Noah Berlatsky / June 18, 2020
Gwyneth Jones’s new critical biography of Joanna Russ for the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series (called simply Joanna Russ) seems less like an academic reconsideration than a continuation of its subject’s oeuvre. That is part of Joanna Russ’s peculiar genius. Her most famous novel, The Female Man (1975), is (as Jones deftly explains) itself a critical biography of her self, in which four versions of Russ meet and interrogate each other’s motivations, desires, and fates across somewhat more than four different worlds. “The novel’s séance-like structure of competing voices is fiction laid bare,” Jones explains, as her own book becomes another “twisted braid of the author’s mind.” The volume is a polyvocal analysis of a polyvocal analysis, speaking to and about a Joanna who is speaking to and about Joanna. Jones and Joanna (as Jones calls her throughout) are not subject and object, but sister speakers together, most alike when their voices are most individual.
Russ is best known for her science fiction, a genre in which she experimented, and with which she argued, throughout her life. That argument, as Jones makes clear, was primarily a feminist one. In her 1972 critical essay “What Can a Heroine Do?: or Why Women Can’t Write,” Russ declared in all caps “WOMEN CANNOT WRITE—USING THE OLD MYTHS. BUT USING NEW ONES?”
Science fiction and fantasy, with their postulation of distant or future worlds, allowed a rejiggering or reimagining of realism’s tropes, and therefore of realism’s patriarchy. In The Female Man, one instance of Joanna named Jeannine, a younger, sadder, still heterosexual self, wanders through a drab, timid world waiting to marry some drab, timid man. Meanwhile, another instance, Janet, fights duels to the death with rapiers (“apparently, since that’s the kind of scar Janet Evason has to show—though we never see the rapiers,” Jones offers, in a very Russ-like aside) on the all-female alternate timeline of Whileaway. These alternate Joannas are joined by Joanna herself, both as in-novel character and as an authorial voice that comments on her own fictional creations as they appear and disappear from each other’s worlds. The novel is then a realist story (both in the sense that we visit Jeannine’s drab grey realist world and in the sense that Joanna is speaking as her real self). But it’s also an exploration of a science fiction alternative to realism, as the self-confident, unquenchable Janet deftly thumps would-be assaulters in our world, and has duels and adventures in her own lesbian all-female utopia.
The science fiction world of Whileaway gives women room and breadth for feminism. But Jones, and/or Russ, are careful to document the ways in which science fiction itself was mired in the all-too-real conventions of misogyny. Russ’s work was attacked as an exercise in angry man-hating by male SF writers like Poul Anderson and Philip K.Dick, and Russ was frequently frustrated that Ursula K. LeGuin, the most prominent woman writer in the genre, wrote almost exclusively male protagonists.
Russ’s 1978 novel The Two of Them is, in Jones’s brilliant reading, a violent rejection of the science fiction establishment. The novel is the story of Irene Waskiewicz, a transtemporal agent working with her partner Ernst Neumann on a trade deal with the world of Ka’abeh. Women on Ka’abeh are brutally segregated and subjugated. Irene is outraged and arranges the rescue of a young girl, Zubeydeh, who wants to be a poet in contravention of her society’s norms. Irene assumes that Ernst, her lover, will be horrified by Ka’abeh, and that he, like the science fiction genre, will want to free women’s writing. But Ernst drags his feet and warns Irene that their superiors will not support her. Eventually, Irene has to kill him.
The Two of Them becomes not about how Irene and Ernst adventure together, but about how Irene and Zubeydeh have to stand against male institutions on both of their worlds. “As a young woman, longing for escape,” Jones explains,
Russ had found refuge in sf without noticing, perhaps without caring, that women as agents were usually excluded from the game. She’d been faithful for years: explaining science fiction to itself; excusing its faults and trying to transform it even as an ‘out’ lesbian feminist. Maybe she still wanted the relationship to work, as the seventies drew to a close. But her belief in the mission was shaken, and her unease was growing. Was the increasingly difficult position, as an exceptional woman in a male-ordered organization, even morally tenable?
Jones is a science fiction writer herself, and the disillusionment here doesn’t just belong to Russ. Indeed, part of the brilliance of Jones’s discussion of the novel is the way it shifts the meaning of the title again, so that “the two of them” means not Irene and Ernst, and not Irene and Zubeydeh, but Joanna and the community of women in science-fiction, or, specifically, Joanna and Jones. Jones’s reading rescues Joanna from science fiction, just as Joanna’s novel rescues the writers, like Jones, who follow in her interdimensional path.
Jones follows in that path not just as a science-fiction writer, but as a critic. Joanna Russ provides not just careful consideration of the novels, but of Russ’s own reviews and essays. Her critical voice, like Jones’s, is thoughtful, sharp, and delightfully funny. Non-scholars will need to read the book to find out which one of them refers to Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane as “sub-Tolkien” fantasy, and which says that it is a “daydream of Byronic suffering and self-importance… that could easily have been cut by three-quarters.”
By giving criticism and fiction equal weight, Jones (or is that Joanna?) shows with rare clarity how each is embedded in each. Russ’s great 1977 novel We Who Are About To is in large part a critical dissection of the shipwrecked colonization novel. A small passenger vessel crash-lands on a distant planet, and most of the men on board decide they need to start a breeding program to populate the world. The narrator, though, recognizes that they will never be rescued and can’t live on a planet with no usable food or water; she refuses to be raped for a hopeless colonial dream. And so she kills them all.
The book could almost be one of Russ’s devastating reviews—while, for her part, Jones’s analysis of the book is in part an exercise in cross-genre fiction writing. “I found it fun to think of [the characters in We Who Are About Too] as stagecoach passengers—dumped out of their hospitable nineteenth-century world and stranded in hostile Indian country. Beset by peril, these mismatched strangers need a common cause. They don’t realize that the puny outlaw hidden in their midst [i.e., the narrator], who swiftly becomes their scapegoat, is also their nemesis.” Fiction functions as criticism, and criticism involves fictional rewriting. Puncturing imperialist dreams, for Jones and Joanna, is an act of both analysis and imagination. To get to a different and better world you need to be able to cut the old one up and build it anew.
These acts of destruction and creation, of reimagining and remaking, are collaborative. Russ’s vital personal and professional friendships with Samuel Delany and Alice Sheldon dip in and out of Jones’s narrative, as does Russ’s engagement with science fiction, with feminism, and with her teacher Vladimir Nabokov. For that matter, the book reads in many ways as an extended conversation between the protagonists, Jones and Joanna, as they argue, agree, inspire, or think with each other, or near each other, or within each other. It’s a collaboration.
It’s also an elaboration of Russ’s feminist utopian visions of a society that has changed so completely that women can actually talk to each other—or of a feminist utopian vision in which women talking to each other is powerful enough to change the world. Jones (or is that Joanna?) was no doubt inspired by Joanna (or perhaps Jones?) when she wrote in another fiction, which was also another critique: “I dream of another planet, with an ocean of heavy air, where I can swim and she can fly, where we can be the marvelous creatures that we became; and be free together, with no bars between us. I wonder if it exists, somewhere, out there…”
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.