The Quest for Equality and the Long Struggle for LGBT Freedom
Teaching in Tough Places

When Science Fiction Changed: Joanna Russ, In Memoriam

Stephen Burt is the author Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry, as well as several other books of poetry and criticism. He writes about poetry, contemporary literature, graphic novels, and science fiction for The New York TimesLondon Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, The Nation and The Believer, among others. He is Professor of English at Harvard University, where he teaches a very popular course on science fiction

Joanna Russ in an undated photographWhen science fiction changed, Joanna Russ—as much as any writer— changed it; and when society changed— becoming less sexist, more open to women's ambitions, more open to women who love women, though there is still so very far to go—Russ's work played no small part. Russ, who died last month at age 74, began publishing sf fifty years ago. She made a name among science fiction fans for her unconventional, violent heroine Alyx and for more than two decades of strong short stories, among them the often reprinted "When It Changed" and the perfectly wrought medieval tale "Souls." Russ had a long career as an academic, at Cornell University, the University of Washington and elsewhere; she earned prominence, too, as a feminist critic, taking on topics within and outside genre fiction, most notably in How to Suppress Women's Writing (1983) a classic statement to set beside the only slightly earlier feminist prose of Kate Millett, Sandra Gilbert, Dorothy Dinnerstein, Adrienne Rich.

But Russ will long and rightly be identified with her third novel, The Female Man. Completed in 1971, not published till 1975, and recognized immediately as coruscating feminist polemic, it's also a rapid, compelling work of sf, an intricate metafiction, and a good read. In that book, "Joanna," identified with the author, meets three versions of herself, brought together by interdimensional time travel. Jeannine Dadier hails from an alternate America where the Great Depression continues to the present day (i.e. 1969); opportunities for women there (at least, for women like Jeannine) seem even more circumscribed, sex roles more hypocritical and constricting, than in the real United States. Janet Evason (the "son" means "daughter") visits them both from a far future culture called Whileaway, an efficient, appealing single-sex society whose philosophy and biotech Janet describes. She introduces herself with a sentence that identified the book as science fiction at the time: "My mother's name was Eva, my other mother's name Alicia; I am Janet Evason." She continues: "When I was thirteen I stalked and killed a wolf alone, on North Continent above the forty-eighth parallel, using only a rifle."

Book cover for The Female Man by Joanna Russ Whileaway is hardly the first single-sex feminist utopia, but it's crisply described, with little sentimentality, wry summary ("They work too much. They are incredibly tidy"), and vivid set scenes. Janet's remembered adventures back on Whileaway make a neat contrast with the bitter satire, self-referential devices, bleakly essayistic fragments, and inset playlets (drawn from Eric Berne's Games People Play) that show up the sexist effects, not only of malign individuals, but of American habits, assumptions, and institutions, in 1969, 1975, and still today. The narrator tells us that she has become a man (thus the title) in the spirit of Simone de Beauvoir's "One is not born a woman, but becomes one": to assume a position of power, to speak for oneself, to create new worlds, Joanna must therefore become something else.

Science fiction delivers a promise and a warning. It also delivers hope: depicting imagined futures, events and characters not possible here and now, sf says that things can and will be otherwise—that what we have seen already is not all there is. That's what Janet said, with uncommon force, in 1975: not just that women can hunt and fight duels and explore the Arctic and be the government, but also that women can love other women, raise children with other women, and experience sexual pleasure without men. While in Joanna's time, Janet falls hard for Laura, a disaffected teenager who likes to imagine that she's Genghis Khan, enjoys mathematics, and needs to be saved from false consciousness: "I'm a victim of penis envy (said Laura) so I can't ever be happy or lead a normal life." While Laura, slowly, awakens, Jeannine flounders, caught between two wrong-choice guys. Jeannine, like Joanna, could benefit from a loud, strong, well-organized feminist movement (not that Jeannine's world is likely to see one), but she could also benefit from a "Whileawayan communications device": "'I found it on Janet's bed,' said Jeannine, still whispering... 'I can't figure out what it is. You hold it by the handle and if you move this switch it buzzes on one end, though I don't see why, and another switch makes this piece move up and down.'"

The Female Man is funny, terse, eclectic, self-conscious and thoughtful, as well as angry-- it has a lot to be angry about. "Mothers have to sacrifice themselves to their children, both male and female," one of Russ's narrators explains, "so that the children will be happy when they grow up; though the mothers themselves were once children and were sacrified to in order that they might grow up and sacrifice... and when their daughters grow up, they will be mothers and they will have to sacrifice, so that you begin to wonder whether the whole thing isn't a plot to make the world safe for (male) children. But motherhood is sacred and mustn't be talked about." Russ stood out, and still stands out today, as a fiction writer willing to own her anger, brusquely or at length, directly or sarcastically; a talented prose stylist willing to stand for (without confining herself to) a cause. She later resolved, in a letter her critics quote, "I will not trust anyone who isn't angry": it's a distrust that The Female Man recommends.

But to praise The Female Man (as political work and as writing) this way is to make the book sound too much like an essay: it's also a novel, with a brisk plot and a moral conundrum near the end. I said that Joanna has three alter egos, but for most of the book we see just two. The last one shows up more than halfway through: Jael Reasoner, "a specialist in disguises," comes from a world where Manlanders and Womanlanders have long been at war. She also has retractable claws, like the superhero Wolverine. Jael's world and life, though intermittently thrilling, turn out to be as grotesque and appalling as Janet and Whileaway are appealing; are the two worlds secretly interdependent? Does Jael need Janet's help—and does Whileaway require Jael's? What should Joanna do? The Female Man finally goes beyond pastel, peaceable single-sex utopias, beyond the hopeful prescriptions of liberal feminism, into a far harsher place. "Rape is one of the Christian mysteries," one of her narrators (but which one?) decides; in consequence, she has to commit a murder—"with every truthful reflection in the eyes of a dying man I get back a little of my soul." It may be that the replacement of a patriarchal culture, a rape culture, by something more friendly to women requires some sort of Fanonian, empowering, retributive time of violence.

Or it may not be. "I don't like didactic nightmares," one of Russ's narrators also admits. The Female Man almost becomes a didactic nightmare, just as it almost becomes a programmatic utopia; but it is neither—it's a taut and memorable invention that the future is going to continue to read, not just as a document (though it is one) of 1970s radical feminism, a fiction of lesbian liberation, a milestone in sf, but as a successful experiment in narration, a forceful political novel that (like all the best political novels) holds questions that won't go away.