost on me. But despite that, it’s a well-told, if overly familiar in general shape, story about a young woman who confronts Death in one of its many guises and lives to tell the tale – unlike the army she was accompanying.
As collections go, The Zanzibar Cat is bit of a mixed bag. Many of the better stories have been subsequently anthologised, and only four or five appear here and in their original venue. As pointed out by Piercy in the introduction, the late stories are among the best ones. Not only did ‘When It Changed’ deserve its win, but ‘Corruption’ too is good, perhaps followed by ‘A Game of Vlet’ and then ‘My Boat’. Other stories, the dark fantasy ones especially, are a little too generic to stand out, and suffer poorly in comparison to the rest of the contents. What The Zanzibar Cat does demonstrate, however, is Russ’s breadth – from heartland sf to ghost story to fantasy to literary pastiche. The later stories also demonstrate just how good a writer she really was. It’s not just her economy, her ability to sketch out her worlds and cast so efficiently, but also the sharpness of her observation and the way she questions and comments on sensibilities in stories whose actual focus seemingly lies elsewhere. ‘When It Changed’ is a case in point, a first contact story about how the women of Whileaway react to the appearance of men on their world, but it’s really about the way the men behave toward women. But then there are stories such as ‘Poor Man, Beggar Man’, which seem too generic, too in love with their premise to actually interrogate it fully. Sadly, around half of The Zanzibar Cat falls into this latter category. Which, by definition, means half of the stories range from the merely good to excellent.
It’s definitely past time for a collected Russ.