Who Goes There?
Joanna Russ was one of the defining feminist voices in ’60s and ’70s SF, as both a fiction writer and a critic. Her combative nature combined with her keen insight led to her accumulating a fair amount of enemies, but also some surprising allies; James Blish and Jim Baen were apparently defenders of Russ, despite being about as different from her politically as one can imagine. Her 1975 novel The Female Man remains her single most famous work, but she probably resonates with modern readers most strongly with her book-length essay How to Suppress Women’s Writing. In case these title choices don’t make it obvious, Russ is deeply concerned with women’s autonomy as people and as creatives. Lesbianism also figures into Russ’s writing, which is not unusual for second-wave feminism, though you’d be surprised how much it doesn’t show up (at least explicitly), including in today’s serial.
We Who Are About To… is Russ’s penultimate novel; she hadn’t even turned forty yet, but her fiction output would slow almost to a dead halt by the time the ’70s ended. This is my second Russ novel, as I had read Picnic on Paradise, her debut, and honestly I didn’t have much fun with that. The subject of today’s review isn’t fun either, but then again it would probably be insulted if you had a good time with it in the conventional sense. It’s a contender for the darkest SF novel of the ’70s, which I suppose is a point of praise. If you have a history of suicide ideation like I do then you’ll have a very bad time with Russ’s novel.
Part 2 was published in the February 1976 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. I’ve said before where you can find We Who Are About To… in book form, just check out my review for Part 1. I will say, the Feburary 1976 issue might be the most essential Baen-era issue of Galaxy that we have; it ticks all the boxes. We have a science article by Jerry Pournelle, a story by Larry Niven, a book review column by Spider Robinson, as well as pieces by daring young authors like John Varley and P. J. Plauger. And then we have Russ, who might stick out like a sore thumb, but I like said, Baen liked Russ, and he also liked paying lip service to explicitly leftist authors.
At the end of Part 1, the nameless narrator killed most of the party, excepting Mrs. Graham and her adopted daughter Lori. I didn’t bring up the fact that Lori is adopted in my review of Part 1 because I didn’t really think it mattered—and it doesn’t! Except on a symbolic narrator, which the narrator makes clear to us. The Grahams married for money, then “bought” a child with their wealth, painting them as delusional petit bourgeois, though they don’t do anything that I would say is too bad. Mr. Graham is a decent fellow and his death (via natural causes) in Part 1 is the closest the narrator comes to actually relating to another person who isn’t Cassie; sure, she treats Lori well (before she kills her), but that’s just being nice. At first I thought the narrator being so unlikable was an oversight on Russ’s part, but Part 2 showed me that this assessment was mistaken.
Returning to the campsite, the narrator kills a now justifiably furious Mrs. Graham with her own gun (Mrs. Graham probably never having handled a gun before), and proceeds to use the gas pellet gun on Lori, killing her instantly and relatively bloodlessly. “You must not shoot Lori with a large-caliber revolver. It’s not right.” This is all in the first few pages of Part 2, and the narrator, having done in everyone, is now left completely on her own. You may notice that we still have a little over thirty magazine pages to go at this point and the novel has become a one-woman show: it’s not as bad as it sounds, but it’s also not… great? The novel stumbles to its predetermined conclusion, but being stuck with just the narrator proves to not be the kiss of death I feared it would.
In Part 1, the narrator isn’t reflecting as much as she’s interacting with other characters, and much like Hamlet she seems to mess with other people intentionally: she claims to have been a “neo-Christian” but also a communist at one point, and everything she says is cloaked in hateful snark. An indicator of when the novel was written is that the narrator comes off like a burnt-out former hippie, with her idealism crushed under what would’ve in the real world been the gas shortage, Watergate, etc. Much like John Lude, the bureaucrat who thinks himself an intellectual, the narrator’s actual humanity is closed off from other eyes, her snarky antagonism being a foil to John’s calm smugness, or rather John is a foil to the narrator. Now that John is dead, along with everyone else, the narrator has nobody left to take her antagonism out on, though that doesn’t stop her from trying!
The realization that she is now by definition the loneliest person in the universe does not hit her immediately. It also doesn’t occur to her until some days in that starving yourself to death might be the slowest way to die possible. Oh sure, she could use her gas pellet gun on her self, or one of a myriad of poisons, or drown herself, but starving will do just fine. “I shall be bored to death long before I starve.” Indeed. As both the narrator and the reader try to fight off the onset of boredom, we get one of those old chestnuts of stranded astronaut stories: hallucinations! The most sustained hallucination is a mock trial in which the dead members of the party dunk on the narrator for killing them, seemingly with no better a justification thant she didn’t like them. These dialogues are all in the narrator’s head, though, something she acknowledges repeatedly.
There’ll be hallucinations about being rescued, I know: croaking thinly, “no, let me die!” (with immense dignity, of course) and I’m carried out to a shuttlecraft by great, coarse, strong, disgustingly healthy people in uniforms with thick necks. Actually it would be a little awkward trying to explain what happened to the others.
You killed them. Why?
They were trying to kill me.
To prevent me.
From doing what?
It’s hard to not frame the narrator killing off most of the party as unforgivably heinous, even if she did it to retain some level of personal freedom in what she saw as a hopeless situation anyway. The thing is, I would’ve actually been more on the narrator’s side if her antagaonism resulted from the men in the party wanting to turn the women into breeding stock, but while there is a conversation in Part 1 about “repopulating,” the moral black hole of procreating without consent never takes center stage in the novel. The narrator is also maybe a lesbian, and at most this would be subliminal since we don’t get much at all from her regarding her orientation, despite the circumstances in Part 1 calling for transparency with that sort of thing. Of course it’s tempting to project Russ’s lesbianism onto the narrator, but I really do think the novel’s deconstruction of survival for its own sake would’ve been more effective if the narrator’s views on sex and relationships were made clearer.
Part 2 is arguably stronger than the first installment because we actually get some insight into the narrator’s motives and how she sees herself. It took long enough, but the novel does eventually become something like a character study, since the plot has basically ended only a fraction into Part 2 and we (and the narrator) are stuck with the protracted aftermath. If you’re a reader who favors plot then the latter half of We Who Are About To… will probably make you pull your hair out, but if you’re much more into character and/or thematic depth like myself then you’ll have more to chew on in the latter half. The other characters were little more than caricatures anyway, so dedicating so much wordage to the one character who might have some real human depth was a good move, even if it was made on what I would argue was a fundamentally flawed premise.
In other words, it sort of pans out, but I don’t think this novel should’ve been—well, a novel. Certainly it could be a novella, but even as a short novel I don’t think it justifies itself.
There Be Spoilers Here
The narrator dies. The end.
This time there really isn’t much more to be said. I’ll take this as a moment to clarify something, because I think there’s a timeline very similar to ours where We Who Are About To… came out as a 30,000-word novella and not a 50,000-word novel, and it would’ve been much stronger while being just as light on plot. The story continues past the point where the narrator has killed everyone, but the plot basically ends halfway through the novel—the plot, or any plot, being a sequence of events. There is action in a plot. That’s not to say something light on events is lacking in depth or even entertainment value; one of my least favorite criticisms of anything is when someone disses it for basically not having a theatrical (or cinematic) three-act structure. A work of art doesn’t have to hit a set quota of plot beats in order to be of enduring value. One of the most experimental and boundary-pushing novels of all time, James Joyce’s Ulysses, has very little in the way of plot, but the nuances of Joyce’s prose, his references, and the psychology of his characters, have been studied for quite literally a century now.
Here’s another example, and this one is directly SF-related: Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren. Delany’s novel is mostly, on its surface, 800 pages of druggy sex and totally-not-hippie artists discussing the nature of art and reality, but when taken past its mere plot it becomes a dense and wide-ranging fable about what might happen when a society tries to rebuild itself while being physically and culturally cut off from the rest of the world. You could hit all the plot beats in a quarter of the word count, but you would lose the juiciness of its meditations and allusions in the process. There’s a peculiar charm to a long rambling novel, but Russ’s novel is short, and it can afford to be even shorter. Russ doesn’t allow her characters, not even the narrator, to take on the human dimensions of Delany’s or Joyce’s, nor does she enchant the text with aesthetic flourishes except in short bursts.
The result is a novel that’s paradoxically short and yet long-winded. The narrator spends so much time starving that she eventually gives up and opts to put both herself and the reader out of her misery with poison. Having turned in her membership card to the human race with first her thorny attitude and then the murders (a mistake she realizes too late to remedy), she bids a final farewell (to herself, if nobody else) in the very last sentence fragment. There’s a line not long before that when she brings up a brief and incisive neo-Christian saying, which encapsulates the narrator’s relationship with the rest of the party as well as her failure to appreciate what little of humanity she had left.
I’ll tell you the neo-christian theory of love. The neo-Christian theory of love is this:
There is little of it. Use it where it’s effective.
It was a life poorly lived.
A Step Farther Out
Do I like this novel? Hmmmmm. Is it a novel that’s meant to be liked? Obviously there are people who are fond of it; it actually has a higher rating on Goodreads than The Female Man. But I don’t see We Who Are About To… as a novel to be enjoyed so much as a novel to be argued with. If you’re totally behind Russ’s apparent feelings on stranded astronaut and Adam & Eve plots (she loathes them) then you’ll at least like the novel on paper, but you’ll still have to contend with how it reads.
I have to admire making a protagonist so unlikable, and to have us be stuck inside the head of said protagonist, but we only begin to understand what her deal is once the excess weight of the rest of the cast has been expelled. This is not a novel that tries to win you over from the beginning; rather, this is the kind of novel that wants you to work for it a little. Again, I can respect that, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy reading it. I hate few things more than when a work of art dares me to experience it, like the experience is a game and I can only “win” if I refuse to play. I’ve been hesitant to check out Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream for the same reason, despite the praise. If a novel, by the nature of its premise, is not meant to be read but to be thought about then why read it? The act of reading should be pleasurable, not just a challenge.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
I respect Russ’s novel, but I don’t “like” it. If you’re one to search for transgressive ’60s and ’70s SFF novels, though, then I would go so far as to say We Who Are About To… is a hidden gem, even by the standards of that niche.
See you next time.