Monday, May 16, 2011

The Female Man, and others

Hey, Joanna Russ died at the end of April. She was 74 years old. This may not mean much 2 you if you're not a science fiction fan, but back when I was reading SF heavily, Russ was 1 of those cutting-edge "New Wave"-style writers who shook up the SF field in the late '60s & early '70s.
She attracted a lotta attention, caused a ton of controversy, & won a few awards -- her heavily feminist short story "When it Changed" won SF's Nebula Award in '73, & her novella "Souls" won the Hugo Award in '83.
The rest of the time she pissed-off a lotta people -- mostly men who thot A Woman's Place Was In The Home. There were still a lotta those guys in SF in the late '60s.
I 1st stumbled over Russ's work in the pages of THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, where she wrote a series of angry, sarcastic book reviews between 1969 & the early '80s. At 1st I didn't like her very much -- I couldn't figure out what she seemed so angry about, or why she was poking fun at the reading I loved.
Later it seemed more & more that she just talked hard, good sense. She had absolutely no patience 4 sloppy, lazy writing, 4 stereotypes repeated endlessly as "formula" & without thot -- she clearly felt that if writers were given a gift they should USE IT.
She did. She wrote 1/2adozen novels -- the 1st 2, PICNIC ON PARADISE and AND CHAOS DIED, were both nominated for Nebula Awards. F&SF book reviewer Judith Merrill said she didn't believe a word of PICNIC, but could clearly see that Russ totally believed & was carried away by her own story.... Intresting that Russ should end up replacing Merrill as F&SF's book critic.
The novel that REALLY got Russ SF's attention was THE FEMALE MAN (1975), which caused all kinds of controversy. Critics called Russ's fable about feminism & female-empowerment self-involved & pretentious & all kinds of other nasty things. It took me years 2 read it -- not until long after I'd read 2 of her other novels & all her book reviews that I could track down.
THE FEMALE MAN isn't really a novel -- it's more a collection of character sketches & visions & flights of fantasy, sorta a sequel 2 "When it Changed." It doesn't really cohere as a novel -- there isn't really a thru-story as such. But there R some pretty neat things in it, including a kinda unsettling feminist sex-fantasy, & sevral diffrent views of Russ's feminist-utopia planet Whileaway.
Another book that pissed off SF fans was WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO.... (1977), an interplanetary-shipwreck tale with an ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT 1st 1/2, which unfortunately goes right down the tubes as the narrator sits down & mumbles in2 a tape recorder 4 the next 100 pgs, trying 2 dig up the nerve 2 commit suicide. SF fans who insisted that humans stranded on an alien planet MUST survive, MUST carry on the human race, were outraged by this book -- which basically said nobody stranded on an alien planet HAS 2 do ANYTHING except die....
THE TWO OF THEM (1978) was mellower. In it, Russ turned some of her earlier stories on their heads as she described a "Time Patrol" officer who helps a young woman escape a repressive Middle-Eastern-style planet. The book might benefit from a reprinting these days. The descriptions R vivid, Russ didn't beat her audience over the head with A Message (tho it's clearly there), there R Major Surprises along the way, & the sense of freedom achieved at the ending -- especially in the last few pgs -- is pretty breathtaking.
& the book apparently sank without a trace....
Russ was also a clever & tricky short story writer, & hadda wicked sense of humor. I was never able 2 get in2 her "Alyx" series of heroic-fantasy stories that supposedly turned the stereotypes of sword&sorcery upside down -- at 1st by making the hero a woman. But I read the last of that series, the novella "The Second Inquisition," supposedly set in something like Russ's childhood -- but everything seemed so low-key & underplayed that by the time Big Revelations happened near the end it all went right past me. Maybe I was just too dumb to Get It.
Some of her other short pieces won some fans, tho. "Useful Phrases for the Tourist" is a hilarious language guide 4 folks planning on visiting an alien planet. "Invasion" would make a cute cartoon -- since the invading aliens look like little purple pyramids. & see if you can track down the very brief "Dragons and Dimwits," which will tell you everything you need to know about Russ's views on heroic fantasy.
In fact, it was a column on heroic fantasy that got Russ the biggest response when she reviewed 4 F&SF. Among the books she critiqued was Stephen Donaldson's CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT, 1 of my all-time favorites -- in which she correctly pointed out Donaldson's morbid character names 4 his villains, & the insensitive use of pain & disease as on ongoing motif, & the fact that in heroic fantasy Good Deeds are almost always done by the young, healthy, beautiful.... a way 4 the reader 2 wish that he or she were young, healthy, beautiful, powerful.... All of these she felt were ways of avoiding brutal Reality. "We'd better learn to deal with the Real World," she wrote slightly later in defense of reviewing & criticism, "it's what there is."
A couple years later Russ stopped reviewing. A few years after that she mostly stopped writing. She was reportedly in chronic back pain from the early '80s onward; in an interview 4 Charles Platt's DREAM MAKERS II she said she'd spent most of the previous year in bed. In the same interview she admitted she was a lesbian. This didn't seem that big a surprise after all the other controversy she'd been at the center of.
Russ had a long teaching career at Cornell & at the University of Washington. As a critic she could be very generous when she read something she felt was new & diffrent, or when she found a writer who she felt was speaking in a unique voice -- she boosted David R. Bunch's MODERAN stories, & was a big champion of Barry N. Malzberg's early work, up thru BEYOND APOLLO and THE FALLING ASTRONAUTS. Tho she 1nce called Robert Silverberg "a sossidge-factory" 4 the work he useta crank-out early in his career, she later gave a glowing review to his DYING INSIDE, 1 of the best & most realistic SF novels of the '70s.
Russ had been in poor health 4 awhile. She apparently had a stroke back in Feb & had been living in a hospice since then. When "Invasion" was published in the late '90s it was the 1st story by her that I'd seen in quite awhile.
Why all these words 4 a writer I wasn't that big a fan of? Well, I WAS a fan -- especially of her book-criticism. I still re-read her old reviews every now & then. I still enjoy it when she tears those lazy, shoddy, formulaic books up, & some of her reviews make me laff out loud. The old magazine issues those reviews R in R only a couple steps away from me as I type this.
A lot of the writers who pulled me in2 science fiction 40 years ago R getting up there. Robert Silverberg's in his 70s, so's Harlan Ellison. Frederik Pohl's about 2 turn 91! Samuel R. Delany's getting up there. Roger Zelazny died over a decade ago & he was only in his mid-50s. John Brunner died in the late '90s. Frank Herbert & James Tiptree Jr. R long gone. So are Algis Budrys & Thomas M. Disch. Thank Ghod there R still lotsa younger writers cranking out Good Stuff.
It's just a little shocking that some1 else who had a big impact on the reading in my past is gone. Makes it harder 2 visit SF websites like Locus & Ansible, wondering when the announcement's gonna come about Who's Gone Now....


rastronomicals said...

That's quite the authoritative rundown, and thank you for it from one unfamiliar with fictions or reviews.

The only Russ I ever read was "Souls," which was the flipside of "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" in one of those old Tor doubles.

I picked up the double for the Tiptree, but ended up liking the Russ better. There was a certain sad sedateness to the whole thing that I found intriguing, actually reminded me of this Peter Matthiessen novel I once read not for subject but for tone.

I'll take the opportunity to recommend a scifi book I read recently, which was Old Man's War by John Scalzi. An homage to Heinlein's Starship Troopers, but "fewer lectures," not sure where I read that.

Nice to see that someone's writing space opera this side of 1000 pages. Scalzi's world may not have the depth of Iain Banks', but he's easier to read and just as fun.

TAD said...

R: Thanx 4 the comment, tho I sure don't feel like any kind of expert on Russ's fiction.
The best Tiptree I ever read was a LONG novella called "A Momentary Taste of Being" that is just unbelievably dark & lonely & depressing -- great stuff! Actually, Tiptree did a LOT of great stuff ("Last Flight of Dr. Ain," "Screwfly Solution," "On the Last Afternoon," BRIGHTNESS FALLS FROM THE AIR, "The Only Neat Thing to Do," "Painwise," "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever," etc.) -- any good short-story collection by her should be worth it. Never liked "Houston" that much, but haven't read it in 30+ years....