Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind – anthology
I didn’t know this book existed until this year. It was published in 1985.
The list of contributors is just… I mean:
Joanna Russ (the only reprint)
Raccoona Sheldon! …
and that’s just the names that I immediately recognised.
It’s nearly 40 years old, so some of the stories have aged, I guess? But honestly the general issues in discussion still feel pretty real. Zoline’s “Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire” – children kidnapped and swapped to stop a nuclear apocalypse – still feels like a chillingly appropriate concept. Josephine Saxton’s view of advertising is hideous and, again, not as laughably far-fetched as I might like (it is ridiculous, but also… ads…). Beverley Ireland’s “Long Shift” is remarkable for its focus on a single woman, just doing her job; I wouldn’t have been surprised to see this published today. Pearlie McNeill is (was?) Australian, and I’ve never heard of her! Apparently this was her only piece of fiction? – SF, anyway. And this is where Raccoona Sheldon’s “Morality Meat” was first published, which is… a moment.
There are very few poor stories here. This is an amazing anthology.
We Wuz Pushed
Basically if you’re interested in Joanna Russ’ work, or you’re interested in the way fiction, in particular, can be involved in radical truth-telling, you need to get this book. It’s from Aqueduct Press.
I am a big Joanna Russ fan, so I’m intrigued by everything that does any work deconstructing her work. Mandelo takes as her project the idea that Russ’ entire oeuvre is concerned with radical truth-telling – that art should bring not only pleasure but truth, and not only deconstruct myth but also present new realities. She goes through all of Russ’ science fiction novels, pointing out the truths that are present there and how Russ uses that fiction to suggest new ways of being. I especially liked how Mandelo presented her own journey to understand And Chaos Died – which I haven’t read – and how context can radically change how we understand an author’s intent. I also really, really appreciated how Mandelo addressed the very tricky subject of Russ’ transphobia in The Female Man, and stresses that being able to adjust our understanding of truth should be part of the truth-telling process. And the fact that Russ did, indeed, change her perspective (on trans women and other issues) makes me respect her the more, and gives me something to aim for.
Mandelo also addresses some of Russ’ non-fiction, particularly How to Suppress Women’s Writing and To Write Like a Woman, where the truth-telling is perhaps more obvious in some ways. Overall Mandelo presents Russ’ body of work as a series of writings deeply concerned with the multiple ways in which truth can be told or distorted and what we as a society must do about that. It kinda makes me a bit uncomfortable when I know that I do often go for escapist literature… and I’m not sure how much Russ would approve of that… but perhaps if I can do it with my eyes open she wouldn’t despair too much?
on Joanna Russ
I’ve had this book on my shelf to read for a good few years now. I didn’t read it at first because I hadn’t read enough Russ, and then I put it off because I thought the book itself was going to be scary. The other day I finally decided it was Time, and I’m so glad that I did. Because this book is fantastic.
It’s not a book to read if you are completely unfamiliar with Russ, in my opinion. There are a few of her works that I haven’t read and when they were discussed, I was definitely a bit less engaged and a bit left out of the conversation (my fault, not that of the writers). So you really want to have read “When it Changed” and The Female Man, and The Two Of Us and We Who are About To… before coming to this. That said, that’s not exactly a hardship. Well, The Female Man might be; it’s not linear, it’s very 70s-second-wave-feminism in its attitude towards trans women (ie not very positive), and it’s playing rough with a lot of literary conventions. BUT it’s still worth reading and then you can read THIS set of essays and that’s great!
The first five essays deal with Russ in her context, and I found this deeply amazing and exciting to read. Russ as reviewer, Russ in community, Russ being all edgy and spiky and much as I wish I could have met her I think she would have intimidated me! I also loved this section for helping me get deeper into an appreciation of what it was like to be a feminist and a female SF fan in the 60s and 70s. Things are still not always great today but things have, largely, improved – at least in my experience. These essays are all beautifully written, too, and use such a fabulous array of sources from the period that it makes me want to tell everyone to keep their ephemera! Store it safely! Print your emails!
The second, bulkier section includes essays on Russ’ fiction. Some of these go deeply into literary criticism territory – like Tess Williams using Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnival theory – and I haven’t read much lit crit in… quite a few years. So there were definitely a few bits where I did not get as much out of the essays as I might have when I was still studying and had practise. Nonetheless, the ideas that the essayists present are fascinating and intriguing and gave me new ways of thinking about the different stories. They also made me want to go and read Kittatinny, for instance, which I had thought I didn’t really need to. The essays use a range of devices and theory and ideas to get at the meat of Russ’ stories, to look at what they’re saying about society and gender and people and literature. It was actually really exciting to read.
The other thing this book gave me was a love of my feminist foremothers, Russ and the others that she was bouncing off/working with/ inspiring later. It made me really, really appreciative and fiercely grateful and amazed, too.
I’m so glad I got around to reading this book.
In the Chinks of the World Machine
Look, any book whose title is taken from a Tiptree story – and “The Women Men Don’t See” no less – is likely to be very appealing to me. And ta dah! It was.
This delightful feminist, academic, personal, humorous, thoughtful, and passionate examination of women in science fiction and women writing science fiction came out in 1988. So yes, it’s dated – of course it has. There have been lots more stories written in the last (oh heck) nearly thirty years that have a variety of female characters, and of course more female authors challenging and playing with science fiction ideas. But I think that the categories that Lefanu considers – Amazons, utopias and dystopias, women in love, and so on – these categories often still apply to the ways that women appear, or are thought that they should appear, as characters. So I certainly found these chapters resonant and not only from a historical perspective.
The second half of the book was the bit that I really loved, though. James Tiptree Jr, Ursula Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas and Joanna Russ: what a magnificent set of women, and a magnificent set of stories between them. Lefanu examines a set of the novels and short stories of each of the women (in Russ’ case, almost all her science fiction) and dissects the ways in which they present women. She’s not always flattering – she has some issues with Le Guin’s early female characters, which I don’t entirely agree with – but she is always interesting and insightful.
One of the things I really appreciated and enjoyed about this book is that while Lefanu is absolutely writing an academic piece and interrogating issues of feminism and how science fiction fails or encourages women, there are also personal moments that didn’t feel at all out of place. I really, really like this idea that the writer actually exists and has an opinion – that the book isn’t pretending to be a disembodied, clinical examination but acknowledges the very real body behind the … well, typewriter probably.
If you’re interested in feminist science fiction, in women in science fiction (in all senses), or have a somewhat historical literary bent, this is a really great book. It’s very approachable and even if you haven’t read the stories Lefanu examines (I’ve only read one of the Charnas books), she explains them enough that her analysis makes sense… and I still want to read the books.
Galactic Suburbia 141
In which we stack up months of Culture Consumed into a glorious spiral tower of dubious structural integrity. You can get us from iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia
Alisa: Lois McMaster Bujold: Modern Master of Science Fiction, Edward James (and a bunch of Lois McMaster Bujold!)
Alex: Radiance, Catherynne M Valente
Tansy: The Winged Histories, Sofia Samatar (reviewed in the latest Cascadia Subduction Zone)
Alisa: Bitch Magazine & Popoganda podcast
Alex: Extra(ordinary) People, Joanna Russ
Tansy: Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire IT’S A NOVELLA
Alex: Once Upon a Time season 1 & Alan Alda at the Press Club
Tansy: Agent Carter; yes all right, Orphan Black
(Tansy is now watching Orphan Black, alert the media! In other news, the silent producer has spoiled himself via the Galactic Suburbia Orphan Black Spoilerifics – you can too! Season One, Season Two)
Skype number: 03 90164171 (within Australia) +613 90164171 (from overseas)
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Five narratives, loosely connected by brief snatches of conversation between a schoolkid and their tutor on history. Each story different – thematically, stylistically – each story offering different perceptions on humanity and difference and survival.
I’d read “Souls” before – I have it as an Ace double with Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” The Abbess Radegunde is a remarkable woman – highly educated, linguistically talented, devoted to God and her flock of nuns – and then one day the Vikings come a-raiding. And things change, but definitely not in the way the Norsemen were expecting. How can you judge the people around you? What are you willing to sacrifice? How do you know who you are? I love that this story seems like one sort of story and then KAPOW it’s a very different one.
I found “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman” quite hard to come to grips with, and even on reflection it’s still not entirely clear. Partly this stems from language: someone refers to the narrator as an ‘invert’, and I wasn’t entirely clear what that meant although I knew it had insulting sexual/gender overtones; I’m still not clear whether the speaker intended it to mean homosexuality or cross-dressing. In the context, probably either-or. Anyway, the story is written by the titular young man, as a series of letters although we don’t know who the recipient will be. He’s travelling across the Atlantic with a young Spanish girl pretending to be his niece, and there’s a nosy doctor and a few other passengers. Like I said I’m still not entirely sure what was going on here – whether the young man was rescuing a girl like himself, where both of them are like Radegund from the previous story? Maybe. Despite my lack of complete comprehension I did still enjoy the story in a very Russ-type way: it challenges ideas of gender and sex and sexuality and identity and appearance and how much information you need for a story, anyway. Also what sort of stories ought to be read by young women.
“Bodies” goes well into the future and was probably the most opaque of the five stories, for me (possibly not helped by reading while camping, but anwyay…). This is also written as a letter, but this time we know who is being addressed – James – and the writer is reflecting on the time when they met (after he had been pulled from the past/resurrected/ reconstructed) and the immediate aftermath. It’s also concerned with sexuality and gender identity – James has had a bad life because of his, and adjusting to a future where he is actually allowed to be himself is difficult. In some ways I was put in mind of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time in terms of how hard it might be a for a 20th-century mind to cope with something approaching a utopia (especially someone who has been oppressed), because we’re suspicious and guarded.
“What did you do during the revolution, Grandma?” is a bit Greg Egan and a bit Ursula Le Guin and a bit James Tiptree Jr. What if our universe exists on a hypersphere and the point where we happen to exist is the point where cause and effect happen to equal 1? Which means there are other universes where cause and effect does not equal 1… and then what would happen if you could access those other places? What would humans do? … it’s a pretty weird story. I am intrigued by the conceit although I don’t think Russ plays it out as much as she might. Again she goes in for human stories rather than the maths looking at cause and effect in humanity, and love and sex and confusion.
Finally, with “Everyday Depressions”, I nearly cried. It, too, is epistolary – it opens with “Dear Susanillamilla” – and it’s about the letter-writer hashing out the plot and characters for a novel she (I presume) is thinking of writing. The bit that made me cry was when the heroine’s mother is named Alice Tiptree, of the Sheldons of Deepdene. The entire collection opens with a quote from Alice Sheldon:
“I began thinking of you as pnongl. People” – [said the alien] “it’s dreadful, you think a place is just wild and then there’re people – “
I can’t help but see similarities in the way Russ wrote to Alice Sheldon in the style of these letters, and in Sheldon’s letters back. The development of the gothic novel the writer is proposing to write also just makes me ache, in knowing the Russ/Sheldon connections – and also of course Russ’ own discussions about the gothic story. This little story is an absolute gem if you know those connections, and still amusing and lovely even if you don’t.
Aurora: Beyond Equality
I felt like a traitor giving this book only three stars on Goodreads. But it has to be said that I don’t feel the anthology lived up to what it was setting out to do.Does that make me a heretic? Possibly.
In the introduction, Susan Janice Anderson discusses how hard a lot of people said they found the topic. That they had to invent an entirely new society in order to talk about men and women being actually equal (to which in my head I say, duh; you’re writing SF aren’t you? Maybe that’s a bit harsh). It was very interesting reading about what they wanted to avoid (female monsters), and how hard it was to find models of what they did want. The Dispossessed and “When it changed” were of course mentioned.
Galactic Suburbia 88: Hugos
In which, Hugos. Get us at Galactic Suburbia or iTunes.
Tansy, Alisa and Alex gather only minutes after the Hugo ceremony to discuss the results! Because, HELLO: Tansy won one!!
The Stats, Statbadgers!
Tansy’s Hugo Post
Alex: The Adventures of Alyx, Joanna Russ; BSG rewatch yet again; The Memcordist, Lavie Tidhar; Firebugs, Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Alisa: KickAss 2; Enchanted Glass, Diana Wynne Jones; Ugly, Robert Hoge
Tansy: Fringe Season 1, Dorian Gray Season 2, Ugly, Robert Hoge
Plugs: Splendid Chaps Nine/Women, featuring Tansy: September 15
Glitter & Mayhem released and partying, glitter skate style.
Please send feedback to us at email@example.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!
Adventures of Alyx
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.
Galactic Suburbia 84!
In which we ask the all-important question, what do David Bowie, Tolkien, Judith Merril, H.R. Giger and Joanna Russ have in common? Also harassment in SF, and the many shades of awesome that was Captain Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager
SF Hall of Fame includes some familiar names.
Elise Matthesen reports sexual harassment at Wiscon, kicking off a long conversation across various spots on the internet about harassment, procedures, and gender issues.
Some of the related posts we discuss:
Alisa: It’s Not Just Them Over There
Tansy: Sexual Harassment at SF Conventions (links mostly)
Genevieve Valentine on “Dealing with It”
Elise Matthesen’s post at Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog (with commentary, and links to all the other hosts of the post)
Jared Axelrod on “Ruining the Party”
SFFragette: Moving SFF/F into the 21st Century
ALISA: Defiance and Voyager rewatch, and Why Voyager Is The Most Feminist (and Best) Star Trek
TANSY: Captain Marvel: Down, Kelly Sue Deconnick, Dexter Soy & Emma Rios (artists); Xena Season 4; Ovid’s Heroines by Clare Pollard, Warehouse 13 Season 1
ALEX: Abaddon’s Gate, James SA Corey; The Lowest Heaven (anthology; ETA: discussed on Last Short Story!)
Please send feedback to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, 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!