Monday, May 02, 2011

Joanna Russ, RIP

Joanna Russ, a feminist science fiction writer, died on April 29, 2011. She is best known for her novel The Female Man. Several feminists recommend her 1982 How To Suppress Women's Writing as a "reverse" guide for women and minorities.

I was never able to get through The Female Man. Mea culpa. It is time to try it again. For me Russ' most important work by far is We Who Are about To, followed by The Two of Them.

Neither of those books is thick. That is about the only light thing I can say about them. Yet they are important to read because Russ' complex (and pessimistic) views on gender are under-represented and because she is excellent at showing the larger connections, the ways in which gender hierarchies serve and support the societies which created them and the ways in which they do not. Neither her men nor her women are free to make their own lives but neither are they complete victims of the system. With a few exceptions, they see dimly, comprehend partially and struggle on, sometimes in the wrong direction.

Hers is a pessimistic eye. She doesn't shy away from the violence in human society, including in its gender relations, and she doesn't offer easy solutions to those. Yet the characters in her books have some agency. They have choices, though we might not regard those choices as very pleasant.

We Who Are About To is the better of the two books. It is better written and offers us not only a dystopian example of gender arrangements but also a dystopian example of what space travel might really mean, to counteract all those utopian examples where having a space ship means that one is a step closer to godhood than in our actual earthbound lives.