When they first appeared, Picnic on Paradise and Russ’s other early novels, And Chaos Died (1970), The Female Man (1975), and We Who Are About To . . . (1977), aroused strong feelings. Many critics believed that Russ had a good grasp of science fiction and used traditional motifs well, but that her novels were so forcefully didactic—so militantly feminist—that they were more like tracts than like fiction. Picnic on Paradise was, for many, the most successful and least objectionable of Russ’s novels. It was nominated for the Nebula Award as the best novel of 1968.
In Picnic on Paradise, Russ makes strong feminist arguments, although readers more than a quarter century after the book’s publication are likely to find her points less startling than did the original audience. Alyx has all the qualities of the traditional hero: physical strength, courage, intelligence, a commanding personality, a willingness but not a desire to kill, strong sexual urges, and a somewhat shady past in another land. She is also a woman. She is not waiting to be rescued; she is the rescuer. In all of Russ’s novels, women are heroines because they stand ready to act.
The other women all fall short. Iris and the nuns use drugs to avoid using their minds and to numb their reactions. Iris, at the age of thirty-six, has the emotional development of a teenager. Maudey, her mother, is addicted to rejuvenating drugs and dies when she withdraws from them. These women are all poor shots with the crossbow, although Iris would like to improve. They tend to hang back when there are androids to kill, control boards to manipulate, or aerial codes to untangle. None of these women could have gotten herself to safety.
Neither, however, could the men. They have the technical knowledge, the map-reading skills, and the ability to shoot, and they carry binoculars and direction finders, but their egos and competitiveness are so strong that they would never survive together. Only Alyx has the proper blend of aggression and restraint, of strength and good judgment.
The story of the long march gives Russ a suitable setting for exploring such polarities as feminine versus masculine strength, primitive versus technological society, and real emotion versus constant joy. That the ideal figure is a thinking and feeling woman from the past is no accident.