I'm surprised at how hard it is to find the words to express my sadness at the death, yesterday, of Joanna Russ. I only started reading her work relatively recently (and only began writing about her here last year), but in books like We Who Are About To... and The Female Man - and short story collections like Extraordinary People and The Adventures of Alyx - I found such a shock of recognition and liberation in Russ' eloquent anger that I feel like they have been part of my life and my way of seeing the world for much longer. Her death is a huge loss for feminism and for science fiction - in terms of both fiction and criticism - that is only made keener by the fact that, as I understand it, long-term ill health has prevented her from contributing to the conversation for many years now.
By way of small tribute, here is a review I wrote for Vector last year, of the critical essay collection On Joanna Russ (2009), edited by Farah Mendlesohn, which does a wonderful job of capturing so many of the facets of Russ: the writer, the thinker, the inspiration.
For reader and critic alike, Joanna Russ is an intimidating writer to approach. Her anger – at injustice, at wilful stupidity, at the patriarchal lines along which so much of the world is organised – is palpable in her writing. Reading her is never less than bracing. Her portrayal of women characters who respond to the patriarchal world with open aggression was taboo-breaking on publication in the Sixties and Seventies and remains arresting today. These characters are not (just) victims, striking out desperately; they are powerful agents who revel in their capacity for violence and there are few who do not see the necessity of it. Any other response, any hint of conciliation, only strengthens the forces ranged against them. As Farah Mendlesohn puts it, in her insightful introduction to this scholarly essay collection, for Russ "niceness is not a mitigating factor in the structures of oppression. […] Niceness merely pads the cell."
It is no coincidence, then, that the word which recurs in so many of these essays about Russ’s work and her place in the SF field as both reader and writer is 'fierceness'. It is no surprise, either, that the sharp-witted fierceness of Russ and other feminist authors met with hostility in some quarters. (It still does, albeit from less distinguished sources, if the letters page at feministsf.org is anything to go by.) These early reactions are charted – lucidly and entertainingly – by Helen Merrick in 'The Female "Atlas" of Science Fiction? Russ, Feminism and the SF Community'. Poul Anderson was not unusual when he declared, in response to Russ' 1972 essay 'The Image of Women in Science Fiction', that a feminist perspective on SF brought only bias and distortion to the table. In his view – entirely logical and objective, no doubt, him being a man and all – it was perfectly natural for there to be few female characters in SF since most SF writers composed "cerebral plots" that did not require love interests. But Russ' words did not fall on entirely stony ground; Merrick quotes Philip K Dick, for one, acknowledging the importance of anger in critiques of a dominant group, as making it harder for the dominant group to simply disregard them.
While there is fun to be had with kneejerk reactions like Anderson's – and satisfaction when Russ sharpens her pen in return – it is fascinating to see how far we have come and what a towering figure Russ was and is. Merrick's analysis of this instance of the debate over feminism’s place in SF brings into focus the broader theme of the first part of On Joanna Russ: Russ as a committed participant in the SF field and a serious challenge to the field's shared assumptions. Merrick's argument – that Russ' feminism represented a substantially new approach to genre criticism – is complemented in 'Russ on Writing Science Fiction and Reviewing It', by Edward James. In a wonderful advertisement for Russ' non-fiction writing, he examines her tenure as a reviewer for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction between 1966 and 1980. He shows us Russ as a sharp, eloquent and intellectually restless critic and often a very funny one (on The Day of the Dolphin: "M. Merle writes like this, by the way, it is very modish and experimental, it is called 'run-in sentences', she flung herself down on the bed, I will kill all publishers, she thought"). She values "utter conviction" in genre writing – SF that does not shy away from its SFnality – without giving a pass to substandard or unambitious work; a reviewer's opinion, she argues, is not arbitrary simply because no objective standards of quality exist. As her time as a reviewer goes on, her aspirations for the genre develop; she believes that SF can (and should) be better, that there is no reason for it to shy away from the challenge of diversity – not least, in the form of herself.
Lisa Yaszek's 'A History of One's Own: Joanna Russ and the Creation of a Feminist SF Tradition' looks at another aspect of the developing conversation of feminist SF, Russ' interactions with women authors and her attitudes to writing that explores women's concerns. As the title suggests, Yaszek seeks to set Russ in the context of feminist canon-forming with the result that some of the piece – while interesting to a reader like me, who did not know the history in much detail – is only tangentially about Russ. Dianne Newell and Jenéa Tallentire's 'Learning the "Prophet Business": The Merril-Russ Intersection', meanwhile, feels like it is part of a specialised debate that never quite comes into focus; that it spends so much space interrogating the "rivalry" between Russ and Judith Merril, before reaching the rather obvious conclusion that Russ' ideas changed over time, does not enhance its appeal.
When it comes to the essays on Russ' fiction, those that concentrate on a single work or a limited body of stories are, by and large, the strongest offerings. In 'Extraordinary People: Joanna Russ' Short Fiction', Graham Sleight offers a characteristically perceptive close reading of several stories (notably 'When It Changed', 'The Zanzibar Cat', 'Souls' and 'Bodies'), interspersed with brief but insightful comments on how a Russ story works. Russ, he suggests, builds new narrative frameworks before the reader's eyes, offering not simply argument – although there is always and ever that – but an exercise in how to argue. Unfortunately, after a strong start, Sleight's article winds down rather abruptly; it could easily have been half as long again. Gary K. Wolfe's 'Alyx Among the Genres' greatly enriched my reading of the Alyx stories, in particular the elegy for escapist reading that is 'The Second Inquisition'. (In general I would like to have seen more of this sort of piece in the book: ones that set Russ' work against the backdrop of her contemporaries' work.) I was much less convinced by Jason P. Vest’s take on Alyx in 'Violent Women, Womanly Violence: Joanna Russ' Femmes Fatales'; while Alyx can and does kick arse when necessary, I would rank self-reliance and quick-wittedness rather higher among her many skills.
The novels are better served in terms of attention, although the quality of the exploration is more variable. There are a strong pair of discussions of The Two of Them, each concerned with how we can read Russ today. I found Sherryl Vint's 'Joanna Russ’s The Two of Them in an Age of Third-wave Feminism' the most stimulating, for its interest in how women of different cultural backgrounds experience oppression differently (and how Western feminists have tended to forget or disregard this), although Pat Wheeler makes an interesting if unfocused return to the theme of fierceness with '"This Is Not Me. I Am Not That": Anger and the Will to Action in Joanna Russ's Fiction'. Some of the other single-work studies are less successful. Tess Williams makes some good points in 'Castaway: Carnival and Sociobiological Satire in We Who Are About To…', but the piece as a whole is a little uninspired – seeking the carnivalesque feels somewhat old hat – and never quite touches what makes the book so compelling: the brutal glee of the first half followed by the complete psychological breakdown of the second. Sandra Lindow goes for a heavily symbolic reading in 'Kittens Who Run With Wolves: Healthy Girl Development in Joanna Russ’s Kittakinny'; the result is unsatisfying and a touch humourless, although it does once again raise the issue of how being trained from birth to be 'nice' hampers rather than helps women and girls. Andrew M. Butler’s free-associative 'Medusa Laughs: Birds, Thieves and Other Unruly Women', meanwhile, induced head-scratching but little enlightenment in this reader.
It says much about how we read Russ' work – for idea, for argument, for short sharp shocks – that so few of the authors here treat with Russ as a prose stylist, as a writer on a sentence-by-sentence level rather than one whose words are there to serve her themes. Samuel R. Delany’s 'Joanna Russ and D.W. Griffith' is an exception, if a somewhat eccentric one, since it pivots on a thesis – that some of Russ' narrative structures were shaped by watching D.W. Griffith's films – which the author admits is wrong (following a conversation with Russ herself) at the end of the essay. Brian Charles Clark, in 'The Narrative Topology of Resistance in the Fiction of Joanna Russ', goes for something similar but spends as much time discussing other critics' theories as he does applying them to Russ, which is fine if you like that sort of thing but not immediately compelling for readers not versed in the scholarly debates.
Any edited volume such as this is bound to have a few misfires or, at the very least, entries that work more or less well for different readers. This is, nonetheless, a very welcome collection, an expansive and thought-provoking look at Russ that demonstrates the importance of seeing the various aspects of her career as a whole: fiction, criticism, activism, persona. That it does so in several different registers – a few pieces tend towards the esoteric but most are perfectly accessible to the general reader – is equally to be welcomed. For anyone interested in how SF became what it is today, this is well worth the read.