Joanna Russ is a name that keeps cropping up on this blog. Usually it is because of one novel, The Female Man, because frankly whenever the talk turns to feminist science fiction this is the novel you absolutely have to mention. It’s an important book. No, I’d go further than that and say it is an essential book. But it’s not the only thing she wrote. So here are five other books by Russ that really should be on your shelves.
The first thing to say is that Russ was not an easy person and not an easy writer. She was prickly and complex and brutally honest. As a leading voice in feminist science fiction she didn’t seem to believe in the idea of sisterhood. As a critic, much of her ire seemed to be directed at other women writers. And as a writer, much of her fiction seemed charged with pain, so that it was not uncommon to emerge from her books with a sense of despair and hopelessness. You do not read Russ for comfort or a bit of lightweight fun. You do read her, you should read her, you must read her for her searing intellect, her uncompromising vision, and for science fiction unlike anything anyone else was writing at the time.
So, let’s take it for granted that you are going to read The Female Man, now here are five other books that you really must go for.
Russ first made her name with a series of stories about Alyx, a tough female adventurer who at first seems to be the equivalent of C.L. Moore’s fantasy heroine, Jirel of Joiry. But gradually we realise that she works for the Trans Temp time travel agency, and she is constantly transported to scenarios that require strength, resilience and intelligence to resolve. As such, Alyx was the model for all the heroine adventurers that came after. This volume includes Russ’s first novel, Picnic on Paradise, along with all of the Trans Temp stories.
This is perhaps the most doom-laden book you could hope to read. An explosion causes a spaceship to crash on a remote and barren planet. The handful of survivors face an epic struggle to stay alive. The men in the group plan to colonize the world, but the female narrator refuses to be made pregnant by them because she believes that they should be realistic and face the fact that survival is hopeless. Eventually, tensions arise and violence breaks out and the woman is forced to kill the men in order to escape rape. It is a terrifying feminist novel that leaves no way out.
This is a return to the Trans Temp time travel agency, but without Alyx and this time used for a more grim and unsettling story. The time traveller this time is Irene who was brought up in 1950s America. With her partner, Ernst, she is assigned to an underground colony world with a religion that resembles Islam. Here, she comes into contact with a young girl whose creativity is being stifled by the repressive masculine regime. With memories of her own rebellious upbringing, Irene decides she must rescue the girl before she is driven mad, but her efforts unleash a cycle of violence.
Honestly, somebody needs to publish a collected stories of Joanna Russ. As it is, we have to make do with three collections, which between them do not gather every story she wrote. Her first collection, The Zanzibar Cat, includes her Nebula Award winning story, “When It Changed”; her last, The Hidden Side of the Moon, is a selection that covers pretty nearly her entire career from her first story, “Nor Custom Stale” in 1952, to “Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds” from 1983. And between these two comes Extra(ordinary) People, a collection of mostly novellas and novelettes, including what may e her best individual story, the Hugo Award winning novella “Souls”.
Usually, in these features, we concentrate on introducing you to the key fiction written by the chosen author, but in the case of Joanna Russ it would be doing her a disservice not to point you towards some of her ferocious nonfiction. Check her out on Amazon and you’ll find great collections of her essays and reviews, all of which are well worth your time and money. But the one we have to pick out is this, because it really had a major impact at the time and helped to kick start feminist criticism in science fiction. But more than that, it is biting, it is funny, it is sardonic, and it is brilliant. A wicked and irreverent guidebook to the different ways that women’s writing is dismissed, belittled and excluded. Believe me, you won’t feel the same way about literature after you read it.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.