This is not an easy book to read. But it’s a Russ, so that’s not exactly a surprise, is it? She takes an SF trope – the idea that survivors of a crashed spaceship somehow colonise an uninhabited planet – and wreaks merry havoc.
This was apparently first published as two novellas (maybe even novelettes; the book is only 120 pages). By the end of the first half, all but one of the characters is dead. Surely the second half is going to show the sole remaining character that the planet is actually inhabited?
Yeah no. Not so much.
Told from the perspective of a woman who really doesn’t fit in with her fellow survivees, this is quite an uncomfortable read, for a lot of reasons. Firstly there’s the attitudes of each of the survivors: their entitlement, feelings of contempt, and the beginnings of a Lord of the Flies milieu. Then there’s the narrator herself, who while apparently more likeable – if only because the reader has insight into her thought processes – is still an uncompromising and actually rather difficult person to be around. And then there’s the plot, which is basically: crash; deal with each other; deal with being the only human on the planet. The end.
The other characters are very difficult to get your head around because we only see them from the narrator’s point of view, and for quite a limited amount of time. There’s a young girl, clearly spoiled and needy; her parents, who have all sorts of weird things going on with money and work and respectability that actually, when you deconstruct them, aren’t that weird and that makes it all the more uncomfortable (trophy spouse, use of marriage, etc). A jock in a universe that appears to have less use for such types, and a professor who appears to be the polar opposite and whose smugness speaks of all that’s wrong with academia. And two other women – quite different from each other, but sharing elements with our narrator, which makes her uncomfortable and serves to illuminate her character as the story progresses.
The narrator’s background is something of a jumble, which is unsurprising given that Russ writes much of the last half in almost a stream of consciousness. We learn a bit about her experimentation with niche religion and politics, a bit less about her relationships – platonic and sexual – and a bit more about her sheer determination in the face of difficulty. I don’t know that I liked her, but I certainly admired her.
The plot is definitely a secondary consideration here. While it is of extreme importance, because it’s the springboard for Russ’ investigation into character and because it’s an inversion of an SF trope, there’s so little to it (really taking place almost solely in the first half) that it must be secondary, I think. Which is not to suggest that it is poorly constructed or anything like that, of course. It’s confronting and minimal and all the more confronting for that.
This must have issued an important challenge to SF when first published – and still does, I think. It’s not easy, but it is worthwhile.