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Reviews: Joanna Russ

Novels and Collections: The Adventures of Alyx.
Alyx (Boston: Gregg Press, 1977) includes novel Picnic on Paradise.
And Chaos Died (1970).
Extra(ordinary) People (1984).
The Female Man (New York: Bantam Books, 1975. Beacon Press, 1986. ISBN 0-8070-6313-4). Retrospective Tiptree Award Winner.
The Hidden Side of the Moon (1987).
Kittatiny, A Tale of Magic (1978).
Picnic on Paradise (1968)
The Two of Them (1978, Berkeley-Putnam; Berkeley, 1979). Shortlisted for the Retrospective Tiptree Award.
We Who Are About To... (1975, 1976, 1977). Retrospective Tiptree Award Winner
The Zanzibar Cat (1983).

Short Stories Elsewhere Anthologized:
"The Autobiography of My Mother" in Ms., Volume 1, May / June 1991, pages 54-60.
"Corruption" (1976) in Vonda McIntyre's Aurora: Beyond Equality.
"The Little Dirty Girl" in The Armless Maiden (1995).
"The Man Who Could Not See Devils." Originally published in Alchemy and Academe (1970); reprinted in Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader edited by Robin Scott Wilson (New American Library: New York, 1973), pp. 137-148.
"The Second Inquisition" (1969) in Pamela Sargent's More Women of Wonder.
"Russalka or The Seacoast of Bohemia" (1978) in Jack Zipes' Don't Bet on the Prince, (1987).
"Useful Phrases for the Tourist" in Damon Broderick's Not the Only Planet: Science Fiction Travel Stories (1998)
"When It Changed" (1972) in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, 1985; and in The Zanzibar Cat, 1983; also revised & incorporated into The Female Man.
"A Few Things I Know About Whileaway" in The Norton Book of Science Fiction (incorporated into The Female Man
Several uncollected short stories.

On Strike Against God (Out & Out Books: New York, 1980)
Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts: Feminist Essays (The Crossing Press: New York, 1985)

Critical essays on SF.

Web Pages: Unofficial Joanna Russ web page
IU Press Info about To Write Like a Woman
SciFi Weekly Review of The Female Man

Russ is an important figure in both feminist SF and New Wave SF; her novels are notable both for their strong feminist messages and their stylistic and narrative innovations.

She began publishing short stories in the late 1950s, but her feminist work began with the Alyx stories, published between 1967 and 1970 and collected in The Adventures of Alyx. Alyx is a smart, tough woman, a thief and assassin, sensual, intelligent and not beautiful. With Alyx, Russ deliberately countered prevailing gender stereotypes in SF and in her own writing she has said that Alyx was a breakthrough for her.

In 1969 Russ began work on her best-known novel, The Female Man, but it was not published until 1975. In the intervening years she continued to publish short stories, including "When It Changed"; which includes a version of Whileaway, the all-female utopia of TFM. The novel And Chaos Died was published in 1970; it is Russ' only novel to feature a male protagonist, a homosexual whose conversion to heterosexuality is described as a "cure." The main character also becomes a member of a telepathic community; the narrative is designed to present telepathic experience as directly as possible. As such, ACD is probably most interesting to New Wave fans.

No discussion of the 1970s wave of feminist utopias is complete without a mention ofThe Female Man (1975). This simultaneously hilarious and angry novel is based on the premise of alternate worlds. Its four protagonists share identical genes, but have developed into four very different women according to their environments. Jeannine, who lives in an economically depressed United States, is the most oppressed and unhappy character; the only life for a woman in her world is marriage, and she both longs for and dreads that destiny. Joanna (a fictionalized version of Russ) comes from a world familiar to the novel's readers -- America, 1969, with second-wave feminism on the move. Joanna has more choices than Jeannine, but she is still expected to orient herself around men and is constantly being told "women can't" or "women don't".... She longs to be something other than a woman and tries her hand at becoming a female man. Janet represents the ideal, a woman who grew up with no gender-based constraints on her life and thus developed her full human potential. She hails from the utopia Whileaway, a world in which all the men were killed off centuries ago in a plague (or, in a different version of the story, a war). Joanna wistfully calls Janet a woman "whom we don't believe in and whom we deride but who is in secret our savior from utter despair." Jael brings the other Js together in her world, a near future in which men and women wage a cold war. Jael's experience of being a woman is much like Joanna's, but her response is violence.

No summary can do justice to the complexity and energy of this novel. Whileaway is engagingly detailed in bits and pieces throughout the book; the first-person narrator switches from character to character with occasional intrusions by the author; Russ jumps from genre to genre (indeed, the label "utopia" is reductive); and there's good sex to be had, both lesbian and robotic.

In We Who Are About To...(1977), Russ crash-lands a group of tourists on a deserted planet and turns the Robinson Crusoe plot on its head. The female protagonist refuses the futile survivalism of her companions, especially when she is threatened with forced breeding. The novel is concerned with human responses to imminent death, but also examines how those responses are informed by gender.

The Two of Them (1978) features another strong female protagonist, Irene, who rescues an adolescent girl from a male-dominated quasi-Islamic society. Like many of Russ's short stories ("The Little Dirty Girl"; "Bluestocking"; in The Adventures of Alyx, "The Autobiography of My Mother") The Two of Them concentrates on a mother-daughter-type relationship.

Extra(ordinary) People (1984) is a collection of five linked stories, including the Hugo-winning novel Souls. Souls is first in the collection and introduces the theme of identity as a mask for one's true, human self. Russ focuses on gender identity and sexual identity, to hilarious effect in "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman" and "What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma", and poignantly in "Bodies." "Everyday Depressions," the final story in the collection, romps through the outline for a lesbian gothic novel. Like most of Russ's work, Extra(ordinary) People does not really conclude, but rather makes a gesture to the reader: as Russ put it in an interview, "This is the way of the world; and what are you going to do about it?"

Russ's short stories have been collected in two volumes, The Zanzibar Cat (1983), which includes "When It Changed" and The Hidden Side of the Moon (1987). Plagued with chronic fatigue syndrome and back pain, Russ published very little for several years.

The Female Man won one of three Retrospective Tiptree Awards (1996).

--jl, 6/16/95; (minor rev., lq, 5/28/96).


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updated 06/13/07 .