Women Writing SF: Joanna Russ

When Niall Harrison launched his project to highlight SF written by women by polling for the best such novels from the last decade, I reviewed my reading lists and came away feeling mortified.  I know that I don't read as many books by women as I should, but it turns out that I had read almost no SF by women at all.  So the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 are dedicated to rectifying that situation, with an ambitious reading list and a perhaps even more ambitious blogging plan (but then, one of my goals for 2011 is to blog more about books, and to that end I've laid out several reading projects for the year).  The first stop on this tour is Joanna Russ, an author and critic whose presence on my radar has been growing steadily over the last few years, usually in the context of feminism and SF criticism, but whose books are frustratingly hard to come by.  Happily, a confluence of used book finds over the course of 2010 left me with four of Russ's books with which to ring in the new year.

I started with Russ's famous essay How to Suppress Women's Writing, which has become a touchstone of feminist and anti-prejudice discussion in my corner of the blogosphere, laying out the ways in which a prejudiced society discourages, discounts, and tries to ignore the work of women, and then uses the inevitable results to argue that women can't write.  I've heard so much about How to Suppress, and have seen its arguments (particularly Russ's famous adage that "active bigotry is probably fairly rare.  It is also hardly ever necessary") repeated so many times that actually reading through the essay wasn't particularly revelatory.  It's a lively, well-argued work, but also badly in need of an update.  Some of its arguments are so thoroughly of their time, and so obviously a response to conversations that Russ observed or participated in (indeed, her personal experience as a teacher of writing is referred to on several occasions) in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, that they both threatened to undermine the validity of Russ's argument as a whole and left me rather befuddled.  In the chapter titled Pollution of Agency, for example, Russ discusses the dismissal of women's writing through the rejection of that writing's topics as prurient or salacious, but the examples she gives are of writing that is dismissed as "confessional" because of its sexual content (the example Russ gives is Erica Jong).  Though sexually frank writing is, of course, still controversial, I've never seen that particular wording used as a condemnation of women's writing, and I couldn't sympathize with Russ's outrage over it.

What hasn't changed, however, and what seems as relevant today as it surely was in the early 80s when How to Suppress was published, is Russ's final point, that the most vicious and effective means of suppressing women's writing is to elide its history.  This forces every generation of women writers to start from scratch.  It encourages them to look down on fellow women artists (or to assume that such artists don't exist), to model themselves on male artists and emulate their work, and to seek the company, admiration, and mentorship of men.  It denies them the artistic primordial soup, made up of mediocre, decent, and ordinary works and writers, from which every masterpiece has emerged.  Without that continuity and community of women artists, Russ concludes, the chances of women's writing succeeding are dramatically reduced.  I think that things are better today than they were when Russ was writing, but the impetus that sparked Niall's project--the fact that only one woman has won the Clarke award in the last ten years and that women are slowly disappearing from British SF publishing, as well as the fact that (as Kev McVeigh recently pointed out) efforts to honor the masterworks of the genre consistently downplay the role of women within it, are surely an indication that they aren't as good as they could be.

Russ's nonfiction is intelligent and incisive, and those same qualities are on display in her fiction, but to very different effect.  As a writer of fiction, Russ is uncompromising, giving very little space to the reader's comfort or ease.  The three books I read were all short but demanding reads, the narrative performing lightning-quick changes of setting or emotional tone, and inserting background details and important information so lightly into the text that a moment's lapsed attention can leave one entirely bewildered.  In The Adventures of Alyx (1976), this challenging style is used in service of Russ's twist on the sword and sorcery genre--that of a female protagonist.  The Adventures collects four stories and one short novel (Picnic on Paradise, originally published as a separate volume in 1968) which feature or concern the title character.  It isn't quite a fix-up--though a rough chronology of Alyx's life can be cobbled together, it might be more accurate to say that at least one of the stories' protagonists is an alternate universe version of the others.  What does tie the stories together, however, is Russ's preoccupation with feminine strength, and with a type of character who has become a cliché (and an at times destructive one) but who, in the late 60s, must have come as a shock, to her author as well as her readers.

Alyx--introduced as "a neat, level-browed, governessy person"--is a thief and assassin for hire in the fantastic city of Ourdh (though Picnic on Paradise sets her background in ancient Greece, another indication that Russ was figuring out the character--and perhaps even her subgenre--as she went along).  The opening story, "Bluestocking" (originally published as "The Adventuress") in which she reluctantly accepts the assignment of shepherding a young heiress out of Ourdh before she's married off to a Bluebeard-esque older man, can be read as a proof of concept for a female action heroine who embodies the familiar strong, silent yet deadly type generally reserved for men.  Of Alyx's fighting style, Russ tells us that "if you have not strength, there are three things which will serve as well: deceit, surprise and speed.  These are women's natural weapons"; when the ship with which she and her client escape Ourdh is boarded by sailors clearly intent on rape, she observes "with joy that two of the three were fat and all were dirty; too vain, she thought, to keep in trim or take precautions."  Russ gives Alyx a type of origin story in "I Thought She Was Afear'd Till She Stroked My Beard" (originally published as "I Gave Her Sack and Sherry"), but only in the sense that it establishes that Alyx has no origin.  The story introduces us to a teenage Alyx who is married to an abusive brute, and who takes the opportunity of her husband's being visited by pirates to kill him and run off with them, but at no point is there a sense that Alyx is becoming a heroine, or that there was ever a period in her life in which she wasn't one.  Rather, "Beard" establishes her as a quasi-mythical figure, who is too large and powerful to be contained by the romantic narrative through which the pirate captain, who both trains Alyx and becomes her lover, tries to understand her.  At the same time, however, Russ never surrenders Alyx's "governessy" quality, nor her dry humor, both of which help to maintain to maintain her humanity.

Alyx's adventures take a turn for the SFnal in "The Barbarian", in which she's hired by a man in possession of futuristic technology to wreak havoc, then has to outsmart him when he turns his sights on her.  As Nic Clarke writes, the crux of the story is Alyx using her wits and ingenuity to outsmart an opponent who, despite possessing infinitely superior technology, is stupid and lazy--as Alyx ends up concluding, he is an end-user, and a rather incurious one at that (in his write-up of The Adventures, Niall Harrison points out that stupidity and a lack of curiosity are the hallmarks of evil in the Alyx stories, and I've found that this is true in Russ's fiction in general).  The SFnal slant continues in Picnic on Paradise, in which Alyx--now a time agent brought thousands of years into the future, is assigned to escort some stranded tourists across a resort planet that has suddenly become a war zone.  The justification for Alyx's presence is flimsy--the warring parties possess unbeatable tracking technology, which means that no electronics can be used during the trek, so someone accustomed to managing without technology is needed to get the job done--and Russ herself seems to be poking fun at the story's contrivance when she designates the beginning and end points of Alyx's trek "point A" and "point B."  This winking acknowledgment of her story's fictionality is typical of Russ, and can also be discerned in the ease with which she slides between genres, and between genre and mimetic fiction.  In Picnic on Paradise it also points the way to the story's actual crux--another demonstration of Alyx's capability and toughness, and the shock of her encounter with pampered, technology-dependent future humans, whose inability to grasp the danger of their situation leads Alyx to brand herself a kindergarten teacher (a point that is brought home when it's revealed that Iris, a young woman whom Alyx has taken under her wing, is in fact seven years older than Alyx).

When point B is found to have already been overrun, Alyx leads the tourists on a weeks-long trek over the mountains, and though the breakdown of their preconceptions and civilized exterior is to be expected, Alyx's corresponding breakdown--at first when she softens towards Iris and strikes up a romance with a young man; later when her response to tragedy is to abuse the mood-altering drugs offered her by some of her charges--comes as a greater surprise.  Despite the occasional references to futuristic technology in these portions of the story, Picnic on Paradise reads mostly like a typical and almost naturalistic story of survival in conditions of adversity.  It's largely Russ's unusual voice, and Alyx's constantly befuddled and exasperated point of view, that give it a gloss of strangeness.  But this false sense of familiarity is exploded when Alyx and the surviving tourists return to civilization, and she is once again the odd man out in a society that is too soft, too disconnected from the physical and biological, to suit her.  Alyx being Alyx, she ends the story by vowing to reintroduce her tough-minded worldview by encouraging the growth of Trans Temp and training its agents in her image.  In the last story in the collection, "The Second Inquisition," we discover that she was successful.  Set in small town America in 1925, it shows us an Alyx-ish time agent (who may be Alyx's descendant) who has run away from her job and is hiding in a rented room belonging to the parents of the narrator, a teenage girl longing for escape.  The details of the story--the narrator's subservient mother and domineering father, her desire to participate in small-town rituals of femininity while at the same time disdaining the roles they force her into--have a lived-in quality that only intensifies the impact of the story's ending, in which, after helping the time agent to defeat her pursuers, the narrator realizes that she is not going to be whisked off to have adventures.  "I wanted something to come out of the mirror and strike me dead.  If I could not have a protector, I wanted a monster ... Nothing came ... I would have to face by myself my father's red face, his heart disease, his temper, his nasty insistencies ... No more stories."  The slide from science fiction to naturalistic fiction is also a shift from fiction to autobiography, from wish-fulfillment fantasy to the reality that all young women have to live in, and struggle against.

Unlike the Alyx stories, Russ's 1970 novel And Chaos Died is a more straight-up work of science fiction--as straight up as Russ's fiction gets, that is.  It tells the story of Jai Vedh, a futuristic human who, during a routine space voyage, crash-lands on a planet and is discovered, along with one of the ship's officers, by the members of a lost human colony who have developed powers of telepathy, telekinesis, and teleportation, and have become incomprehensibly inhuman as a result.  In the first half of the story Jai falls in love with a local woman called Evne and goes native, developing his own mental powers.  These chapters are a masterfully disorienting description of a person's disintegrating state of mind as he either becomes post-human or loses his mind, and they make for uncomfortable yet compelling reading.  In the second half of the novel Jai is rescued and forcibly returned to Earth, where he is separated from Evne (who followed him, and has been captured for study by military authorities), whom he pursues in between giving us a disgusted and self-satisfied tour of Earth culture, a hedonistic, entertainment-obsessed society whose ballooning population is made up mostly of idiots.  These chapters are also uncomfortable, but less successfully so--they give the definite impression that Russ is trying to write her version of Stranger in a Strange Land (published in 1960, a decade before And Chaos Died), but her tone keeps sliding into a snide parody of media- and body-obsessed culture that hardly seems worth the effort of puzzling out her still-challenging prose.

It seems, however, insufficient to describe And Chaos Died as either a story of post-humanism or a cultural satire.  There's a lot more to the novel that I haven't been able to figure out yet.  The first chapter finds Jai and the stranded officer (referred to only as The Captain) already on the planet and under attack from the post-humans, and ends with them besieged in their escape pod, which Evne and her people have torn nearly to shreds.  But the next chapter's opening line is "They came down in the escape capsule the next morning, Jai Vedh safely strapped in and trying to control his air-sickness," and when they emerge from the capsule this time Jai embarks on the more congenial relationship with Evne and her people that takes up the rest of the novel, and no reference is made to the events of the first chapter.  It's possible that Russ is indicating that Evne's people are so powerful that they were able to bend time and space, resetting a scenario that had turned out badly and trying it again, but if so it's left entirely up to the reader to reach that conclusion--which, to be fair, would not be out of character for Russ.  It's also hard to know what to make of Jai's statement, in that same first chapter, that he is gay, given that he spends the novel not only in love with a woman but enthusiastically bedding her and several others.  The fact that the first chapter caters so blatantly to gay stereotypes--Jai says of himself, "I don't like women ... I never have.  I'm a homosexual," and later on he has to fight off the urge to assault the Captain--again seems to suggest that Russ is doing something, but I'm not sure what that is.  Ultimately, And Chaos Died leaves me befuddled.

The Two of Them (1978), in contrast, is almost too accessible.  It could be taken as an expansion of "The Second Inquisition" in which the narrator, rather than being left behind, is carried off from that story's unsatisfying and limited existence as a young woman in 50s America to become a Trans Temp agent.  As the story begins, Irenee (formerly Irene Waskiewicz), has arrived on the planet Ka'abah with her partner, mentor, and lover Ernst, the man with whom, as a teenager, she escaped her parents' stultifying, borderline abusive marriage, a boyfriend who couldn't understand how a sane woman might prefer a career to marriage and children, and a society determined to turn her into a clone of her mother.  Irenee and Ernst's mission is only vaguely described and rather quickly done away with (it does, however, rely on Irenee's computer skills, which Russ lovingly describes in several scenes that seem to be the analogue of Alyx's working out how to outsmart her adversary's machines in "The Barbarian"--a deliberate emphasis on the female character's intelligence and skill--and may also be the some of the earliest instances of hacking in science fiction), but its significance is to establish that Ka'abah is a strategic location whose government must be appeased, and that its virulently misogynistic culture must therefore be tolerated.

Irenee and Ernst get a good view of this culture when they stay in the house of Alee, a mid-level functionary, and encounter his wife Zumurrud, his sister-in-law Dunya, and his preteen daughter Zubeydeh.  The chapters on Ka'abah read like a fictionalization of How to Suppress Women's Writing, or of any other work that seeks to describe the way that misogynistic culture not only devalues women but teaches them to devalue each other and to undermine each other's efforts to escape their predicament.  The dissatisfied Zumurrud is kept in a medicated stupor, clucked over by her maid, who explains to Irenee that high-born women don't appreciate being able to do nothing all day while scheming to take her mistress's place.  The dominant art form on Ka'abah is poetry, and though it is exclusively the purview of men, Zubeydeh is convinced that she is the exception to the rule (as Irenee says to Ernst, "She doesn't question the system, just insists she's outside it"), and that her father will allow and enable her artistic endeavors.  Both Alee and Zumurrud, however, have before them the example of Dunya, who yearned to be a poet and went mad when repeatedly prevented in her endeavors--or, as they think of it, despite repeatedly being prevented from writing poetry for her own good.

This portrait has the potential of being very broad and hectoring, and indeed leans in that direction several times, but Russ includes enough idiosyncratic details to humanize what could have been nothing more than a fictionalized feminist tract--Zubeydeh's poetry is described even by the sympathetic Irenee as nothing more than talented juvenalia; when encountering Zubeydeh's brother Jafaar, who has encouraged her poetic ambitions, Irenee sharply sums his type as "romantic, enthusiastic, innocently opinionated, easy to squash, and immensely loveable until suddenly at twenty-five he will turn unexpectedly into a carbon copy of his father."  Perhaps more importantly, Ka'abah's society, and the difficult situation of the women of Alee's household, are seen through Irenee's eyes, who, at the same time as she sees them from the perspective of the enlightened foreigner appalled by Ka'abah's misogynistic ways, is also looking through the eyes of a survivor, an escapee, of another form of institutionalized misogyny.  Her sympathy for all three women is rooted in her, and her mother's, experiences.  This duality, the fact that the American-born Irenee sees her mother and herself in Zumurrud and Zubeydeh, helps to counteract the somewhat troubling focus of the book's early chapters on Ka'abah's Muslim culture, and the way that its misogyny is expressed through traditionally Muslim artifacts such as veils and women's quarters.

Even more effective is the fact that after Irenee strong-arms Alee and Zumurrud into letting her take Zubeydeh away, the two develop a fraught and acrimonious relationship that sheds an unflattering light on Irenee's relationship with Ernst and on the freedom that working for Trans Temp has granted her.  Zubeydeh mirrors young Irenee's own fascination with Ernst, and tries to shut Irenee out of her relationship with the man who has taken Alee's place as her savior and protector.  Even after the two mend fences, Zubeydeh's increasingly sharp observations about the power imbalance between Ernst and Irenee reveal that, much like Zubeydeh, Irenee gained power by assuming her own exceptionalism, her superiority to other women and the necessity of having a man grant her the power to escape their fate, that the life she's chosen for herself has taken her away from women's company, and that though he may deny it, Ernst exercises significant control over her choices and options.  At the end of The Two of Them, Irenee and Zubeydeh leave Ernst, Trans Temp, and the future, and return to Earth--once again, the narrative slides from genre to naturalism, effortlessly taking us, in the space of a few paragraphs, from the corridors of a starliner to a motel in a nameless city in 1970s America, where Irenee becomes, once again, Irene, a divorced single mother.  It is strongly implied--as it has been throughout the novel, in which Russ frequently addresses the reader and identifies herself as the author, who has "decided" that certain events took place in a certain manner, or has changed her mind about a previously-described point--that the story is, as it was in "The Second Inquisition," is a fantasy of empowerment that must now give way to a more complicated reality.  The story ends with a vision of feminist solidarity that would verge on over-earnest were it not so heartfelt, and were the novel preceding it not so thorny and willing to discomfort its readers.

As a sampling of Russ's work, these novels may not the best place to start--I've left out her acknowledged masterpiece, The Female Man, and the overwhelming majority of her short fiction (I'm also interested in Russ's reviewing, which has been collected in a sadly rather expensive volume, and though I own a copy of the Farah Mendlesohn-edited essay collection On Joanna Russ I've left it for a later date, as I still have a lot of reading to do for this project and nonfiction tends to take me longer to get through than fiction).  They do, however, establish the salient facts--Russ's intelligence, her playfulness, her willingness to be weird and off-putting, and her preoccupation with feminist issues.  All of which are more than enough reason to seek out more of her work, and make her a very good starting point for this exploration of women's SF.


Raz Greenberg said…
If you're looking for other writers to check out - Karin Lowachee's "Warchild" remains my favorite SF novel of the previous decade. Sadly, none of her subsequent books left a similar impression on me.
Anonymous said…
I'm glad more people are reading Russ's work!

(There's a book that functions well as a companion piece to How to Suppress Women's Writing, called Women of Ideas: What Men Have Done to Them, written by Dale Spender around the same time as Russ's HTSWW, which Russ later cites in What Are We Fighting For? as a book that made even her go "omigod, I didn't think it was that bad!".)
Tim Pratt said…
I love Russ's work. She was a huge influence on my own writing. The Alyx stories are my favorites. I also -- well, "like" seems the wrong word, let's say "admire" -- her novel We Who Are About To, which is one of the most brutally uncompromising and clear-eyed marooned-in-space stories ever.
The authors currently making the most money in science fiction, fantasy, and horror, whose books are read by the most people around the world are respectively, Collins, Rowling and Meyer: all women.

They are, of course, writing novels for young people, that, of course, would not be so widely read and making their creators so hugely wealthy, (and in the SF&F genre where male authors haven't managed either one) if grown-up people didn't love them, too.

So... the kind of writing they do doesn't count, or they're not really women, or...?

Check out the Andre Norton Awards, for best teen SF&F which are dominated by women writers. Since I read from this list, naturally, I've never had to look up from my books-I've-read-and-reviewed-last-year list to realize that I haven't read any books by women writers. Quite the opposite: every year I have to go hunting for the equivalent "guy books" to share so as not to be unbalanced.
So... the kind of writing they do doesn't count, or they're not really women, or...?

As the topic of this discussion, and indeed the post title, is women writing SF, and two of the three names you mentioned are not writers of SF, I think your question is answered. If you followed the links to the discussion at Torque Control, you'll have noted that several participants mentioned that women's presence in fantasy and horror has increased even as they've left (or been driven out of) science fiction, and that Collins's name was brought up as someone who was writing SF while female.

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