revisiting argumentative feminist SF from the 70s with Joanna Russ
A friend convinced me to try again by loaning me We Who Are About To... and Souls, both later works of hers that veered away from “badass government agent” setup of Picnic (a premise that, though revelatory and subversive around its initial publication in 1968, when it ran counter to many pulp sci-fi tropes, was less interesting to me).
Who Who Are About To... in particular stood out as an attack on colonialism-in-space, survivalist narratives, and forced-birth premises. Though written from a different era, the book felt like an antidote to several recent popular sci-fi series I've read, where humans defeat the outside alien scourge or survive great odds thanks to the depth of the human spirit, so on and so on. When Russ's protagonists crashland, there's no “foreign space enemies” on the new planet, like in many space travel narratives — the travelers feel compelled to settle the planet regardless. With no hope of rescue, the group's leaders concoct an illogical plan to breed, despite having no survival skills, no ability to farm or hunt or build, and no real sense of reason or purpose for continuing to exist, beyond the thought that they probably ought to because that's what you do.
The book turns into an intense indictment of “survival at all costs” stories, as well as an attack on forced-birth, eugenicist, “survival of the species” narratives that pervade older sci-fi (and persist in subtler forms in modern franchises). Though the comparison to Lord of the Flies might be tempting, the book is less interested in mankind's reversion to its savage nature; it's more interested in questions about the cost (and value) of survival at all.
(Fascinatingly enough, Russ wrote the book as a direct response to Darkover Landfall, the Marion Zimmer Bradley novel infamously panned by Vonda M. McIntyre for being anti-feminist, pro-forced-brith, etc. Shoutout to Sandstone for bringing that to my attention — the back-and-forth between critics documented on the Fanlore wiki is fascinating.)
Souls, overall, was a lot less fascinating to me — although if you're a reader interested in 12th-century Viking conquests and weird metaphysical musings that mirror aliens, the Catholic church, and religious transcendence, this might be a novella for you.
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