Size / / /

Joanna Russ coverAt first glance, Gwyneth Jones’s Joanna Russ, a volume in the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, appears to be a conventional critical study focusing on published material. Jones’s book amounts to a very useful work of reference, providing extensive summaries and thematic descriptions of not just Russ’s novels and most important stories and essays, but also of individual book review columns and letters. At the same time, however, one can’t help but wonder what Russ would have to say about being catalogued, as one of three women to date alongside Bujold and Butler in this Modern Masters series, within the academic SF canon. Regardless of how good Jones’s book is, it is difficult on one level not to see this process of institutionalisation as a means of defusing the threat posed by Russ’s radical blend of form and content, which often seems to demand nothing short of a revolutionary transformation of society.

Questioning Russ’s inclusion in the series in these terms risks overlooking, however, some of the quietly understated ways in which Jones gently subverts the standard critical approach of such studies. Most significant of these is her decision to call Russ by her first name throughout the text. In an academic context, this is still an “error” which tutors diligently correct when encountered in first-year undergraduate essays—just as once, in the UK, we used to correct any use of the first person in critical essays. Rather as there has been a “personal turn” towards writing more autobiographically within the Humanities, I suspect that we may increasingly see a change towards using first names for authors in the decades ahead as a means of further liberating academic discourse. In Jones’s case, this decision is not just a reflection of sensibility, but also a deliberate means of linking Russ as a person to the fictional versions of herself that she wrote, such as “Joanna” within The Female Man. Other reviewers, such as Russell Letson in Locus, have noted Jones’s strong biographical focus and the way that she treats Russ’s life and work as interlinked. But I think we can go further than that and read Jones as suggesting that most of Russ’s oeuvre is an extended writing of her own self. Jones’s conclusion to this effect is unequivocal: “[Joanna’s] novels are dazzling experiments: each of them a new beginning, each examining a new facet of her personal and political experience, her passionate sense of wonder, and, of course, the costs and pleasures of being female. The Female Man is only the most famous episode. The whole story is worth the same attention” (p. 156).

The book is chronologically organised and the chapters are divided into different sections (they respectively focus in sequence on stories, essays, book reviews and letters written during a given set of years). Five of the seven chapters have titles including the name of a major work: And Chaos Died (1970), The Female Man (1975), We Who Are About To . . . (1977), The Two of Them (1978), and Extra(Ordinary) People (1984). One of the other chapters centres on the Khatru symposium—the 1974 discussion of “Women in Science Fiction” featuring Russ, Le Guin, Charnas, Delany, Tiptree and others—and the opening chapter introduces us to Russ and discusses her upbringing and early publications. Given that much of Russ’s fiction aside from The Female Man—available in the UK in Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series—is not in print, this book is going to be an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to identify which of Russ’s texts may be of interest to them before tracking them down.

The point here, though, is not just to plead with us to give attention to texts other than the one Russ is best known for, but also to argue for a version of Russ that does not reduce itself to the implied narratorial position of The Female Man. This sounds as though I am possibly contradicting myself and that Jones really should have used Russ’s surname if she wanted to differentiate her from the apparently second-wave feminist “Joanna” of The Female Man, but the equations we are dealing with here are not as linear as those of Euclidian geometry. As Jones points out, the four versions of the same woman in The Female Man are not independent entities. They are an interplay of pasts, presents, and possible futures held in constellation by a temporal flux yet to be resolved:

The novel’s séance-like structure of competing voices is fiction laid bare: every viewpoint character a strand “blurring in and out” in the twisted braid of the author’s mind, the "great, grand palimpsest of me” – like the superposition of outcomes, in Schrodinger’s mental experiment about the cat in the box. Her past, still part of her, is Jeannine. Her feminist present (and our omniscient narrator) is “Joanna” – although not identical with the real Joanna Russ. Janet is her ideal future, and we don’t yet know the character of her shadow self [in this passage, Jones is commenting on Part Two of The Female Man before Jael is fully introduced to the reader]. But we can be sure that in reality there is always only the author, trying out different treatments of her important scenes (as we all do, in memory); adjusting her “facts” to reflect new thoughts; progressing awkwardly, because there is so much to tell that can’t be rendered in linear form. (p. 59)

Therefore, while the story of The Female Man is of how “[Joanna] came to embrace radical feminism while retaining a feminine past” (p. 68), “Joanna” is not that radical feminist but a fictional position constructed by Russ in order to transport herself out of her own history: “it was as Jeannine that Joanna rebelled, changed, and conceived the book; although she had to become ‘Joanna’ to write it” (p. 63). From this perspective, the authorial persona we know as the science-fiction writer “Joanna Russ” is actually a self-invented fiction that was not a goal in itself but a means of enablement for its creator. While this was clearly a successful manoeuvre for Russ at the time, it has had long-term consequences for her reputation, because this self-authored fictional version of herself in The Female Man, which verges on a caricature, has come to dominate how she is remembered in popular culture—especially among those who haven’t read her other work. One of the purposes of Jones’s book is to unpick this particular entanglement between Russ and her fictional persona in order to enable a more balanced reception. Her aim is not to reveal the “real person” behind the fiction but to show us that Russ’s self-creative practice was not a monumental event resulting in one persona but a career-long process of reinvention, characterised by fluid and provisional, rather than rigid, stances.

Jones embeds this idea of Russ-as-writer engaged in perpetual self-transformation at the beginning of the book, in giving the first chapter the title “Joanna Russ, Trans-Temp Agent.” The Trans-Temp Agency are introduced in Russ’s first novel Picnic on Paradise (1968), also feature in “The Second Inquisition” (1970), and then again a few years later in The Two of Them (1978). By suggesting at the outset that Russ herself was a Trans-Temp Agent, Jones establishes a pattern of reading Russ’s SF texts as metaphors for her participation in science fiction “as an exceptional woman in a male-ordered organisation” (p. 111). The apparent circularity of this argument is not a bug but a feature: the secret of a time travel narrative in which the protagonist is always somehow also her own progenitor. This structure is first apparent in the “Alyx” cycle, which Jones characterises as “a serpent that eats its own tail” (p. 19). Describing the invention of Alyx in the mid-1960s as “a momentous, life-changing decision”, Jones quotes from Russ’s 1975 interview with the journal Quest (a full transcript of which is provided at the end of Joanna Russ):

“Long before I became a feminist in any explicit way . . . I had turned from writing love stories about women, in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life. These are stories about a sword and sorcery heroine called Alyx, and before writing the first I spent about two weeks in front of my typewriter, shaking.” (p. 11)

In the past decade or so, it has become increasingly accepted that there is no reason why any role in a generic science fiction or fantasy story may not be gender flipped; but the reason Russ had to steel herself to take the plunge with Alyx is that she is not just another hero who happens to be a woman. As Jones points out, the revolutionary aspect of the undertaking is not the plot but the combination of realist treatment, irony, and quietly humane values, which generates a sensibility at odds with the stereotypical feel of sword and sorcery. The reader quickly realises that they are in a transfigured landscape of the imaginary in which signification works differently so that standard outcomes are foiled; it’s never clear what is going to happen next in the Alyx stories. On one level, these stories can be seen as providing escape from the narrow conventions of postwar America, a world in which a twelve-year-old Russ was unforgivably told by a school psychiatrist that she had penis envy; but they are also about the more profound question of how an individual sets about engaging directly with the world around her, as given full expression in the last of the cycle, The Second Inquisition.

Jones explains how, somewhat confusingly, “The Second Inquisition” is an Alyx novella in which not Alyx but a female hero from the future appears as the “violent yet consoling daydream of a lonely young girl” (p. 17). This sixteen-year-old girl is not growing up in the USA of 1953, as Irene Waskiewicz does in The Two of Us and as Russ did herself, but in 1925—and in a world in which Michael Arlen’s bestselling novel, The Green Hat (1924), represents the height of risqué modern thought. The visitor gives this book to the girl to read and then defends her from her parents when they catch her with it. Jones cites Gary Wolfe to explain how the story plays off the way in which mainstream teenage fantasy stories typically enact a rite of passage. At the point of the story in which it becomes clear that there is no visitor from the future, we realise that in fact the girl helped herself surreptitiously to the book which she knew she wasn’t allowed to read. However, the story’s metafictional treatment of science fiction makes it more than a rite of passage, and this is manifest in the discussion between the girl and her imaginary visitor about Wells’s The Time Machine (1895). On being asked if she is an Eloi or a Morlock, the visitor confirms that she is the latter, one of the terrible murderous rulers of the worlds of the future. The girl asks if she can go with her when she returns but at this point it is made clear to the reader that the girl, dressed up in a home-made “Trans-Temporal Military Authority” costume, is talking to her own reflection in the mirror. Then she abandons dressing up and turns to face the outside world. As Jones observes, it is a puzzling story because it both raises the power of fantasy, and acknowledges the violence inherent in it, before abandoning its protagonist to the even more violent and monstrous, but mundane, cold reality of the world outside the bedroom door. The last sentence of the story is “No more stories,” which constitutes a brutally finite ending—especially if one is reading “The Second Inquisition” as the last of the Alyx stories in the collected edition, The Adventures of Alyx, first published in 1983.

The force of this rejection causes Jones to ask, “Was Joanna, in 1969, already planning to renounce her dream worlds?” (p. 19) She provides two answers that are not straightforwardly linked but which between them map out the area of interaction in which most of the rest of Russ’s fiction operates. On the one hand, suggests Jones, Russ did renounce the dream worlds of genre SF by opting instead to transform SF “into modern art for a cause” (p. 19). On the other hand, “The Second Inquisition” can be read as a message from the future, asking both reader and writer how they will change the world. Escapism might provide consolation that is at times necessary, but it is no substitute for the difficult and confrontational task of generating change by intervention in the everyday working of the world, which often involves at least symbolic violence. Russ was, in the writing of The Female Man, able to meet the aims of both making Modern art and causing social and symbolic change by adopting an explicitly modernist approach of making it new.

However, as part of that novel’s experimental autobiographical fiction of past, present and future selves, she nonetheless includes Jael, who—like the visitor in “The Second Inquisition”—is a Morlock from the future. The future Jael comes from, however, is not Whileaway—the utopian women-only society which Janet, another of the novels four “Js”, lives—but a militarised version of the battle of the sexes being fought out between the opposed blocs of Manland and Womanland. At one point in the novel, Jael describes for several pages how, using probability-travel, she has recently completed an eighteen-month mission in a primitive patriarchy on an alternative Earth in the guise of a Prince of Faery. It’s a curious insertion of a Trans-Temp Alyx-style adventure into what is otherwise a very different kind of fiction. However, at a symbolic level, it clearly ties the possibility of social change to violent revolutionary action. As Jones reminds us, the major plot twist towards the end of The Female Man lies in Jael’s revelation to the other three “Js” that Janet’s Whileaway was not the product of a plague killing all the men but of the total military victory of Womanland over Manland in Jael’s timeline. It’s “Jael […] and the savagery she represents, who built Whileaway’s thousand years of peace” (p. 67).

If we believe Jael, then we must see Whileaway as the particular product of an utterly binary war between women and men, which as an unintended consequence has created the need in Manland for the “changed” and “half-changed”—who, in Jones’s words, are male infants that have been “forcibly feminized, surgically or cosmetically, to serve the needs of Men (since real Men can’t possibly have sex with each other)” (p. 65). This section of the novel is difficult to read today (especially in the context of the current assault on trans rights in the UK and elsewhere) because, as Lee Mandelo points out in an article at Tor.Com, while “it’s a scathing critique of patriarchy and what men see in/use women for [… t]he young men are forced to take the operations, after all; it has nothing to do with choice […]. [It] treads very, very close to transphobic territory.” As Cheryl Morgan notes in the first comment on Mandelo’s article, in some feminist circles at the time when Russ was writing, “it was widely assumed that trans women were a product of a male plot to do away with ‘real’ women and replace them with compliant ‘fake’ women (and trans men didn’t exist). Thankfully the world has moved on a lot since then, and Russ apologized publicly during an interview at Wiscon.”

At the same time, as Mandelo also points out, The Female Man is not solely a feminist text to be historicised within feminist contexts but also very much a queer text explicitly concerned with queer desire. While this concern is principally expressed through lesbian relationships, such as that between Janet and Laura Rose (which is another variant on the idea of a visit from the future marking a rite of passage for a teenage girl), there is nonetheless a queer charge also to the portrayal of the “half-changed” Anna. In this respect, these passages are not just troubling in a negative sense but may also “trouble” the reader more productively by challenging them to confront their own sexuality and gender—at least, that was certainly my experience reading the novel for the first time in the early 1990s. But it also needs to be noted that nowadays there is a much wider offering of queer texts available; nobody has to read The Female Man any more. Therefore, I think Jones is justified in treading lightly around this aspect of the novel and choosing to focus instead on the idea of Whileaway as representing a gender nonconforming, rather than an exclusionary, utopia:

We glimpse how the removal of binary gender (more significant, even, than the removal of the sexual threat that men present) is transforming human beings, in a society where reproduction is technological and humanity is no longer “natural,” into benign creators and curators of the natural world – and nobody we meet seems overly burdened by doctrinaire politics. (p. 63)

From this perspective, the complex interplay between her four fictional versions of herself is Russ’s means of working through her own experiences in order to clear the path towards “a future cleansed of gender-role dominance” (p. 68). She does what is necessary to resolve her own demons rather than looking to offer a representational model that will be universally valid. However—and this is the central strand of Jones’s argument running throughout the book—even Whileaway only marks a stage within a wider ongoing programme of self-transformation that continues with the return of the Trans-Temp agency in The Two of Us, a novel that is still available in print from Wesleyan University Press. As Jones points out, the protagonist, Irene Waskiewicz, is “another past or possible Joanna—brash and sexually aggressive (and politicially naïve), to add to the four Js in The Female Man” (p. 126). However, unlike Jael in the earlier novel, Irene doesn’t participate in a war against all men but only—and reluctantly, after exhausting all other possibilities—against her own exemplarily liberal Trans-Temp partner, Ernst, whom she is forced to shoot when he won’t let her leave the agency with the girl she has rescued. This is a symbolic rejection of the patriarchal order but, as Jones argues, it is “genuinely final and painful for both character and author. Fantasies about killing are a palliative, deadening anger. Real renunciation hurts” (p. 132).

Russ was not just renouncing liberal patriarchy and the implied male demand that she just calm down and explain rationally and systematically what is wrong, but also—and once more—SF. However, before that break was complete there would be one last transformation, as summarised in the title of Jones’s seventh and final chapter: “Beyond Gender? Extra(Ordinary) People Imagines a World without Feminism.” The fourth story in the linked  sequence of five which make up that collection, “What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?” is a reworking of Jael’s Trans-Temp interlude in The Female Man, in which the protagonist leaves the world of Manland and Womanland and visits an alternate timeline disguised as a “Demon Prince.” However, during the ensuing chaotic series of events, probability is shifted, and she returns to the world of Manland/Womanland to find that it is no longer stable and that a revolution is stirring that involves both women and men. Jones asks whether the “shift—textual and metatextual, changing the story and announcing Joanna’s own changes—means that ‘Whileaway’ (no longer exclusively female) has become ‘more probable’ than ‘Manland versus Womanland’s’ mutually assured destruction?” (p. 153). As she does with “The Second Inquisition,” Jones concludes that the story is confusing but that the later sequence, unlike the earlier Alyx stories, turns on the primacy of authorship and creation. In this manner, Jones shows us how Joanna finally transcended the position of the female man in society.

Despite all I have argued above, it is impossible for me not to return to The Female Man for the conclusion of this review. As Jones shows, it was a necessary text for Russ to write as part of her self-development and, it is implied, a necessary text for the development of science fiction as a field in the 1970s. (Jones’s own substantial body of fiction and criticism—which more than merits being the subject of its own volume in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series—itself bears testimony to Russ’s influence.) The Female Man famously ends with a self-instruction to “go, little book” across the US and Europe, to pay homage to the second-wave feminist “shrines of Friedan, Millet, Greer, Firestone, and all the rest,” and to go on and on but, finally, not to “complain when at last you become quaint and old-fashioned [. . . .] For on that day, we will be free.” The playful implication is that the novel would only become redundant at a point when its readership no longer had first-hand experience of patriarchal culture and misogyny. However, while that day is not yet on the horizon, the more exclusionary aspects of the novel’s imaginary have become just as problematic as toxic masculinity from the point of view of twenty-first century intersectional feminists. As a consequence, The Female Man no longer automatically speaks to today’s readers as it did to its 1970s contemporaries. This is a pity not just for historical reasons but because we still need Russ’s anger, queer energy, satirical sharpness, and, above all, her belief in retrospective redemption: only the future can save the present. By reminding us of the full range of Russ’s work and rewriting the trajectory of “Joanna” so that it links The Female Man to more inclusive utopias such as that of “What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?”, Jones gives us a version of Russ that we can carry on reading productively if we so choose.

Nick Hubble divides their time between Aberystwyth and Uxbridge.
Current Issue
15 Apr 2024

Mnemonic skills test positive: inaccurately positive.
pallid growths like toadstools, / and scuttling many-legged things,
By: Ana Hurtado
Art by: delila
I want to sink my faces into the hot spring and see which one comes out breathing. I’m hoping it’s mine.
Issue 8 Apr 2024
Issue 1 Apr 2024
Issue 25 Mar 2024
By: Sammy Lê
Art by: Kim Hu
Issue 18 Mar 2024
Strange Horizons
Issue 11 Mar 2024
Issue 4 Mar 2024
Issue 26 Feb 2024
Issue 19 Feb 2024
Issue 12 Feb 2024
Issue 5 Feb 2024
Load More
%d bloggers like this: