Tag Archives: joanna russ

On suppressing women’s writing

Just the front cover is enough to make me cranky. It’s a list of the ways in which women’s writing (and art) has been suppressed; the book is a brief and eclectic examination of how those different modes have operated, and some suggestion of why, too.

I finally got my hands on this book after I heard of Russ’ death. I’d heard of it in vague terms over many years, and more specifically in the last couple – particularly thanks to Galactic Suburbia, and a growing realisation that I really wanted to understand feminist SF, and that Russ is one entry into that. Plus, she seems like one of those writers everyone talks about… but few (especially of my generation, we post-70s women) have really read.

Russ progresses logically through various modes of suppression, dismissal, and marginalisation. As her evidence, she uses reviews of women’s work over the last century and a half or so; their presence (and absence) in anthologies and university curricula; and in biographies, as well as other sources.

The comparison of the different ways Charlotte Bronte’s work was received when it was believed to be by a man compared with when it was known to be by a woman were distressingly similar in some ways – given the difference in time – to the reception of James Tiptree Jr’s work as male/female. Russ herself notes that while some things have changed – critics are less likely in the late twentieth century to openly denigrate women’s writing simply because of the author’s gender – others have not: said critics have found alternative ways to marginalise the writing.

I’ve been sitting on this review for nearly two months, thinking there must be more to say. There is. I’m going to post this as-is, though, because I’m not sure that I can write down all of my different reactions and thoughts coherently… and we’re going to be doing our Joanna Russ Spoilerific Book Club for Galactic Suburbia soon, and hopefully that will help me clarify some ideas. (It did!)

Galactic Suburbia 35!

In which “best” becomes “superior,” Pottermore is Pottermeh, one of us wins all the awards, and we visit/revisit classic non-hard works of SF and Fantasy by Bujold, Willis and Pratchett (with bonus Russian fairytales by Valente). We can be got from iTunes or streamed from Galactic Suburbia.


Pottermore announcement to be made during our podcast…

Theodore Sturgeon finalists.

David Gemmell Awards

NatCon professional guests for next year are Kelly Link and Alison Goodman.

Chronos Awards  :D

Sidewise Awards finalists.

Translation Awards winners.

Stoker Awards.

Coode Street Horror Special with Stoker winners Datlow & Straub.

Gender Spotting Tool. Alisa’s verdict: Naff.

What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Connie Willis’ Passage in progress, the next 3 Twelve Planets.
Alex: so much Bujold (Cordelia’s Honorand Young Miles omnibuses… omnibi… whatever), Fly by Night, Frances Hardinge, Red Glove, Holly Black. Series 2 of V (reboot)
Tansy: Deathless, Catherynne Valente; I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett; Wyrd Sisters audiobook, Terry Pratchett/Celia Imrie.

Next Fortnight: Galactic Suburbia’s Spoilerific Book Club Presents: Joanna Russ.  Reading How to Suppress Women’s Writing, The Female Man, “When It Changed.”

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

The Secret Feminist Cabal – now with extra awards

Since I wrote this review last year, The Secret Feminist Cabal has placed on the Honour List of the James Tiptree Jr Award, and I received a Chronos Award (voted on by the Victorian SF community) for the review itself. Allow me this gratuitous moment of reposting! The other exciting thing that has happened since is that I got to spend time with Helen Merrick herself – an utter delight.

The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms
Helen Merrick
Aqueduct Press, 2009

… what kind of self-respecting cabal would openly advertise its ‘secret’ existence through websites and conventions, identify its members through the wearing of garish temporary tattoos, and fund itself by the sale of home-baked chocolate chip cookies?” (p1)

I did not grow up considering myself a feminist; I have no idea whether my mother would identify as a feminist or not. That said, I grew up in the ’80s with a younger brother and there was never a time at which I felt that I could not do exactly the same things as my brother, if I wanted to, so I know (now) that I benefited from second-wave feminism – and from liberal, caring parents. I was regarded as a feminist by at least some people by the time I was in my late teens (looking at you, high school teachers), probably because I was loud and everyone loves a stereotype. It’s only been over the last decade (my twenties) that I have consciously thought of myself as a feminist. And it’s only been in the last couple of years that I have consciously sought out feminist books, feminist perspectives on historical issues, and really come to grips with the idea that feminism is not a singularity.

All of this is by way of contextualising my reading of The Secret Feminist Cabal, a marvellous book that has challenged the way I think about science fiction, fandom, and feminism. Merrick had me from her Preface, where she describes her journey towards writing the book in ways that resonated deeply with me, from the nerdy adolescent to the discovery of feminism and the dismay that many female acquaintances not only do not share our love of science fiction, they are completely mystified by it. Having only recently discovered the niche community that is sf fandom, the fact that so much of this book is concerned with expressions of feminism within that community – and how they impacted on sf broadly – was the icing on the cake.

Merrick begins by examining the very idea ‘feminist sf’, defining which – much like attempting to define sf by itself – is like the proverbial attempt by blind women at describing an elephant. She approaches it by discussing the multiplicities that are the reality of the genre, which is indicative of the approach she takes in the book overall and an incredible relief for those of us who are sick of being told THIS IS THIS and if you don’t fit, get lost. She also gives some space to justifying the use of literary criticism on science fiction, tackling that persistent and derogatory argument that science fiction doesn’t count as literature. While accepting that sf and popular fiction generally have an ambivalent position, as far as literary critics – including feminists – are concerned, Merrick makes no apology for using their tools. The rest of the introduction lays the groundwork for the book: what feminist fiction is or can be, the potentially problematic nature of feminist genre writing, and the ongoing divide that exists between mainstream criticism and feminist sf criticism. I particularly enjoyed that while Merrick engaged with these issues, at no point does her discussion become a polemic against those who have disagreed. Rather, she situates her investigation within the ‘grand conversation’ of feminist sf, and demonstrates constructive ways in which that can be extended to mainstream criticism – to the advantage of both.

I was forced to stare into space for some minutes when I read the opening to chapter 2. Merrick quotes from a letter written in 1938 wherein an sf reader opines that: “[a] woman’s place is not in anything scientific. Of course the odd female now and then invents something useful in the way that every now and then amongst the millions of black crows a white one is found” (p34). If nothing else, this book has made me grateful for the changes that have occurred over the last century, such that I have never been personally confronted with such a statement. This chapter provides an overview of the ‘invasion’ of women, sex, and feminism into sf, with a fascinating if horrifying look at the arguments of the 1920s and 30s for and against women being allowed into the genre. (She makes the point that of course women were already there, both as authors and readers, and that it’s hugely problematic when those foremothers are written out of history, as happens too often.) The 1960s and 70s saw some changes to the field, and the disputes that attended this period of ‘sexual revolution’ make for fascinating – if, again, horrifying – reading. My favourite section is that on Joanna Russ writing letters and criticism and the way such respected names as Philip K. Dick and Poul Anderson responded to her and her comments. I love the fact that what now generally appears on blogs as a long and convoluted comment-thread then featured in magazines, albeit at the mercy of the editor. This chapter alone is worth its weight in cookies for outlining the milieu in which both male and female sf writers and fans existed for so much of the twentieth century – an invaluable resource for a newbie like myself.

The third chapter takes up one strand mentioned in the second and runs with it: the idea of ‘femmefans’. The fact that female fans were distinguished by a separate moniker goes some way to revealing how they were regarded, at least by some males of the community. It’s almost heartbreaking to read of the letters written to pulps such as Amazing Stories by women who imagine themselves as the only female readers of such stories – another reason I love the future that is blogdom. What I particularly love about this chapter is its uncovering of specific women involved with sf fandom, in many and varied ways. Instead of making generalisations about readers and contributors to zines, Merrick goes out of her way to trace named individuals and outline their experience within the scene. Appropriately, there is a section on Australian women, who seem to be even more hidden from view than their American or British sisters.

The development of specifically feminist criticism of sf is discussed in chapter 4, with a fair amount of space given to Joanna Russ, as one of the progenitrices of formal feminist criticism and the name to which many others felt themselves to be responding. Merrick chronicles the rise of feminist fanzines in the 1970s, and the impact these had on writers and fans, as well as the increasing numbers of feminist anthologies being produced. The chapter moves through to the 1980s and ’90s, noting trends and struggles as feminists of those times attempted to define themselves as well as understand their histories. As with the previous chapter, Merrick provides copious accounts of individuals here, and an extensive reading list of both criticism and fiction.

Bouncing back to fandom, chapter 5 examines the development of feminist fandom concurrent with the development of feminist criticism of chapter 4. Again going for the intensely personal stories to illustrate a broad, diverse narrative, Merrick weaves a story of female fans and their involvement in the fannish community from the 1960s to the 2000s. The feminist fanzines sound like an amazing community to have been involved in. Her discussion of the place of Marion Zimmer Bradley in this community – beginning as a fan, becoming a well-known writer, and causing all sorts of controversy over her (at least early) non-identification as a feminist – is enthralling, and beautifully illustrates the axiom that the personal is always already political. The chapter ends with a discussion of how WisCon (a feminist sf convention) and the Tiptree Awards were established.

The last two chapters of Cabal “examine how recognition of the cultural work of sf feminisms filters out into other critical communities,” and as a consequence have a heavier, more literary-critical, feel, which may make them more opaque to some readers than the first five chapters. Chapter 6 deals with sf feminim’s response to cyberpunk, a 1980s sf movement that some saw as eclipsing or superseding the feminist sf fiction of the 1970s. Merrick connects this with theorist Donna Haraway’s call for feminists to consider the cyborg as a way of considering the fundamental issue of what it means to be human. The movement also connects with a growing sub-genre of cultural studies, that examining techno-science and cyberculture. A feminist take on these issues is an intriguing one, especially in its observation that much cyberpunk is opposed to the material, the body – and how problematic that can be.

Interestingly, Merrick takes her discussion in what feels like quite a different, although still relevant, direction for her last chapter: the connection of feminist sf with science itself, and how feminism is and can be in dialogue with that discipline. She suggests very strongly that sf feminisms can and should play a vital role in dialogues negotiating the interplay of science, nature, and culture, and gives examples of a number of ways in which this has already occurred productively.

Finally, Merrick has a provocative conclusion. She addresses new challenges such as those posed by queer theory and postcolonialism, and where or how feminism might still fit in. Along with a consideration, appropriately enough, of what the Tiptree Award has taught us since its inception, Merrick considers the question of whether the science fiction field is ‘beyond’ questions of gender. She argues that feminism – as long as it remains the challenging and diverse field it has been until now – still has a great deal to offer science fiction writers and readers.

A critical work based in a deep-seated love of the genre, Cabal is a testament to the enduring impact of women, feminism, and fandom on the fractured behemoth that is science fiction. 2010 saw it shortlisted on the Hugo ballot for Best Related Work, and win the fan-voted William Atheling award for best critical work. These are well-deserved honours. I hope coming generations of both writers and fans will make use of the cornucopia of references Merrick has gathered, both to understand the history of the field and because most of them make for wonderful reading.

Galactic Suburbia 34

In which we surf the wave of feminist SF news that has deluged the internet this fortnight, plus Margaret Brundage, why YA books are allowed to be as dark as they want to be, the Tiptree Award, Connie Willis, were-thylacines, Ted Chiang and Alex finally discovers Bujold… You can download us from iTunes, or download/stream from Galactic Suburbia.

Nicola Griffith on the m/f imbalance in an informal SF favourites poll in the Guardian.
The Guardian: Damien Walter, author of the poll & followup articles revises his comments in response to Griffith.
Niall Harrison follows up on Strange Horizons.
Cheryl Morgan on invisibility of women (some really interesting discussion in the comments, too).
The Guardian again, asking with wide innocent eyes if SF is inherently sexist.
Ian Sales announces the SF Mistressworks blog project.
Nicola Griffith asks you to take the Joanna Russ pledge.

Gwyneth Jones, Karen Traviss & Farah Mendlesohn talk on the radio about the perception of women in British SFTranscript.

MK Hobson on the term ‘bustlepunk’ and why there is a place for a domestic sub-genre of steampunk; follow up post on the assumptions made about works coded ‘female’ .

2011 Chesley Award Finalists; Cheryl Morgan on female & trans artists.

Nine Reasons Women Don’t Edit Wikipedia (interesting in light of the recent spout of incidents we’ve watched, notably the one with Nick Mamatas where winning World Fantasy Award was considered too regional to be significant).

Wall Street Journal on YA fiction.

Change to the Norma eligibility guidelines.

Why Galactic Suburbia T-shirts are no longer available through RedBubble.

Con Quilt.

What Culture Have we Consumed?
Tansy: Thyla, Kate Gordon; Will Supervillains Be on the Final? Naomi Novik
Alisa: Coode St Podcast with Ellen Klages, Eileen Gunn and Geoff Ryman; Connie Willis – Even the Queen; Octavia Butler – Bloodchild
Alex: Chill, and Grail, Elizabeth Bear; The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang; Welcome to the Greenhouse, Gordon van Gelder; Steampunk! Kelly Link and Gavin Grant.

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Galactic Sububria 33!

In which we wax lyrical about awards, short stories and the love of reading. Because it’s that time of year! You can download us from iTunes, or get us at Galactic Suburbia.

Aurealis Awards  and Ceremony!

Nebula Awards

Translation Awards

Aqueduct links to 25 commemorations of Joanna Russ

New podcast –  How I got my Boyfriend to Read Comics

Last Short Story is on Twitter @lastshortstory

New Galactic Chat: Kirstyn McDermott

What Culture Have we Consumed?
Tansy: The Shattering, Karen Healey
Alex: The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss; How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ; Welcome to Bordertown, Ellen Kushner and Terri Windling; finished Stargate SG1 for the second time.
Alisa: Ken Liu’s Paper Menagerie (F&SF March/April), Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To

Pet Subject: Last Short Story 2011
Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Galactic Suburbia 32

(It’s now older than me!) (just)

In which we bid farewell to Joanna Russ, talk e-publishing (again) and Alisa reads a real live actual book.  With bonus raving about Doctor Who and Alistair Reynolds – in other words, another episode of Galactic Suburbia. We can be downloaded from iTunes or streamed from Galactic Suburbia.News
On Joanna Russ: some reminiscences (and here), and Samuel Delaney’s interview with her (transcript only).

Barb & Jenny on e-publishing: Part 1Part 2.
Book Country launched by Penguin USA; Jim Hines discusses it and Ellen Datlow talks on it, about the role of the short story editor.
Brimstone Press closing.
Shaun Tan to judge Illustrators of the Future.
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Madigan Mine, Kirstyn McDermott, Fringe Season 3
Alex: Deep State, Walter Jon Williams; Shattered City, and Love and Romanpunk, Tansy Rayner Roberts; Pushing Ice, Alastair Reynolds; Troubletwisters, Garth Nix and Sean Williams.
Tansy: Doctor Who & Big Finish audio plays (The Eighth Doctor Adventures).============

Announcing upcoming Spoilerific Book Club on Joanna Russ with particular focus on The Female Man, How To Suppress Women’s Writing and short story “When it Changed.”  Read along with us!

Galactic Chat interviews Glenda Larke

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Episode 21 of Galactic Suburbia

You can get us from iTunes, or download from Galactic Suburbia.

In which we work, play, shake up our format a little (gasp!) and cover the life & death of magazines, the changing face of the industry, respect for non fiction, sexual harassment, rants, reboots and as usual, books, books and more books.  Also a few sneaky clues about what Twelfth Planet Press is publishing next year!


Realms of Fantasy is back, again…

Escape Pod expands: “We have been pushing to expand what Escape Pod does, adding an SF blog and distributing our stories via magazine format. We’re also becoming a pro market, and hope to keep paying our authors pro rates well into 2011 if the donations make it possible.”

Cheryl Morgan talks about paying for reviews as semipro.

On the Cooks Source scandal and seeing stuff on the internet as ‘public domain’.

Jim C Hines on reporting sexual harassment in SF/F.

Old men complaining?  When you get old, do you by consequence lose your sense of wonder? Just simply because you’ve read everything? And is/should all SF be aimed/written for the 60 year old man? And Jason Sanford responds

New Buffy Reboot

New Friend of the Podcast: The Writer & the Critic (Mondy & Kirstyn).

Rambly Discussion
Books that aren’t marketed as being a part of a series…
Publishing, deadlines, and attitudes thereto…
Chat, rants and backpedalling…

What Culture have we Consumed?
Alex: Blameless, Gail Carriger; “The Devil in Mr Pussy,” Paul Haines; Women of Other Worlds, ed. Helen Merrick and Tess Williams; Bold as Love, Gwyneth Jones; Day of the Triffids (2009 BBC production)
Alisa: works too hard, and also Fringe.
Tansy: To Write Like a Woman, Joanna Russ; Marianne, the Magus & the Manticore by Sheri S Tepper; Sourdough & Other Stories, Angela Slatter; China Mountain Zhang, Maureen McHugh, Mists of Avalon movie

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

An open letter

Dear Joanna

– do you mind if you call you Joanna? I’m not going to pretend like I know you from your writing, but Ms Russ feels rather distant and Professor Russ is rather intimidating. I do kinda get the feeling, from your work, that should I meet you in a social setting, after I recovered from my awkward fangirl-induced silence and/or hysteria, you would be Joanna. Thus –

Dear Joanna

I’m 31. That means all of your novels were written before I was born. Much of your short fiction was, too, and almost all of your reviews. (Happily you’ve kept writing essays and the like, so I’ve got heaps still to read – not that I’m even through your fiction yet.) Despite being an historian myself, and one obsessed by the ancient and medieval worlds at that, there is a small part of me that is still somewhat amazed that work from before my birth can have an impact on me. Although I quite like Ancient Greek tragedy, for example, medieval literature rarely affects me on a visceral level; it’s too foreign; I mostly like the ancient tragedies because they’ve become so wrapped up in Western European culture.

The point is, your fiction does affect me. I’m only a child of the ’70s by the grace of three months, and I grew up in Australia, so I don’t really understand the anti-feminist rhetoric that so clearly affected The Female Man, for example. I sometimes get made fun of for identifying as a feminist, which is insulting and horrible and all those sorts of things, but it’s never turned actively nasty, actively hostile – which I know is a blessing. Reading The Female Man, especially the section where you anticipate reviewers’ reactions? Well. It was like a punch to the guts to realise that you expected that sort of reaction. And it makes me admire you fiercely for being willing to put your work out there and endure that sort of reaction because you believed in your work, and in what you were saying.

(All of this may make me sound naive and innocent. I’m not, really. It’s just that my understanding of second-wave feminists’ experiences has often been a bit academic, I guess. Hostile critical reviews, especially when they’ve already been actively anticipated and lampooned, are not academic.)

The first of your work that I read was “When it Changed,” and I had the advantage of reading it without already knowing the reality of life on Whileaway. When I gave a copy of that story and The Female Man to a friend of mine entering law school (she has a Masters in Philosophy as well, don’t worry), I had to scribble out the intro to “When it Changed” because it revealed who the narrator was, which is of course most of the fun. Since then, I’ve read one of your Alyx stories, The Two of Them, “Souls” (which I was overwhelmingly excited to see as a double with a Tiptree story!), and To Write like a Woman. I really enjoyed that collection of your non-fiction, by the way, and I’m dead keen to get the others. You have such an incisive mind, and such a delightful turn of phrase. I especially enjoyed your essays on “What can a Heroine do? or why Women can’t Write,” and “Somebody’s Trying to Kill me and I think it’s My Husband: the Modern Gothic.” You maintain an inspiring balance between humour, and compassion, and cutting criticism that makes your work wonderful to read. So, thank you for that. You have indeed inspired me.

My one issue I wanted to mention is your early dismissal of stories you said you were set in “galactic suburbia.” Admittedly I only know about this from Lisa Yaszek’s book of that same name. I quite enjoy the (well-written) stories set there, and I’m wondering whether you have changed your mind since your discussion of them. If you haven’t, that’s fine… I guess I wonder if, with distance between then and now, things have changed. And at the heart of that wonder is the question of whether you think things actually have changed enough for it to be worth changing your mind. This is getting convoluted; let me explain my (now admittedly naive) thought process. I am presuming that part of your dismissal stemmed from the idea that those stories weren’t feminist enough, and that female authors ought to be writing more challenging, more overtly feminist, work. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe you just didn’t like them. Fair enough. But if my assumption has any truth, do you now think that there can be a place for more domestically-oriented texts? Hmm… it may well be that I am just digging myself in deeper now, and this is making me sound totally unreconstructed.

The reality is, this is fanmail. I love your work. I love that you write/wrote fiction and non-fiction, that you are an academic who is passionate about science fiction, that you are a passionate feminist, and – what spins me out – that you have been those things for so long (sorry, I don’t mean to imply that I think you are old…). You are an inspiration to me.

With deep regards and immense gratitude


Galactic Suburbia 20!!

You can download us from iTunes or from our website!

In which we talk World Fantasy, female editors, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr, Connie Willis, Pat Murphy, and more World Fantasy – plus Alisa tells us off for not mentioning how awesome certain books actually are (we totally did).

World Fantasy Award winners!

Peter Tennant at Black Static looks at the stats for women being published in recent horror & dark fantasy anthologies; the Hathor Legacy compares representation of female authors in two recent horror anthols.

Cat Sparks is the new fiction editor of Cosmos, taking over from Damien Broderick.

Discussion on the lack of female editors in pro fantasy publications (read through the comments which raise many important points about the post).

Steampunkgate (yes, really):
Charles Stross criticises the “glut” of steampunk and calls it out at a subgenre;
Nisi Shawl talks about the literary side of steampunk just isn’t as diverse and interesting as the other aspects of steampunk… yet;
Catherynne Valente rants and then raves about steampunk;
Scott Westerfeld gets cranky about the steampunk haterz.

Small press turned imprint to publish line of multicultural SF/Fantasy for children.

Jeff VanderMeer reports on Amazon Best of SF/F lists for 2010.

What have we been reading/listening to?
Alex: Changeless, Gail Carriger; The Two of Them, Joanna Russ; Brightness Falls from the Air, James Tiptree Jr; Full Moon City, ed Darrell Schweitzer and Martin Greenberg; backlog of Tor.com (esp. AM Dellamonica’s “The Cage” and Robert Reed’s “The Next Invasion“) and Strange Horizons (esp. Sandra McDonald’s “Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots“).
Alisa: Fire Watch, Remake (both Connie Willis); White Cat by Holly Black; Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold.
Tansy: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, NK Jemisin, Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell, by Pat Murphy.

Pet Subject
Capclave and World Fantasy Convention!  Alex and Tansy interrogate Alisa about her trip away, her loot, her adventures and all the gossip.

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

The Two of Them

I could say that I read this book, by Joanna Russ, to continue my education into feminist sf. That would partly be true. It does, however, make it sound like my reading of it was like adding bran to my muesli; something I felt I ought to do. And initially, there might have been a smidgeon of this in my thinking: I’d heard about The Female Man, for example, but hadn’t read it until last year. And it was so… amazing, and confronting, and challenging, that I realised I had to read more Russ to keep experiencing that. While also getting the chance to educate myself. It’s the same thing I get with reading history: I love the knowledge, and I love knowing it too.

The Two of Them is quite different from The Female Man. It’s a much more conventional narrative, in that it generally keeps to the same point of view throughout and has a generally straightforward timeline. There is some leaping between past and future, but that’s not exactly radical.

That said, there are some glimpses of the Russ I was expecting from The Female Man. There are instances of the author speaking to the audience, questioning her own narrative – not just her techniques, but the structure of the narrative itself. And this only happens towards the end of the story, so all of a sudden the reader is struck both with the fact of the story being a construction, and that the narrator may not be entirely trustworthy. That’s quite disconcerting.

The story revolves around a woman who was a teen in the US in the 1950s. She ends up working for a shadowy organisation that is never fully explained (which reminded me of the company in Iain Banks’ Transition, to the extent that I wonder whether he was influenced by it), and finds herself on a planet that is clearly based on the idea of a Muslim world. There, she meets a young girl who wants to be a poet, but only men are allowed to be. (Incidentally, it was at that point I got a weird feeling of deja vous. Flicking to the front of the books, I discovered a note thanking Suzette Haden Elgin for allowing Russ to use the characters from her short story “For the Sake of Grace” – I know I’ve read, sometime, in an anthology I can’t remember the name of. This is a fascinating example of intertextuality.)

The story moves into an exploration of issues concerning colonisation – does she have a right to interfere with how this planet’s society works? – and, of course, patriarchy and paternalism and coming face to face with the unconscious sexism that she’s been living with for years. Russ develops this particularly well, because the reader too is largely unaware of the sexism: it’s not like those stories where the characters are oblivious but the reader is shouting in rage. The discovery, the revelation, of how her personal relationships have been functioning is as surprising, and horrifying, and I guess depressing to the reader (well, this reader anyway) as for her.

Tied in with this meaty, crunchy (hi Tansy) exploration of issues, there’s also a scifi/adventure story. The SF element isn’t especially overt: there are space ships, and maybe time travel, but they’re just a part of the book’s reality – they don’t rate a great detailed explanation, because they don’t matter, in the same way that a toaster or a radio don’t rate explanation in a mainstream novel. It’s also short, at around 180 pages.

I can’t wait to read the essays on this novel in on Joanna Russ, which I’ve had sitting on my shelf for ages. I’m sure there are all sorts of issues and hints and allusions that I’ve missed, because they were specific to Russ’ context. This is the other thing I love about Russ’ writing: it allows for multiple re-readings, because it’s so complex – as well as being a great read.


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