She materialized so quietly and expertly out of the dark that the gatekeeper found himself looking into her face without the slightest warning: a young, gray-eyed countrywoman, silent, shadowy, self-assured. She was hugely amused. "My name," she said, "is Alyx."
"Never heard of it," said the gatekeeper, a little annoyed.
"Good heavens," said Alyx, "not yet," and vanished through the gate before he could admit her, with the curious slight smile one sees on the lips of very old statues: inexpressive, simple, classic.
She was to become a classic, in time.
But that's another story.
My Joanna Russ reading-and-blogging project - which began, on the blogging side at least, with the brilliant and unsettling We Who Are About To... - continues with two collections of her characteristically genre- and gender-bending short fiction: The Adventures of Alyx (1976) and Extra (Ordinary) People (1984). Rather than trying to cover everything, this post will concentrate on a handful of stories.
I don't think it's controversial to say that Russ' fiction is neither comfortable nor accessible reading. I recently started On Joanna Russ (2009), a volume of literary criticism edited by Farah Mendlesohn; three articles in, the word recurring most frequently seems to be 'fierce'. Russ' fiction is knotty, prickly, exhilarating, and it sometimes feels as if you need several brains just to take it all in. Every sentence is a challenge to your expectations as a reader. If these stories were striking (and they were) to a 1960s and 1970s audience unfamiliar with, and largely unprepared for, feminist narratives in their fantasy and science fiction, I find myself equally wrongfooted on encountering them in 2009 and 2010, albeit for different reasons. Rarely did these stories follow anything remotely like the course I thought they would.
Russ continually remakes the ground beneath your feet: evoking genre frameworks to play with and comment on them, hitting surprising emotional and thematic notes while skipping over whole chunks of plot and characterisation that, accustomed to a particular set of narrative strategies, I expected to see. Had it come from the pen of almost any other writer of sf/fantasy, the pivotal moment in the Hugo Award-winning 'Souls' (originally published 1982, and collected in Extra (Ordinary) People) - in which Viking raiders come to an abbey headed by the remarkable Abbess Radegunde - would have been the sack of the abbey. And, indeed, this is the pivotal moment; but we are not shown it, because the narrator (recalling, years later, his time in the abbey as the nosy but fondly regarded 'Boy News') is protected, both physically and emotionally, by Radegunde. Before he has even registered the violence breaking out, she conceals him with her body such that he is "almost suffocated" - and sees nothing.
What he shares with us, instead, is the increasingly tense build-up to the sacking, in which Radegunde - having greeted news of the Vikings' arrival with the terse observation "'God protects our souls, not our bodies'" - does her best to avert violence, and the lengthy, difficult aftermath, in which victims and attackers alike struggle to come to terms with what has happened, and Radegunde takes her own particular revenge on the Vikings. Radegunde plays expertly on the raiders' shared customs and individual weakness, running verbal rings around them in an effort to persuade them to accept loot offered freely, rather than taken as pillage:
"Heed my counsel. Why play butcher when you can have treasure poured into your laps like kings, without work? And after that there will be as much again, when I lead you to the hidden place. An earl's mountain of treasure. Think of it! And to give all this up for slaves, half of whom will get sick and die before you get them home - and will need to be fed if they are to be any good. Shame on you for bad advice-takers! Imagine what you will say to your wives and families: Here are a few miserable bolts of cloth with blood spots that won't come out, here are some pearls and jewels smashed to powder in the fighting, here is a torn piece of embroidery which was whole before someone stepped on it in the battle."
The narrator evidently enjoys the memory of her speeches, even though they are (in the immediate term) ineffective. Even the war band's leader/spokesman, Thorvald, can only marvel ("'If I sold you in Constantinople,' he says, 'within a year you would become Queen of the place!'").
One possible reading of the story is that this is a woman who talks too much, and whose cleverness disturbs and alienates the Vikings, so that they eventually lose patience and carry out their attack. But what the narrator cannot quite hide, I think, is that the attack is an inevitability; the raiders are thrown, for a brief while, by the tenacity and quick wits of Radegunde, but ultimately they have come for violence - and they have the weapons. Words are not enough to make them feel the consequences of what they do.
Or at any rate, not the amiable, twinkly-eyed, slightly mocking words of the first half of the story. In the aftermath, surrounded by women left crippled and maddened, Radegunde sheds her folksiness and becomes fierce - especially when one or two of the warriors show signs of wanting absolution. Initially, her anger is expressed in terms of the culture she is in:
"All that child wants is someone more powerful than your Odin god or your Thor god to pull him out of the next scrape he gets into. [...] The Christ does not wipe out our sins only to have us commit them all over again and that is what he wants and what you all want, a God that gives and gives and gives, but God does not give; God takes and takes and takes. He takes away everything that is not God until there is nothing left but God, and none of you will understand that! There is no remission of sins; there is only change and Thorfinn must change before God will have him."
Gradually, though, she sheds such references, too; and it becomes apparent that this isn't the historical tale I thought it was, but something science fictional, and the whole meaning shifts. Because Radegunde isn't the unlikely abbess she appeared to be, either - she has witnessed many, many more violent events than this one - and in her otherness she has an exquisite way of inflicting revenge. "'I lent him my eyes, that is all'", she tells the Boy News later: she inflicts upon Thorvald empathy, and thus makes him share her anger.
Of the other stories in the volume - which are (very) loosely linked by snippets of introductory dialogue that frame the stories as lessons presented to an unnamed child - I enjoyed the more lightweight 'Everyday Depressions' (original to this collection). It is framed as a series of scatter-brained and faintly unhinged letters from an author to her (surely long-suffering) editor, about a lesbian Gothic romance she is working on. It is, of course, all very meta - and (fiercely) funny - with commentary on structure, plotting, gender politics and sexual morality:
Lady M, having been the innocent instigator of the carnal behaviour, of course feels responsible for Miss B's death. Sex, you see, is not only unspeakably evil in itself; it leads inevitably to SUICIDE.
'The Mystery of the Young Gentleman' (1982), meanwhile, tackles gender even more strongly, focusing on two people - who, like Radegunde in 'Souls', seem to be either not human, or post-human - crossing the Atlantic in the late 19th century aboard the S.S. President Hayes. One (whose diary entries provide the narration) appears to be an adult male, the other a young girl, but from the exchanges between them it becomes apparent that both their ages and their genders are shaped to fit the environment in which they're travelling, rather than a fixed or fundamental state for them. When a fellow passenger, a doctor, takes a shine to the narrator, farce ensues - but not without a note of sadness, for the limitations that the doctor's society places on his experience of the world, by making him see only gender binaries, and everything else as a harmful deviation.
The stories in The Adventures of Alyx are more closely linked, although they remain distinct entities. All but one of them feature the same main character: "a neat, level-browed, governessy person called Alyx", as she is described in the first story, 'Bluestocking' (1967); "among the wisest of a sex that is surpassingly wise". She is - or becomes - a skilled, quick-witted, self-reliant thief and wandering adventurer in a land reminiscent of the late Bronze Age Mediterranean world. This is, in other words, Joanna Russ' take on sword and sorcery - although, this being Russ, the adventures don't stay in one genre for long.
Epic heroines were not completely unknown in sword and sorcery before Alyx, but they were hardly common, and Russ takes some care in finding in a place for her in an overwhelmingly male-dominated world. Alyx doesn't have the preternatural combat prowess of Xena, but she does have many skills:
Now in Ourdh there is a common saying that if you have not strength, there are three things which will serve as well: deceit, surprise and speed. These are women's natural weapons.
'Bluestocking' sets the (laconic) tone for much of what is to come. Alyx comes to the city of Ourdh ("'this city, this paradise, this - swamp!'") as part of a group of followers of the god Yp, the sort of faintly ridiculous religion that wouldn't be out of place among the Discworld pantheon (its tenets include "the venomous hatred of inanimate objects for mankind"). Within two pages she has declared the whole thing nonsensical, and turned to picking pockets instead. Shortly thereafter she takes up with a rich brat of a young woman, Edarra, who wants help to flee both the city and an arranged marriage. The rest of the story follows their travels together downriver, as they get into the inevitable scrapes from which Alyx must save them (some likely, so less so: a brutal fight with some random men, a sea monster, the stove setting fire to their boat) and bicker about who's going to do the cooking. Edarra even grows up a bit. It's good fun, and Alyx is an appealingly tough, blunt, resourceful character.
The second piece here, 'I Thought She Was Afeared Till She Stroked My Beard' (1967), may or may not come before 'Bluestocking'. It has the feel of an origin story, and Alyx seems to be younger in it, but precise chronology isn't really one of the priorities of these tales. Like 'Bluestocking', it opens with detached generalities about women and their place in the world:
Many years ago, long before the world got into the state it is in today, young women were supposed to obey their husbands; but nobody knows if they did or not.
...and then spends the rest of the tale deconstructing them, through the person of Alyx, a young farmwife who has an abusive husband and "her head full of pirates". She murders her husband, cuts off her hair and escapes her old life, finding someone to train her in the skills she'll need before making her way to Ourdh:
Six weeks later she arrived - alone - at that queen among cities, that moon among stars, that noble, despicable, profound, simple-minded and altogether exasperating capital of the world: Ourdh.
Note the emphasis on "alone", here; even from the start of her adventures, Alyx is above all self-sufficient, relying only on herself. Even her identity is self-made, and self-claimed: she isn't named by the narration at any point in 'I Thought...' until, at the very end, she names herself (see the passage quoted at the head of this post).
Genre-bending starts in earnest with 'The Barbarian' (1968), which starts out as a sword and sorcery tale - Alyx versus en evil (apparent) wizard - but turns science fictional at the end. Alyx has become notorious now ("Alyx, the gray-eyed, the silent woman. Wit, arm, quick-kill for hire"), and has begun to make enemies. Her opponent is, as in the previous story, bigger, stronger and filled with the smug of conviction of his own superiority - as a man, and moreover, here, as a man from the future surrounded by his technology (the title comes from one of his many insults to her). But Alyx, although her physical training remains important to her ("In the dark she felt wolfish, her lips skinned back over her teeth; like another species she made her way with hands and ears") uses logic and experimentation to find the loophole in a forcefield protecting the time traveller's tower, and outwits his flashy toys the same way.
The ironically-named 'Picnic on Paradise' (1968) is full-blown science fiction. Alyx is now even more the alien outsider who makes those around her slightly uncomfortable with her intensity and sharp humour: she is "a soft-spoken, dark-haired, small-boned woman, not even coming up to their shoulders", 'their' being a group of stranded tourists four millennia into Alyx's future. She has been charged with escorting them from Station A to Station B (Russ having fun with the sketchiness of the premise, there) across a planet made somewhat inhospitable by war. Alyx, we learn, was accidentally scooped up - literally - by a time-travel device beloning to archaeologists from the future:
"One day they were fishing in the Bay of Tyre and they just happened to receive twenty-odd cubic metres of sea-water complete with a small, rather inept Greek thief who had just pinched an expensive chess set from the Prince of Tyre, who between ourselves is no gentleman. They tell me I was attached to a rope attached to knots attached to a rather large boulder..."
The Trans-Temp Agency apparently recognised talent when they saw it, however, and gave Alyx a job. What follows is arguably Alyx's most trying adventure yet - and the most disconcerting to read, transplanting as it does an unreconstructed epic heroine, whom we earlier saw battling a sea monster, into such an archetypally sfnal setting. As Niall discusses very well towards the end of his post on the collection, on the rare occasion when Alyx lets us in to her state of mind, it is made clear that this is a rather more than disconcerting experience for Alyx herself: being catapulted between such different worlds, but unable to forget the suffering she has left behind (shades, here, of Radegunde in 'Souls'), carries with it horror.
It's certainly the story where she displays the most agitation and even emotional involvement (albeit not, by and large, where the other characters can see). Capable and pragmatic almost to a fault, she is brisk to the point of rudeness in her efforts to rally the group and keep them alive, and can barely contain her frustration with their weaknesses and vanities:
"I have," said Alyx, "just killed a bear. It was eleven feet high and could have eaten the lot of you. If anyone talks loud again, any time, for any reason, I shall ram his unspeakable teeth down his unspeakable throat."
Maudey began to mutter, sobbing a little.
"Machine," she said, "make that woman stop," and she watched, dead tired, while Machine took something from his pack, pressed it to Maudey's nose, and laid her gently on the floor. "She'll sleep," he said.
"That was not kindly done," remarked one of the nuns.
Alyx bit her own hand; she bit it hard, leaving marks; she told Machine, Raydos, and Gunnar about the watch; she and they brought more snow into the cave to cushion the others.
As the journey wears on, though, the risk of becoming attached looms even larger than the frustration ("The more they liked her, the more they obeyed, the more they talked of "when we get back", the more frightened she would have to become"). Looking back over this, I'm reminded of the narrator of We Who Are About To..., who similarly struggles to convince her companions of the fatal gravity of their situation - and faces similar challenges to her competence and her assessment of the situation from men certain they know better than a mere woman. Alyx, though, is more able, and more willing, to lead - and the situation, of course, is not quite so hopeless.
The collection is rounded off by 'The Second Inquisition' (1970), a beautifully elegiac tale about reading, imagination, escapism and the idealism we project onto our heroes, set - again an incongruous shift - in 1920s small town America. A teenage girl becomes fixated on the exciting life - half-real, half in her head - of a mysterious visitor who is staying in her parents' house. The stranger is forthright, confident, strong, and has many skills (it's a theme); she can, she says,
"kill a man barehanded or learn a new language in six weeks or slit a man's jugular at fifteen yards with nothing but a pocketknife or climb the Greene County National Bank from the first story to the sixth with no equipment."
She is apt to casually challenge the assumptions the family holds about her, about women, and about the world. She holds long conversations with the girl (our narrator), who is, not surprisingly, smitten - especially when it emerges that the woman is a time-traveller (a relative of Alyx, or a protegee), and a time war erupts into the middle of the quiet family home. The violence comes as both a shock and a liberation to the narrator, who has been reading HG Wells avidly: adventure has found her, and one she can participate in. But then, just as abruptly and unexpectedly as she arrived, the traveller leaves - turning down the narrator's inevitable plea ("'My dear, I wished to take you with me. But that's impossible. I'm very sorry'").
I found the ending especially poignant, as the narrator puts away the makeshift time-traveller "uniform" she made in a burst of fannish enthusiasm, returns to her more conventional "middy-blouse and skirt", and resumes, with sadness, her old life:
Nothing came. Nothing good, nothing bad. I heard the lawnmower going on. I would have to face by myself my father's red face, his heart disease, his temper, his nasty insistencies. I would have to face my mother's sick smile, looking up from the flowerbed she was weeding, always on her knees somehow, saying before she was ever asked, "Oh the poor woman. Oh the poor woman."
And quite alone.
No more stories.
In contrast to all the previous Alyx tales, which conclude with the refrain "But that's another story", 'The Second Inquisition' seems to signal an end. Yet Russ, in a recent interview with Samuel Delaney, noted that,
I put a lot of autobiographical detail in that story: the town, the backyard, the little sort of couch or swing they sit on, stuff like that. The dance. All comes from stuff I've seen or lived through.
...which gives some support for Gary Wolfe's reading, in contribution to On Joanna Russ, of 'The Second Inquisition' as an origin story for a science fiction writer - the narrator, inspired by this episode in her life, will go on to write the Alyx stories, all that escapism tempered with experimentation and gender-bending. Delightfully recursive.
The cover art on both these volumes, I should note, was the creation of the splendid and lovely Judith Clute.