We're a handful of persons in a metal bungalow: five women, three men, bedding, chemical toilet, simple tools, an even simpler pocket laboratory, freeze-dried food for six months, and a water-distiller with its own sealed powerpack, good for six months (and cast as a unit, unusable for anything else).
At dawn I held hands with the other passengers, we all huddled together under that brilliant flash, although I hate them.
O God, I miss my music.
A cliche it may be, but if ever a book deserved to be described as 'incandescent with rage', it's the brief, unsettling, lost-in-space tale We Who Are About To... (1976; rpt 2005), by Joanna Russ. Its anger illuminates.
As the story begins, a spaceship crash has stranded its few survivors on an unimaginably distant planet, with limited supplies and beyond all hope of rescue. "The light of our dying", the narrator tells us, characteristically mindful of a posterity she knows she will not see, "may not reach you for a thousand million years". The anger, too, is hers: at life, at death, at mechanical accident and human stupidity and blind survival instincts, so hard to overcome even in full awareness of their futility. She speaks the story into a voice recorder in increasingly rare, snatched moments of privacy (her first words are "About to die"); it, and we, are her only confidants, her only allies. It makes for a claustrophobically intimate experience.
Her fellow survivors, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and fear, quickly embrace the notion that they ought to settle, and re-build human civilisation, on the alien planet. The narrator is initially dismissive ("Day first. I'm sitting in the corner on the empty tool chest after a little nap. Already excited talk of "colonization", whatever that is"), and although she tries to stay out of the way, she cannot pretend to share their optimism:
"What do you suggest we do?" says the Professor, with The Smile. "You seem to think we have no chance." Humor her.
The professor repeated, "Just what do you suggest we do?"
"Well, anything you please," I said. "Only leave me out of it."
Driven by frustration, she tells the truth, as she sees it: that the whole enterprise is futile, and she wants no part of it. If the local flora and fauna don't kill them (or fail to provide the nutrition they need), in the absence of basic medical supplies and adequate shelter, accidents and unfamiliar diseases (and childbirth) will. (Or else - as becomes apparent later - the tensions brought on by boredom and fear.) There are shades of classic SF short story 'The Cold Equations' (1954), here; neither human ingenuity nor sentimentality nor the hope of a miracle can overcome the simple logic of the problem. And in any case, the narrator is not interested in life simply for life's sake. There has to be something worth living for:
"I think that some kinds of survival are damned idiotic. Do you want your children to live in the Old Stone Age? Do you want them to forget how to read? Do you want to lose your teeth? Do you want your great-grandchildren to die at thirty? That's obscene."
The reactions she receives are ugly; her arguments wound the others' pride and (more seriously) puncture the protective delusions that are keeping them going. She is silenced with a punch, and the threat of more violence. Further confrontation is inevitable, though, especially once the group starts parcelling out the women as breeding stock, and some of the men show signs of recognising just how far the balance of power has shifted in their favour. "You must listen," the narrator tells us. "You must understand that the patriarchy is coming back, has returned (in fact) in two days." Before long, the women's choices and movements are being restricted, for the collective good:
"You see..." he went on, "Nathalie's life and yours and Lori's and Cassie's are too valuable to put in danger. You are childbearers."
For their own, various, reasons, the other women go along with this: an effort to make the best of things, intimidation before the groupmind, fear of the alternatives. One embraces the new hierarchy because it gives her a certain power over the likes of the narrator; being a subordinate enforcer is better than being the forced. But to the narrator they are only putting off the inevitable, and losing their humanity in the process. For her unwillingness to fight off death by any means possible, even at the cost of making life unbearable, the narrator is repeatedly called a coward - as she was, indeed, by some contemporary critics, according to L. Timmel Duchamp's sharp, insightful piece about the book in The New York Review of Science Fiction.
On one level, We Who Are About To... is Russ' evisceration of a then-common (and largely unexamined) science fictional trope, that of interstellar settlers playing Adam and Eve in a post-technological Eden. This trope remains an underlying assumption of much post-apocalyptic sf even today: take the recent Battlestar Galactica series, for example, or 28 Days Later. (The latter does at least present it as creepy, but more because a bad guy is running the stud farm, rather than because it's an inherently disturbing concept to utterly override people's autonomy for the 'greater good' of maintaining the human race.) Russ, through her sardonic narrator, is more than willing to ridicule this for the ludicrous, hollow lie that it is:
"Civilization must be preserved," says he.
"Civilization's doing fine," I said. "We just don't happen to be where it is."
The narrator is threatened, and confined, but she will not surrender, although it is made clear that if she will not consent to participate, she will be forced. Despite the sneers of the other characters, she is not suicidal ("I'm very much afraid of death. But I must. I must. I must. Deliver me from the body of this. This body. This damned life"). What she wants, since life under these circumstances is impossible, is to die with dignity - or at least to die with an indignity that is freely chosen, not imposed.
And so the latter half of the book is about just that. After she has fled, been chased and attacked, and everyone else lies dead, several by her own hand - individual autonomy in extremis is only slightly less disturbing than subjugated group-rape, it turns out - she settles down to die. The narrative thus becomes the resolute, rambling, regretful, frightened and bored ("It's boring. Starving is boring") reflections of woman dying so much more slowly than she would wish. The conflict between her instinct to stay alive, and her refusal to just eke out an existence not on her own terms, breaks her. It is stark, and grim, and very powerful writing; a portrait of a mind fragmenting, and recognising and embracing the process. She tells herself that the deaths were necessary, a mercy, and yet - alone with herself on a mountainside - she cannot excuse or escape who and what it made her: "And now I have to live with this awful, awful woman, this dreadful, wretched, miserable woman, until she dies".
Yet she will not be swayed from her conviction that what she is doing, at the last, is right - and, as throughout the book, she will not be quiet. She will continue to speak out:
Guess I really am starving. But not apathetic enough (yet) to stop talking. Never will, I guess. Everything's being sublimed into voice, sacrificed for voice; my voice will live on years and years after I die, thus proving that the rest of me was faintly comic at best, perhaps impossible, just an organic backup for conversation!
And music's coming back. Bits of Handel this morning, swaying in the pine trees. I mean in memory of course, I'm not that cracked.
And despite everything, there's something uplifting about that.