No, I did not misspell my own name (although someone at work did yesterday…) – Joanna Russ called her character Alyx, and I have finally read the collection of four short stories + one novella about said adventurer.
The thing you have to know about Alyx is that although the name stays the same, and some aspects of the character remain the same, trying to establish an internal chronology for these stories is likely to bust your brain. It doesn’t work, and it doesn’t have to work. Maybe it’s the same woman, maybe she’s a time traveller, maybe the name lends certain characteristics (like Julias in Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Love and Romanpunk) … or maybe Russ is playing, and it actually doesn’t matter. Although once you accept that it doesn’t necessarily work, making connections is a lot of fun.
These stories are different genre, with different approaches to narrative – what makes a narrative – so don’t go in expecting a cohesive whole. Of course, it is a whole in that Russ is doing confronting things with her female character: making her the lead, and not making romance important, and exploring reactions to women. That’s still a bold thing to do, and my edition of these stories was published in 1983; they originally came out between 1967 and 1970. I really wish I was alive to experience Russ As She Happened. And it makes me wonder who, if anyone, fills a similar niche today – and whether I am completely missing their stuff, for whatever reason.
I feel like a barbarian myself to admit that I did not love the first two stories. In fact, it took me ages to get through this slim volume because I was so not in love with the first one, and then the second, that I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy the rest. I persevered though, partly from an admittedly perverse desire to be able to say that I had read it, and partly because I knew that the stories changed up so I was hoping that I would come across stories more to my taste later on. And I did. Some of what comes below is my analysis of my own reactions to the stories, rather than a pure review. This might be dismissed as navel gazing; for me, it’s a way of working out how I work with Joanna Russ, such a powerful influence over what I’m interested in.
“Bluestocking” begins in a very self-deprecating way – “This is the tale of a voyage that is on interest only as it concerns the doings of one small, gray-eyed woman.” Not a great start? It gets subversive within moments, though, suggesting that the first man was created from the sixth finger of the left hand of the first woman… but our lady, Alyx, has all six fingers. Alyx is a pickpocket; she gets hired to look after a spoiled young woman. Then there are adventures, of a sort. There’s travelling, and bickering, and a sword fight. It is also supremely brief. I’m not sure whether it was that aspect that most didn’t work for me, but it certainly contributed – I found this story quite frustrating, with all its lacunae and its teasing and… something. “I Thought she was Afeard till she stroked by Beard” worked similarly on me. In this case, Alyx escapes an unhappy marriage; gets on board a ship and has a complex relationship with the captain; and is frustrated by the place of women in the world. I think it’s clever, but for mine there’s just not enough.
I should say at this point that there is more going on here than ‘just’ a narrative, especially in narrative connections; I know Russ is addressing Fritz Lieber, and others. I haven’t read any Lieber. Perhaps this is a fault in me, and the stories would be greatly improved with that background knowledge. But I know Terry Pratchett riffs off Lieber too, and I enjoy those stories; I know Mieville and Reynolds are riffing off others, but I still enjoy theirs too. So… perhaps it’s ok that I don’t enjoy all of Russ’ work? Maybe?
“The Barbarian” is a story that Gary Wolfe, in his essay in On Joanna Russ (… I think?? eep maybe I’m wrong…) suggests is the switch for Alyx between fantasy and SF, which is an intriguing way of seeing it. Here Alyx is again a crim-for-hire, but she doesn’t like what she’s hired to do and things go downhill from there. For me as a reader, though, things started going up. This story appealed more, although I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s a simpler story but with more flesh, more detail?
Then – next – oh, delight: “Picnic on Paradise.” This was originally published alone, as a novel; I guess it’s a novella, by today’s standards? 90 pages in my little pocketbook edition. Alyx, a Trans-Temporal Agent brought from the ancient Mediterranean world to both the future and a different planet. She’s being used to guide a disparate group of tourists across a war-ravaged planet, to keep them safe in the most horrific of circumstances: no access to their technology. There’s an incredibly profound moment at the start, where one of the women asks why Alyx is “covered up” – wearing clothes. So Alyx takes off her shift, therefore mimicking those around her, which group promptly have apoplexy. Alyx is confused, naturally; one of them says that she is wearing her history, which they are not used to. This goes a long way to demonstrating some of the rather large differences between Alyx and her charges. The story is a straightforward one of flight, and fighting for survival: getting lost, getting hungry, literally fighting (nature, each other, etc). It’s Russ, and having read We Who Are About To… I wasn’t surprised that things do not go according to plan, in a drastic way. One of the remarkable aspects is, of course, that the leader is a woman. Making the hard decisions, being contemptuous, fighting – being well-rounded. The tourists are a motley bunch: nuns, macho men, wannabe robots, high-society ladies. They too have their chance to be well-rounded, to interact especially with Alyx but also each other. This isn’t a fun story but it’s a great story, an intriguing one, and one I am so pleased to have read.
The final story in the set is a difficult one in terms of “Alyx canon,” the idea of which I rather suggest Russ would either have rolled her eyes or laughed at. Because Alyx probably isn’t in it. Her descendants might be, but if you read this by itself you wouldn’t have a clue about her. It’s also frustrating me because I know I have read it – “The Second Inquisition” – before, but I don’t know where. Some anthology, some time. Anyway… this too is science fiction, focussed on a young girl whose family is hosting a very odd stranger, who leads the girl in all sorts of directions: physically, introducing her to other, even more strange people; intellectually, introducing her to books and ideas she has never encountered; and culturally, challenging a whole bunch of assumptions within the family and society more broadly. There’s also questions about reality and imagination going on here that I think I missed the first time through. Intriguingly I think this gets a little close to the ‘galactic suburbia’ stories that Russ dismissed, since the focus is very much a suburban home with the occasional break-in of the science fictional. At any rate it certainly makes a challenging and difficult-in-a-good-way conclusion to the collection, because it doesn’t fit neatly into Alyx’s adventures. Which is as it should be, because Alyx – as a woman and as a character – doesn’t fit anywhere comfortably either. And she wouldn’t want to.