Book review: We Who Are About To…, by Joanna Russ

22 03 2017

Joanna Russ was a US writer and literary critic perhaps best known for her seminal (or should that perhaps be germinal?) work in feminist SF, as typified by her novel The Female Man. Her genre writing has won the Hugo, Nebula, Tiptree, and Pilgrim awards.

WeWhoAreAboutTo

We Who Are About To is a novella or short novel (I’m not sure of its wordcount, but I’d estimate it’s on the cusp between those categories) first published in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction in 1976, appearing in book form a year later. Its narrator, who never names herself, is one of eight starship passengers (there are four women, three men, and one twelve-year-old girl) who become marooned, with a limited set of resources (a water purifier; food for six months; a single-seat ground-effect vehicle) salvaged from their vessel, on a habitable but deserted and probably uncharted planet. Most of the group want to establish a colony that will allow them (and / or their descendants) to survive until they can be rescued; the narrator just wants to be allowed to wander off and die, because she knows the prospect of rescue is exceedingly improbable. This aspiration causes friction within the group, not least because she’s one of three potentially-childbearing women on the planet. And, because any sufficiently-small group of people, in complete isolation, is essentially lawless once it starts to notice that there’s no higher authority on call, this friction is taken to a conclusion. It is, in a thematic sense (though not in style or in tone), rather reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Or, if you prefer, a riff on the Gilligan’s Island trope, but with the misanthropy dialled up to eleven, or maybe higher.

It’s a very bleak story, in several ways: none of the characters, not even the narrator (and perhaps especially not the narrator), is likeable; and the predicament doesn’t engender hope. And yet the first two-thirds of it are quietly compelling, as one watches the miniature conflict of ideas that erupts between the narrator and her fellow maroonees, and as one grows accustomed to the narrator’s voice, anger, and mindset. I did feel that the latter section was rather too rambling and unfocussed. (There’s a reason it has this form, which I can appreciate even if I disagree with the author’s choice of presentation.) And there’s also scope for confusion: is Russ railing against society, or against a popular trope in SF? If it’s the latter, then I think it runs the risk of presenting itself as novel-by-strawman-argument. But this description is probably too harsh: there is some very good writing in here; the plotting is skilful, making optimal use of a minimal palette; and the narrator is deeply drawn, with her own particular strengths and vulnerabilities, and a sense of drive that’s admirable whether or not one agrees with the choices she makes. It’s probably better suited to those who are more comfortable with dystopias than am I, but it’s certainly a thought-provoking read, and that’s seldom a bad thing.

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8 responses

22 03 2017
Joachim Boaz

Can’t she be doing both? Railing against a trope and what it models/says about society?

23 03 2017
simonpetrie

Well, yes, she can, and she probably is. I think what sat oddly with me is that, in the sense that she is attacking the trope, she’s doing so through a broadly ‘literary’ style of writing (because I suppose that is the most effective style for offering commentary on society) whereas the trope itself is, it seems to me, a quintessentially pulpish one. I suppose that’s not such an unusual juxtaposition: The Day Of The Triffids, to name just one off the top of my head, does something broadly analogous; but Triffids seems to make some concessions to popular tastes (the ‘cosy catastrophe’ thing), whereas What We Are About To is quite strongly confrontational. I’m not sure why that stance rankles with me, but it does, in some respects; which means, I suppose, that it is an effective piece of writing.

23 03 2017
Joachim Boaz

I like and intensity and vigor in telling! It’s what makes the best dystopic (and polemical) works… She’s unabashed in her views. It’s refreshing and sincere. I don’t understand your comments regarding “literary” as somehow disconnected with the critique of the pulpish topic — Burgess tackles overpopulation, Ballard smacks the disaster novel over and over and over and over again, Amis snarks and pokes via an alt-history… all “literary” authors playing with SF themes in brutal and forceful ways.

I should note — We Who Are About To… is my favorite of her novels…. And from its first line it makes its intent clear.

23 03 2017
Joachim Boaz

And yes, I realize you say it isn’t rare.

I’m still not altogether certain why it didn’t sit well with you. But, that’s ok! 🙂

23 03 2017
simonpetrie

Oh, I did actually enjoy it (though there were aspects of its final section which I found frustrating, because I felt that there ought to be more effective tools than stream-of-consciousness for conveying the narrator’s mindset; but that’s just me). And I do take your point about its sincerity, which I think is what, ultimately, wins the reader over: one has to admire the narrator’s strength of her convictions, even if one disagrees with those convictions.
Re the literary / pulpish crossover thing: it seems to me, from my limited reading experience, that Ballard’s arguably a more direct comparison with Russ (though they’re clearly poles apart as writers, heading in quite different directions) because both were solidly engaged with SF, whereas Amis (and, I think, Burgess too? although I haven’t read anything by him) only made the occasional foray in that direction. And I didn’t think Amis’s ‘The Alteration’ — which was, I think, his main alt-history effort — was railing against the trope so much as employing the trope to bash aspects of societal hypocrisy and injustice: the anger in that one seems mainly directed at religion, whereas his alt-history worldbuilding was in some respects quite playful (eg the audacious Brunel engineering). [But it’s been a few decades since I read that one, so my impression of its tone could well be faulty.] This isn’t to say, of course, that primarily ‘literary’ writers can’t play in the SF sandbox if they so wish, but I think it’s inevitable that the nature and the degree of the influence that they exert on the genre will inevitably be different than that shown by authors (Russ, Ballard, Banks, Le Guin, Delany etc) whose work has a definite literary flavour but who are strongly grounded in some variant of the SF tradition.

23 03 2017
Joachim Boaz

Ah, I don’t disagree with her convictions — these are tropes which we need to be critical of — my review if you’re curious.

https://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/book-review-we-who-are-about-to-joanna-russ-1976/

If anything using the trope to attack the trope seems more ingenious — as I get your point about the others using the trope for slightly different reasons.

23 03 2017
simonpetrie

That’s a very good and detailed review. I don’t think I picked up on the humour so much, except to the extent that, although the narrator is incredibly headstrong, she doesn’t entirely take herself seriously (which I think is one of the book’s saving graces).
And that 1977 cover is a classic, for all the wrong reasons. I actually think the current Penguin cover (the one I used on this review, which matches my copy of the book) is the one that does the most justice to the story. [The ‘Wesleyan’ cover, which is a primitivist multilayered alien forest thing, isn’t bad, but its connection to the story isn’t exactly strong. And yes, I can imagine that the metal-bikini biker would have had her up in arms.]

23 03 2017
Joachim Boaz

Thanks! (yours was a fascinating read as well).

As I am a major fan of Barry N. Malzberg, I always have my eye out for black humor!

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