Serial Review: We Who Are About To… by Joanna Russ (Part 1/2)

(Cover by Rick Sternbach. Galaxy, January 1976.)

Who Goes There?

The ’60s saw an influx of explicitly feminist SFF writers, in correspondence with the sexual revolution of the period, with authors like Ursula K. Le Guin and Kate Wilhelm (although the latter had debuted in the late ’50s) coming to prominence. Perhaps the most abrasive of these new voices in the field was Joanna Russ, whose professional debut was in 1959 and who really hit the scene with her classic vampire story “My Dear Emily” in 1962. Her series of stories about Alyx the barbarian are of interest for a few reasons: first was the novelty of having a female protagonist in what amounted to heroic fantasy, and the second was that said heroic fantasy hopscotched its way between that genre and science fiction. What made Russ most famous (or infamous), though, was her 1975 novel The Female Man, which had apparently been written half a decade earlier but remained shelved until then. Russ, in both her fiction and her criticism (she, along with Judith Merril, was considered one of old-timey SFF’s great critics), was a real warrior with the pen—her combativeness earned her some enemies, but also much respect.

Due to health problems, Russ’s output petered out after the ’70s, and her career as a novelist was short-lived, with her first and last novels (Picnic on Paradise and The Two of Them, respectively) being published only a decade apart. She did, however, get some awards recognition, winning the Hugo for Best Novella with her 1982 novella “Souls,” which, though people must not have figured it at the time, had come out during Russ’s twilight years as a fiction writer. Still, as arguably the most outwardly spoken vanguard of second-wave feminism in relation to SFF, it’s possible that by 1985 Russ had said pretty much everything she wanted to say. While she lived until 2011, Russ’s legacy is very much conjoined to prevailing feminist modes of thought in the ’60s and ’70s.

Placing Coordinates

Part 1 of We Who Are About To… was published in the January 1976 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. I assumed that this novel would be out of print, but this is not so! There’s a paperback from Wesleyan University Press that looks like it’s still in print, and the same goes for a more recent paperback from Penguin Books; yes, apparently Penguin thought We Who Are About To… was significant enough to give it a fresh printing. Of course, the Wesleyan edition is superior by virtue of not being British. Keep in mind also that this is a very short novel—170 pages in its first edition and just under 120 in the Wesleyan, almost making it a novella really.

It could’ve been even shorter, I’m just saying.

Just as interestingly, this was published in Galaxy during that period when Jim Baen was editor. Baen was a truly remarkably editor, one of the all-time greats, but it’s funny to see a serial by leftist firebrand Joanna Russ in the same issue as pieces by such grumpy right-wing stalwarts as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle; mind you, Baen’s fondness for out-of-left-field (pun intended) authors like Russ and Le Guin paled in comparison to his devotion to the conversative/libertarian crowd.

Enhancing Image

Before we get into the actual plot, let’s talk about a niche but weirdly prolific and popular subgenre, if you can even call it a subgenre: the stranded astronaut story. You know the drill, it’s when an astronaut (or at least someone who is spacefaring) gets stranded in some hostile environment and has to find a way either call for rescue and live in that new environment. Even by 1976, when Russ’s novel was serialized, this was a real old chestnut of the genre, and evidently it continues to be hugely popular in the present day if The Martian is anything to go by. Name an SF author and they probably wrote a stranded astronaut story at some point, and more often than not such a story is fundamentally optimistic about the prospect of humanity surviving amongst the stars. Such a premise is very much Campbellian, and while it didn’t start in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, it appeals to that sensibility.

We Who Are About To… does not hold such an optimistic view of humanity being able to overcome such obstacles; this is a novel that basically tells us right at the beginning that everyone will be dead by the end, so I’m not counting that as a spoiler, since it’s all but predestined. You may be wondering what I’m gonna do about the spoilers section, since I always have that for these reviews: don’t worry, you’ll see. You may also be wondering what the point is of Russ introducing us to these characters that she’s pointing at and saying, “Hehe, I’m gonna fucking KILL them by the end of this!” Well, you know what they say about the journey and the destination; more importantly, this novel would not be able to justify its own existence if it didn’t result in a kill-’em-all type of ending. Let’s pretend, though, for a second that we might get invested in these people.

Now, as for the characters…

There are eight of them at the outset, but only maybe half of them really matter. Five women and three men, and one of those women is very much underage (there’s a ’70s-ism here that I don’t feel like getting into, except to say that putting barely-in-their-teens characters in sexually compromising situations seemed like something you just did as an SFF writer in that era), not to mention a daughter of one of the other women. We have Mr. and Mrs. Graham and their daughter Lori, Cassie, Nathalie, Alan, John, and the unnamed female narrator. John is possibly the most interesting of the bunch since he acts as kind of a foil to the narrator, thinking himself an intellectual when in reality he’s a know-nothing bureaucrat. Alan is the youngest of the men and the closest the novel has to a conventional antagonist; he’s the only one who, prior to Part 1’s climax, resorts to physixal violence. Nathalie is a bit of a nonentity while Cassie is the closest (aside from Lori) the narrator has to an ally in all this. Not that that means much.

Our Heroes™, as part of an interplanetary expedition gone awry, crash land on what is probably a “tagged” planet, which is to say a planet whose makeup is not immediately fatal to humans. So it’s more habitable than Mars, which is something. Left with only the remains of their vessel, a land rover (or something like it), and some supplies, it’s time for the group to get their act together and see if they can make the best of a bad situation. They may as well get used to it since they have no way of calling for help and the planet itself is so distant from human civilization that help is simply not coming. But it can’t be all bad, can it? Well, the narrator thinks it’s all bad.

John Ude said, “Come on now, come on, dears. It’s a tagged planet. It has to be. Too much coincidence otherwise, eh? The air, the gravity. Now if it’s tagged, that means it’s like Earth. And we know Earth. Most of us were bom on it. So what’s there to be afraid of, hey? We’re just colonizing a little early, that’s all. You wouldn’t be afraid of Earth, would you?’’

Oh, sure. Think of Earth. Kind old home. Think of the Arctic. Of Labrador. Of Southern India in June. Think of smallpox and plague and earthquakes and ringworm and pit vipers. Think of a nice case of poison ivy all over, including your eyes. Status Asthmaticus. Amoebic dysentery. The Minnesota pioneers who tied a rope from the house to the barn in winter because you could lose your way in a blizzard and die three feet from the house. Think (while you’re at it) of tsunamis, liver fluke, the Asian brown bear. Kind old home. The sweetheart. The darling place.

The narrator has a snarky sense of humor—humor which, if absent, would render the novel borderline unreadable. The snark helps both the character and the reader cope with how hopeless things are. The narrator proceeds to list all the problems with a “tagged” planet and how basically nobody in the group is equipped to live long-term on such a planet, let alone set up a colony. Think of how many parts of our world are uninhabitable and compare that to a planet Our Heroes™ know nothing about, and whose very water could be lethal to humans. Something that constantly gets ignored or handwaved in these stranded astronaut stories is how fucking difficult (i.e., impossible) it would actually be to live in an environment that’s not suited for human habitation. While I have my issues with Russ’s novel, its mission statement as a strong dose of anti-Campbellian SF is admirable, even if I find it far too pessimistic for its own good. I do often prefer my SF to be at least a bit more hopepilled, just saying.

While the narrator is incessantly bitchy, her fatalistic viewpoint (we may as well play Uno until we die of starvation) is not unfounded. As far as she’s concerned, everyone died in the crash (not physically, but more metaphysically) and all this talk of setting up a colony is just delaying the inevitable. She might be more invested in survival if, say, they were literally the last human beings in the universe and if they didn’t procreate then the race would die out, but something tells me even if that was the case her response would still be “meh.” Naturally this attitude does not vibe well with the rest of the group, and she’s soon treated as a buzzkill at best and some kind of antisocial deviant at worst.

Take this little exchange between the narrator and John (again), which is easily one of my favorite bits of dialogue in Part 1:

“Civilization must be preserved,’’ says he.

“Civilization’s doing fine,’’ I said. “We just don’t happen to be where it is.’’

To say the narrator is thorny would be putting it mildly. Assuming the doom-and-gloom premise doesn’t alienate you, the total unlikability of the protagonist (even calling her an anti-heroine doesn’t feel right) just might, and I suspect is also the big reason why contemporary reviewers were not kind to the novel. It would be one thing if the narrator was set in her ways and she just wanted to be left to her own devices, but those dumb fellow humans keep trying to rope her back in, but she’s so nasty to everyone (except the Grahams, and even with them she’s standoffish) that we’re not sure why the others would want to keep her. The most plausible explanation is that they need everyone they can get, even the person who refuses to cooperate, if they hope to rebuild on this strange new planet, but I feel like it’s possible to do without just one person, especially if that person is a huge pain to be around.

Indeed, while the narrator is not without redeeming qualities, the conflict is only allowed to happen because she, for some reason, refuses to just take a hike and kill herself in peace, at least sparing everyone else the trouble. The whole idea is that she wants to die, since she sees no point in living under such dire circumstances, yet she keeps going. Oh, there are attempts from the others to keep the narrator from hurting herself, but she still has plenty of opportunities, not to mention means, of ending her own life, yet she can’t do it. She has a gas pellet gun which she can load with poison and enough drugs on her person to take down an elephant or two, so it shouldn’t be that hard. Of course, the narrator’s lack of drive to do what she herself thinks ought to be done is probably the point, which finally brings us to…

There Be Spoilers Here

Most of them die. End of Part 1.




Okay, there’s more to it than that.

I can’t remember now when it happened exactly, but I realized that the narrator reminded me of a certain other character, and while I wasn’t expecting the comparison, it makes total sense to me now. I’m talking about Hamlet. The doomed prince of Denmark was a revolutionary character in theatrical storyteller, and, being innovative, he’s easy to poke fun at. The tragedy of Hamlet is that he is a man who is all thought and no action; every action he takes in the place is either misguided or comes about too late. To have the protagonist of your tragedy spend so much of the story saying so much and doing so little is probably frustrating for a lot of modern readers/viewers, but consider how unique Hamlet is as possibly the first true introvert in the history of theatre. The tragic hero, no matter how doomed, is typically a person who acts, while Hamlet is a person who thinks.

Similarly, the narrator of We Who Are About To… spends so much of her time thinking and so little time doing, so much so that the violent confrontation at the end of Part 1 struck me as more action-packed than it really was. The narrator is forced to take action against the rest of the group once she had literally nowhere left to run, resulting in her killing John, Alan, and Nathalie, and with Cassie, opting to do the reasonable thing and no longer put up with the narrator’s bullshit, killing herself. Had the narrator done so herself earlier, none of this would have happened, but like Hamlet she either acts in the wrong way or too late. Also like Hamlet, she thinks about suicide a good amount, and while I have to think of the novel’s pro-suicide (or at the very least pro-euthanasia) stance as almost more a shock tactic than an actual argument Russ is making, I also think it makes sense that she would (like Hamlet) struggle to go through with shuffling off this mortal coil.

The narrator being a Hamlet-esque figure does something to explain (if not to justify totally) her constant antagonism toward the rest of the group, not to mention her obsession with death. It’s all engaging on a thematic level, and it’s nice to think about—I just wish I could say the same for it as a reading experience.

A Step Farther Out

Part 1 ending where it does immediately brings up a structural problem, since by this point most of the cast is dead and there’s frankly not much than can happen from this point onward. At the end of Part 1 it feels more like we’re approaching the last third, or even the last quarter of the novel, and not the second half. It’s also a problem of length, since even taking into account how short it already is, I can’t help but feel like We Who Are About… can stand to be even shorter; it would be feasible, possibly even desirable, to whittle this 50,000-word novel (I would say Part 1 is about 25,000 words) down to a 30,000-word novella without sacrificing the important things. After all, we don’t need this many characters who inevitably will be snuffed out, nor do we need to know too much about them aside from how they figure into (i.e., oppose) the narrator’s viewpoint. Also, while I do find some of the narrator’s snark mildly funny, there’s only so much of her ultra-pessimistic unlikability that I can stomach.

Despite my reservations, I am curious as to how Russ plans to justify what looks to be mostly a one-woman show in the novel’s back half, and how that might impact my enjoyment of the whole thing as opposed to just admiring its thematic audacity. I’ve been burned before.

See you next time.


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