Review of We Who Are About To... (1976)


Joanna Russ (writer).

Read in 2020.

Half a dozen members of an interstellar elite survive their emergency landing on an uninhabited world with a breathable atmosphere and some forest cover. One of them, the enigmatic narrator via vocoder, believes they are doomed by a wide range of more or less subtle practical problems.

Behold the new irrelevants: parasites, scum, proles, scroungers. People who do nothing real.

Russ’s stream-of-consciousness-like prose here is as bad as The Female Man (1975). It seems motivated intradiegetically by the conceit of the vocoder, but only until the narrator reveals that even the punctuation is laboriously crafted. Rather than an avant-garde writer, that narrator is a musicologist and Warhammer 40,000 Venenum Temple assassin. The integrity of the narrative is higher than The Female Man, but not high. It is a game with and interrogation of older science fiction, and neither the characters nor the environment rise above the level of pawns in that game, but the game is good.

As Samuel R. Delany writes in his rushed introduction to the Wesleyan edition, it owes something to “The Cold Equations” (1943). Like Godwin, Russ gets the climax over with and then spends her long denouement on comparatively sentimental topics. The differences are more important. In Godwin’s short story, the exigency of fuel rationing kills “with neither hatred nor malice” and the interaction between the pilot and the 18-year-old girl he convinces to kill herself is chaste, whereas Russ wallows in post-apocalyptic barbarism and forced impregnation within a few days of landing. There is hatred and malice practically everywhere but in the child Lori and the flat backdrop, to an improbable extent: The other survivors band together to capture the semi-disabled, semi-menopausal protagonist after she has left them in peace and taken nothing of particular value. The incident seems to prefigure Jonestown, doomed by isolation, hard work, assholes and broken ideology.

Russ also uses The Stars My Destination (1956)’s cellar Christians, adapting them as a quasi-religious “neo-Christian” Daoist cult that reads like an imitation of Ursula K. Le Guin. Despite being presented as highly unusual, these spiritual beliefs result only in a few mercy killings followed by voluntary starvation and suicide. The protagonist’s travails in the latter half of the novel are disappointingly disconnected from her beliefs, her knowledge and her situation, dealing mainly with her memories of the other passengers—brief acquaintances!—and a couple of other people in her life before that: A life clearly based in the 20th century which was Russ’s present. It’s about conscience and character, practically a Dostoevsky story, missing Le Guin’s enchanting nearness to nature writing.

To spice things up and kick a few eyeballs, Russ sneaks in a motivation for the shade of dystopia in her almost transhuman future society: Fusion power arrived and did not bring magical post-scarcity equality with it. The social structures withstood the force of technology, which seems prescient. This is a civilizational criticism—again about the 20th century—but Russ is wise enough not to follow it to the false conclusion that advanced technology is bad or that it makes people bad. The Daoist does not emerge as a hero meditating over her quiet toilet stream, which is her favourite part of the world.

Though the implementation is flawed, the game really is good, going beyond merely stating the obvious in genre SF’s naïvité with foreign ecosystems and the usefulness of future-tech consumer products for terraformation, “colonization” and multi-generational creature comforts. The feminist critique of survival through procreation is a welcome addition. It’s a little heavy on straw-persons but it certainly hits the spot. I remember reading a Heinlein story as a child where the Sears catalogue’s illustrations inspired the cottage industry of a new primitivist society, but I have found it wasn’t Tunnel in the Sky (1955). Time Enough for Love (1973) is certainly relevant, where immortal Lazarus Long voluntarily leads the frontier life, to an 18th-century standard, on a symptomatically virgin world.

I suppose the ultimate ideological target is Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). The simple lack of a map in the book is curiously effective in this aspect of the satire. The narrator repeatedly wonders which hemisphere she’s on, but has no way of knowing the magnetic polarity of the nearest pole, much less what to expect over the horizon. A smartphone wouldn’t have helped her there. This absence of knowledge and reader privilege reveals the smugness of the SF robinsonade with admirable economy.

References here: Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), “Brothers” (1990), “The Ascent” (1996).

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