We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ

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

After finishing a book, I usually read up on other reviews and stuff before starting my own. There’s no use in repeating what others already have written. When I came across a review by L. Timmel Duchamp – an SF author herself – published in the February 2006 issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction, it quickly dawned on me it was no use of even starting the review I had in mind, as her text said about everything I wanted to say – references to Robinson Crusoe included – but better. It also opened up my understanding of the novel. Not that I had totally missed one of the political messages of the book, but I hadn’t perceived its full importance:

As I read it, the soliloquy not only allows the narrator to put herself – once a “Neochristian” – on trial for murder, but also explores enough of her history to make it possible for the reader to understand her series of responses to the situation following the crash. Through the soliloquy we discover that the narrator’s despair is not so much existential as political in the most fundamental sense of the word. At the time of the crash, the narrator was in full flight from a life of political activism and idealism that had smashed on the rocks of discursive politics. As part of a burgeoning movement of dissent, she learned the painful lesson of who may speak in a polis controlled by vast political and financial machinery (which these days we generally name “global capitalism”).

The main gist of what I want to say is that We Who Are About To… is a lot more than a feminist novel. Framing the novel only as such – an easy mistake as Russ is the author of the better known The Female Man, and maybe even more importantly as identity politics is important in today’s discourse on culture – does the novel a tremendous disservice. Not that its feminist stance is not important, on the contrary, and well-done at that. But I’ll refrain from elaborating further, and urge you to read the entirety of Duchamp’s take – if you’ve read the book already that is, as the first experience of this book suffers badly if you’ve had too many spoilers.

What’s left for me to say? I thought maybe of writing a text on how the unnamed protagonist of this book is a kind of opposite to the childbearing character in PD James’s Children Of Men, but doing so would also focus on the feminist side of the novel, and that wouldn’t be in sync with what I wrote above.

For that same reason I’ll refrain from elaborate comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that’s about forced pregnancies as well. Atwood’s book is 10 years younger, but it’s a lot less radical in conception. More importantly: as a social analysis, it is also a lot less believable.

Then Lord Of The Flies popped into my head, and sure, there are parallels aplenty, if you just look at what Wikipedia has to say about Golding’s themes:

At an allegorical level, the central theme is the conflicting human impulses toward civilization and social organization—living by rules, peacefully and in harmony—and toward the will to power. Themes include the tension between groupthink and individuality, between rational and emotional reactions, and between morality and immorality.

What’s maybe left underdeveloped in Duchamp’s review, is the existential, philosophical aspect of We Who Are About To… Not that I have a lot to say about that either, just that at certain times the main character seems to live out her life simply being – and explicitly referring to Eastern modes of thinking: acceptance, the works, including Tao – yes, Tao, again. I think it’s one of the important themes in the book, and I could quote a few bits here and there, but ultimately it would be like reading a rehash of stuff you’ve already read on all those millennial lifestyle blogs – I know they didn’t exist in the 1970s, but hey, what kind of reader of speculative literature would you be if you’d object to a bad time-travel paradox?

There’s one final thing I want to highlight, and that’s Russ’s visionary power. Certain aspects of male chauvinist psychology are brilliantly evoked in the following passage, and without a lot of words Russ nails a part of the reason why movements opposing the importance of identity politics have gained so much traction recently.

Alan looks happy. I mean it: not triumphant, not overbearing, simply happy. He glows. The twenty-first century can’t have been kind to this enormous fellow, and now he’s discovering other interesting things to do: chopping down trees, lifting rock with his bare hands, fighting, knocking down women. Too bad he’s so young…

It might read like caricature, but I’m quite sure it isn’t. The increased empathy of the last couple of decades indeed hasn’t been kind to the mindset of those people that reserve their moral concern for a circle that’s less expanded than the circles of the progressive discourse that was dominant before Trump got elected.

I guess I’m only left with a quick assessment. The prose is snappy and confident. Russ shows keen psychological insight more than a few times. As far as plot and structure goes her choices are awesome: this book is not what you think it will be when you start reading it with only the feminist-planet-crash blurb in mind. Russ made some radical decisions, and it’s best those aren’t spoiled.

In short, We Are About To… is a brave book, not an easy, generic read. It’s definitely recommended for fans of vintage scifi that do not mind their stuff a bit different.

This review originally appeared on Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It.

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We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ

wewhoareWe Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Ian Sales

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?

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.

We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ

wewhoareWe Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1977)
Review by Joachim Boaz

We Who Are About To… is the third of Joanna Russ’ science fiction novels I’ve read over the past few years. For some reason I was unable gather the courage to review The Female Man and might have been too enthusiastic about And Chaos Died. We Who Are About To… is superior to both (although, not as historically important for the genre as The Female Man). This is in part because Russ refines her prose — it is vivid, scathing, and rather minimalist in comparison to her previous compositions — and creates the perfect hellish microcosm for her ruminations on the nature of history, societal expectation, memory, and death.

Highly recommended for fans of feminist + literary science fiction.

The classic situation: multi-dimensional explosion hurls a spaceship en route to a new colony onto a barren planet. Due to the nature of starship travel (folding space) there is zero chance of contacting others. Rescue is never a possibility. The unnamed narrator, a musicologist, leaves an audio diary — her words, recorded in secret almost every day, is the version of events we read.

Russ manipulates this common sci-fi scenario. None of the characters have survival skills. The planet contains no aliens or fascinating vistas. Rather, a human drama unfolds — a twisted, dark vision. Be warned, Russ does not conjure the Star Trek miracle syrup plot device à la ”different characters who initially don’t like each other learn to work together and conquer the problem and conjure a communication device that rescues them from the clutches of certain death”. The reader knows the end result from the first sentence of the first page.

Similarly to D G Compton’s brilliant Farewell, Earth’s Bliss, Russ’ varied cast is adeptly characterized from the very beginning. {The cast} The women: the narrator (a baroque musicologist, an activist past, neo-Christian leanings, a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals), Mrs Valeria Graham (a middle-aged wealthy woman who purchased her husband and daughter, wears an Indian sari), Nathalie (a soldier trainee who despises civilians), Cassie (an ordinary woman, the only one whom the narrator cares for), and Lori (Valeria’s twelve-year-old daughter, hypochondriac, serial music lover, doted upon). The men: Mr Graham (strong, manly, plastic surgery), Alan (attentive, careful, polite, flatterer, in love with Lori), and John Ude (professor of ideas, evasive, The Smile).

The narrator suffers an acute crisis upon crashing on the planet due to the fact that no one will ever find them and that no one will remember them — the pharmaceuticals are close at hand. Added to that, the planet is alien, the planet isn’t Earth: “To die on a dying Earth — I’d live, if only to weep” (p 27). Is there any point in waiting to die? The others discover her drugs and take them away, or at least some of them.

The others delude themselves with visions of colonization, utopian societies, the innocence of primitives: “Day two. It began. I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Everyone running around cheerily into the Upper Paleolithic. We’re going to build huts. We’re going to have a Village Fire that Lori Graham will tend because she is the Fire Virgin or something” (p21). Unfortunately, the gene pool of the survivors is too small to create a society. And, no one besides the narrator is too concerned with introducing children into the eventual horrors of life on the planet when the supplies and medications run out and they are forced to eat the potentially toxic plants. The visions of a proper society, a proper duty to propagate, are too ingrained in their minds — the women, viewed by the men as walking wombs, incubating the future… All the women besides the narrator decide to get impregnated — “John Ude was very tender and careful with his walking womb” (p59).

When it’s her turn, she drugs everyone and runs away… And when they wake up from their stupor they come looking for her. Her womb is prized.

“Next day, don’t know what day it is. Probably five. Who cares. If history were not fantasy, then one could ask to be remembered but history is fake and memories die when you do and only God (don’t believe it) remembers. History always rewritten. Nobody will find this anyway and they’ll have flippers so who cares” (p113)

The most powerful moments of the novel focus in on the painful isolation the narrator feels. Not only is she separated from Earth but her very words, recorded so diligently, will be read by no one. If a rescue party had the smallest chance of finding them long after their deaths then they would at the very least be a shred of history, a minute connection to others, but even that is impossible. The other survivors do not want to accept the inevitable and delude themselves with fantasies about creating a society even if it would doom their children to painful deaths. Their fantasies that do not accept the reality of the situation. The narrator wants to control the inevitable. And she takes matters into her own hands…

Russ’ prose tears into the heart of things.

“Cassie, Cassie, come out to play.

Come over for a chat.

I don’t mind if you’re rotting” (p133)

It is poetic and visceral and often, hilarious: ”Then [Lori, 12] added, without the slightest transition, ‘I like serial music. You know, the late twentieth-century stuff where it goes deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle for half an hour and then it goes doodle just once, and you could die with excitement’” (p52). For anyone who listens regularly to minimalist music… Well, I suspect you are laughing.

We Who Are About To… is the best I’ve read this year.

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

We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ

We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1977)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

The classic science fiction story of the 1950’s tells how bold space travellers suffer misfortune out in the void but, through application of scientific skills and raw human courage, they triumph over adversity. Joanna Russ, who has built an entire career out of puncturing stupidity, could hardly let a target like that go begging. Thus her novel, We Who Are About To…, newly re-released by Wesleyan University Press. Samuel Delany, in his introduction to the new edition, explains the set-up far better than I could.

When, in the real world, 95 percent of all commercial airline crashes are one hundred percent fatal and we live in a solar system in which presumably only one planet can support any life at all, from the thirties through the fifties science fiction was nevertheless full of spaceship crashes (!) in which everyone gets up and walks away from the wreckage unscathed — and usually out onto a planet with breathable atmosphere, amenable weather, and a high tech civilization in wait near-by to provide twists in subsequent adventures.

The same, of course, could be said of Star Trek, except that the guys in the red suits often didn’t long survive the crash.

Of course there would not be much of a story if Russ’s space travellers had all been killed in the crash, so let us suppose that some sort of lifeboat system was available and that our heroes somehow manage to land safely on an inhabitable planet. Now all they have to do is survive. To do so they have to come to understand their environment, adapt to it, and most importantly conquer that terrible threat to survival, human nature.

Whereas the typical science fiction story will feature a cast made up of military and scientific types, all convinced of the virtues of order, disciple and cooperation, and possessed of exactly the combination of skills required to allow them to thrive in an alien environment, Russ postulates that her shipwrecked travellers are merely passengers. The crew has bravely gone down with the ship, frantically making last minute attempts to save it before something terminal happens to the engines. Those that are left are rather too used to having things done for them.

The majority of Russ’s characters start out exactly as you would expect from a traditional SF story. They make plans, they talk grandly of colonizing the planet on which they find themselves. They dream of rescue. Only the narrator of the story actually understands just how little they know, and how much trouble they are in. Her attempts to explain the hopelessness of their predicament to her fellow castaways merely get her marked down as a troublemaker who needs to be disciplined by the rapidly developing community.

Then the men sit down and decide that what the colony really needs is more hands. The only way to get that is for the women to have babies, and therefore the women must all agree to allow themselves to be made pregnant as quickly as possible, regardless of the potential risks in the absence of medical facilities, and whether they like it or not. Things go rapidly downhill from there.

No matter how you dress it up, We Who Are About To… is not a pleasant book. The narrator is not at all a nice person, and she very clearly cracks up under the strain of understanding the reality of her situation. Most of the other characters are fairly unpleasant too. And everyone comes to a bad but believable end. There is no happy ending, nor should there be one. It is a book that needed to be written, and Russ did a fine job of producing it. What is more she managed to say what needed to be said in a little over 100 pages. This is, I think, a book that all science fiction fans should read, just to encourage them to ask questions about other books. Once again, well done to Wesleyan for helping it stay in print.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.