Russ, Joanna 1937–
Russ is an American science-fiction writer and playwright whose novels probe various polarities of social behavior. While her work abounds in traditional science-fiction motifs, some critics feel she discredits the genre in order to expound her feminist views. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
["The Female Man" may be categorized as serious "women's lib S.F." The author Joanna Russ] has never been one to deny the importance of basic biological facts in determining sex roles; she also understands how easily such facts can be compensated for once their existence is acknowledged. For instance, her heroines tend to be castrating females in the most literal sense. They take for granted that Tarzan will never really consider Jane an equal as long as he feels he can beat up on her whenever he chooses. "The Female Man," which plays with a marked deck of alternative universes, offers no less than four heroines….
With her obvious grasp of the biological givens and her command of so many science-fictional weapons, Russ might have produced a truly provocative study of "woman's fate." Unfortunately, she keeps slipping into the easy rhetoric of mainstream feminist tracts. There are long passages describing the despair of the unliberated Jeannine that might have appeared in any back issue of Ms. magazine. Nothing seems so lame in an S.F. context as yesterday's social protest. Russ makes clear that her purpose in writing this book was primarily polemical: she is angry about the "inferior" status of women in modern society. But she commits a tactical error when she lets the polemics blur the distinction between the social and the biological factors that contribute to "keeping women in their place." It is precisely this distinction that "women's lib S.F." could clarify. (p. 50)
Gerald Jonas, "Of Things to Come," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 4, 1975, pp. 49-51.
[The Female Man] is not a novel—it's a scream of anger, sustained for 214 pages. It's unfair, it's maddening, it's depressing. I hated it for months after I read it.
There's no plot, just four women whose names begin with "J" (Joanna, Jeannine, Janet and Jael) free-floating through a mirror-maze of events and characters. Some of the book is set in the present, some in a recognizable future, some in alternate presents and futures. Hatred of men is the only element that holds it together….
Russ is a militant feminist, and her writing has always reflected it—but nothing in her previous work prepares us for this bitter fantasy of reversed sexual oppression. Russ has excluded men from participation in her novel, either as readers or characters (except, perhaps, as the intended victims), and while that may be fair, it's still nasty.
And yet, a year after reading it, The Female Man remains perfectly clear in my mind—seductive, disturbing and hateful. I'm not sure whether that makes it a good book or not, but I think it makes it an important one. (p. 63)
Michael Goodwin, "One Giant Step for Science Fiction," in Mother Jones (copyright © 1976 by the Foundation for National Progress), Vol. I, No. VI, August, 1976, pp. 62-3.∗
One advantage of working in a genre is that things have to happen, you must create a moving plot, and that discipline keeps Russ' springy intelligence at least somewhat anchored. If she is like any other writer, she makes me think sometimes of Swift. She is as angry, as disgusted, as playful, as often didactic, as airy at times and as crude, as intellectual. The quality of outraged, clear-sighted, pained intelligence, at once incandescent and exacerbated, is one of the major experiences for me in reading her work. Her critical essays tend to be witty and savage. Boredom is a torture to which the world obviously condemns her a lot.
Her first novel and still her easiest to approach is Picnic on Paradise….
Her protagonist Alyx is a Greek thief who was in the process of being executed in Tyre some centuries B.C. when she was accidentally picked up by an archeological survey operating far underwater from a future society. She is being used to shepherd a party of tourists across a resort world that is involved in a commercial war….
[Picnic on Paradise] is about underdevelopment versus overdevelopment, or the colonized vs. the folks in the center of the empire. Alyx is a fully realized character, tough, emotional, irritable, likeable. (p. 37)
And Chaos Died is the most benign of her novels. Her protagonists are always lonely and alienated. Now what does the isolated intelligence dream of? What do women really want, as Freud asked, and never stayed for an answer. The prevailing fantasy of And Chaos Died is a society in which upon reaching puberty, you become a telepath. Communication and community! When the minds can move mountains, nobody really works and machines are obsolete. Making love really works. The drama is partially the...
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In her previous novels, "Picnic on Paradise" and "The Female Man," Joanna Russ used science fiction as a vehicle for the most intelligent, hard-minded commentary on feminism that you are likely to find anywhere. Her premise seemed to be this: If the war between the sexes is really a war, women are never going to win (or even hold their own) unless they are willing to mobilize their minds and bodies. People who declare war when they are unready to fight deserve the disaster that awaits them. Russ's women are ready to fight.
The unnamed heroine of "We Who Are About To …" will fight when pressed, but, as she tells us, she prefers to "keep a low profile."… After the spaceship on which she is traveling has an accident, she and seven other passengers—five men and three women in all—are stranded on an uninhabited planet in an uncharted part of the galaxy….
The book is told as a diary, spoken into a battery-operated "pocket vocoder" by the heroine, although she is quite sure no one will ever discover it. When the other castaways realize that she will not play their game, they get nasty. Her defection is an antisocial act they cannot countenance. She does what she must to assert her autonomy. The seven-to-one odds don't bother her; she is the smartest, toughest, and by far the best equipped of the group—a fact that only gradually becomes apparent to the other seven but which is finally driven home with...
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"The Two of Them," is, I am sorry to report, a failure as science fiction. Nominally a parallel-worlds adventure, most of the action takes place on Ka'abah, a planet that has apparently based its racist, male-chauvinist culture on the traditions of the Arabian Nights tales. The protagonists are two undercover agents, working for a shadowy agency called the Trans-Temporal Authority, or more familiarly, The Gang. No one, including the agents, knows what The Gang is really up to.
This murkiness is intentional; Miss Russ wants the reader's attention elsewhere. Her main concern is the feminist rebellion of agent Irene Waskiewics….
If Miss Russ were trying to create fully rounded, believable characters, Irene's odd mixture of compassion and cold-bloodedness might strike a false note. But Irene and Ernst [her fellow agent and her lover] are not characters at all; they are arbitrary assemblages of characteristics, cobbled together to advance an ideological point. In general, I am not opposed to such an esthetic strategy; what really flaws the book is that not only Ernst and Irene but also the "exotic" settings on Ka'abah are so deadly dull. Even an implausible adventure story may serve as a vehicle for a valuable message; but an adventure story that fails to hold the reader's interest is simply excess baggage.
Gerald Jonas, "Fiction: 'The Two of Them'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 25, 1978, p. 22.