Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To...

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Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To debuted almost thirty years ago. Wesleyan University Press, fortunately, has seen fit to reissue it in a handsome trade-paperback edition. For those who have neither read the book nor heard anything about it and dislike knowing the outcome of a story before reading it, stop reading now and go and read the book itself before continuing with this essay. I explore here the difference between the way I read this classic a quarter of a century ago and the way I read it now and how that difference enhances my appreciation of it. Such an exploration can't be made without introducing numerous spoilers.

In his introduction to Wesleyan's reissue of Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To, Samuel R. Delany suggests that the life-and-death "equations" Russ's novel offers up are "just as cold" as those in Tom Godwin's famous story, only "far more complex."(vii) The novel opens with a starship crash on a planet that might well be a "thousand million" light years from Earth, stranding the survivors with only a six-month supply of freeze-dried food, a chemical toilet and simple tools, and a water distiller with a sealed power pack. As in most conventional stories of starship crashes, the survivors of the crash set out to play a version of Robinson-Crusoe-does-Adam-and-Eve. Russ, however, declines to posit the "impossibly generous universe" (as Kurt Vonnegut has characterized the trope) necessary for transforming a starship crash into a heroic opportunity for forging a new human world. She chooses, instead, to tell a story in which one of the women in the party refuses to assume the role of Eve, and turns every assumption implicit in stories of accidental colonization on its head.

When Galaxy Science Fiction first published We Who Are About To in two parts in its January and February 1976 issues and Dell Publishing reprinted it as a book in 1977, the Women's Liberation Movement was alive and if not entirely well still kicking some serious ass. Though I knew little about sf or fandom in those days, I devoured every bit of feminist sf I could get my hands on. When I first read We Who Are About To in 1978, I burned with its anger, I gloried in its defiance. I hadn't yet encountered Virginia Woolf's stricture that anger has no place in literature; and I knew, as all seventies feminists knew, that every woman needed anger to slash her way out of the box in which every institution of our society was determined to shut each of us up. In 1975, lesbian desires were officially regarded as symptoms of mental illness; and everyone (but feminists) knew that the healthy, well-adjusted woman profoundly desired to submit to the domination of her mate and have babies. In such a total atmosphere, anger was about all feminists had to drive the engine of change.

I, personally, faced continual pressure to subordinate my professional aspirations to unceasing demands that I bear children. I knew nothing in 1978 about the sf conventions contingent on an "impossibly generous universe" that Russ's "cold equations" of a space-ship crash so prodigiously critique. But I read the novel in an extremely personal way, identifying strongly with the narrator's resistance to the survivors' romanticization of primitive patriarchy that assumes that women's bodies and labor are the possessions of "society" and thus can be commandeered whenever "society" deems it "necessary." I don't think I quite knew what to make, exactly, of some of the women characters (who though unusually strong for 1970s fiction, with the exception of the narrator joined wholeheartedly in the plan to turn all the females of child-bearing age into baby-making machines). I seem to recall taking pleasure that even in such an oppressive set-up Russ had imagined women characters who had before the crash had lives of their own--and not an earth mother in the lot (pace the narrator's tagging Cassie with that epithet in a moment of anger)--even as I understood Russ to be saying that no matter how independent and even powerful women become, under certain circumstances the most brutish aspects of patriarchy can return, and that women who think that a return to a more "natural" state is a Good Thing are deluding themselves.

Such a reading worked for me then, but it was, I think now, a limited (if not naive) reading contingent on my ignoring much of the narrative's riches. And in fact, although the basic events of the story had remained remarkably vivid in my memory, on encountering We Who Are About To more than a quarter of a century later, it was almost as though I were reading a different book.

Shortly after I first read We Who Are About To, feminist politics and theory became a lot more complicated and the Women's Liberation Movement vanished, morphing into the quieter, less-ambitious "feminism" (a term previously associated only with the suffragists, who are now referred to as First-Wave feminists). Not only did the Sex Wars and the Essentialism Issue and consciousness of racism come crashing onto the scene, but also the vise of constant, total institutional sexism was broken. Many men became allies, many women were given a stake in the system, and feminist rage dissipated. Moreover, I, too, changed: I read a lot of science fiction, became someone who is not easily bullied, and learned to feel a good deal less threatened by society's patriarchal claims to my body. The novel still resonates for me with political and social relevance: but the resonances of 2005 strike different tones than those of the mid-seventies. More importantly, this time around I find myself appreciating the bold brilliance of Russ's narrative structure as I could not do twenty-five years past.

No matter their intrinsic interest and worth, books often fall into obscurity when their sense runs contrary to the mainstream perceptions and values of the succeeding generation. Whether books that fall into a next-generation obscurity survive often has to do with their being available to a future generation better able to appreciate them. But some books survive because readers and critics out of a book's original time find new ways to understand it.

Although We Who Are About To no longer speaks to my old feminist rage, many of its sentences address social and political issues current in 2005. "Don't push us," says John Ude, whom the narrator portrays as a bully. By push he means voice dissent to the reigning groupthink.

"Then leave me alone," I said. "Just leave me alone and I'll have no reason to push anybody, huh?"
   But they won't be able to leave me alone. I know. Not because of the child-bearing, because of the disagreement. The disagreement is what matters.
  How far will I push them? To where? All the way? (31-32)

As I read it, merely questioning or expressing skepticism about the wisdom of the group's decision to play Adam-and-Eve constitutes "pushing." And by "pushing them all the way" the narrator means shattering their group delusion and forcing them to confront the reality of the situation. When truth is inadmissible because it threatens delusive behavior, any dissent or resistance to the delusion is intolerable.

What difference would facing reality make to the crash survivors? In the most optimistic scenario, the group would assess their resources (as the narrator has already done for the reader), realize that at their full complement they have at most six months to live, agree to a few basic ground rules for determining the conditions of their deaths, and then make the most of the time they have remaining. Given the supply of drugs in the narrator's possession, death would not have to be a prolonged agony or brutally violent. But I can more easily imagine characters so addicted to groupthink deciding to go out in a ritualistic mass suicide. (Would the narrator have been the lone voice of dissent in that case, too? I somehow imagine she would have been.) More likely, though, I suspect that given the fact that only one of them is anything like middle-aged (unless one counts the narrator, who is forty-two, as middle-aged--which, I think, is stretching it), even confronting the truth they would be unlikely to fully take in the utter impossibility of a last-minute rescue. Instead, I imagine that the tensions in the group, the bitterness and resentment for their intolerable situation, would have given rise to a lot of sex and violence--and perhaps to other sorts of delusions besides the Robinson Crusoe/Adam-and-Eve colonization scheme. But that, of course, would have been another novel entirely.

"The disagreement is what matters." In other words, the narrator's opposition to forced childbearing was not the crux of the conflict. I can appreciate this in 2005 as I could not in 1978. At a time in the US when the public sphere is dominated by groupthink, significant disagreement is not permitted into mainstream discourse, such that frequently only trivial aspects of important issues are the focus of "debate" in the political sphere. Because the narrator insists on trying to voice a significant disagreement (rather than engage in the trivial sorts of disputes that break out among the others in the group), her voice is nullified as lacking in credibility. This is borne out by the narrator's remarking

The penalty: everybody comes to me for advice. Because my public word would not be trusted, I can be told anything privately. (26)

Later in the novel, reading between the lines of the narrator's account, it becomes apparent that the refusal of the group to allow open discussion and disagreement has reopened an old wound she suffered earlier in her life. In my current reading, although Russ's "cold equations" are the novel's primary thematic focus, questions about who may speak and be heard lie at the heart of its subtext.

In his introduction, Delany says that Russ "by twenty yearsanticipated the recent critiques" of Georgio Agamben and Alain Badiou "on the abuses built into the concept of making 'bare life' the privileged node of philosophical attention and the relationship of that process to fascism." (ix) Delany focuses specifically on the issue of reproduction, distinct from that of forced reproduction, in recognition of the narrator's moral stance against bringing any child into a world without social infrastructure and health care, a world where other than a handful of vulnerable adults, lichens are the most advanced form of life. Interestingly, the narrator does not limit the quality-of-life argument to reproduction. When speaking about her religion's attitudes toward life and death, she says, "Without meaningful work, you might as well be dead."(19) And she tells the ringleaders of the Adam-and-Eve plan: "We died the minute we crashed." When he replies "For dead people, we're acting pretty brisk," the narrator says

"Galvanism. Corpse jerking. Planning. Power. Inheritance. You know, survival. My genes shall conquer the world. That's death." (30)

As I read this in 2005, the US media was treating the public to the spectacle of the infinitely iterated image of a brain-dead woman suffering involuntary physical spasms on camera. "Corpse jerking That's death," Russ's narrator says, sending a frisson of horror whirling up my spine. A little later, the narrator is tackled and strip-searched because the group has discovered she is in possession of drugs that--if she chose--she could use to commit suicide. The group cannot allow her the choice of putting an end to a bare existence without meaning. Groupthink, of course, always finds it necessary to control choices of life and death. As the narrator notes, it's all about "Planning. Power. Inheritance," about "conquer and control."(30) Those who claim to be defending "life," according to the narrator, are not interested in life at all, but in control and conquest and power.

Given the stated equivalence in the text between power and control over all other bodies (a power that has always been claimed by sovereign states), could any reader, then, be surprised that when after the narrator flees, the group diverts its scarce resources pursuing and attempting to capture her? Their doing so flies in the face of any possible rationality. But that they do so pointedly illustrates one of Russ's very cold equations. And that one of the members of the group pursuing her comes to covertly dissent from the groupthink and commits murder and then kills herself merely renders the equation all the colder.

As I noted above, probably the most striking difference from my earlier reading of the novel is my appreciation now for the novel's unusual narrative structure. Imagine an opera in which all the action takes place in the first half and the soprano spends the remainder of the opera on stage, alone, dying. Or imagine a revision of Hamlet, in which the play's intrigues and all of its deaths (but Hamlet's) takes place in the first act, and Hamlet delivers a soliloquy (beginning, perhaps, "I die, O Horatio") as he spends the remaining four acts bleeding to death. That would, roughly, give you an idea of the overarching structure of Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To All the real-time dramatic action--that is, the plot-driven seduction of the reader--takes place in the first half. When only the narrator remains alive, the dramatic action necessarily ends. And then the virtuosic lyric begins.

Although the novel's narrative gives way to lyric and loses its drive, the narrative does not vanish entirely. The form in which the second part of the text unfolds, words the narrator has told us are being spoken into a device called a vocoder, continues to offer a semblance of diachronic order--with the difference that this semblance of order is marked by continual synchronic eruptions of memory and hallucination. Kathy Acker's comments about the relation of narration to time offer a way into the shift between seductive narrative and lyric display:

When storytelling, humans attempt to cling to meaning. I think of narration, or the narrative that tries to encounter the real, as that which is negotiating between two orders of time: clock time and chaos. I must say the more I think about it, the more I think writing is about time. The writer is playing--when structuring narrative or when narrative is structuring itself--with life and death. He or she is manoeuvring [sic] between order and disorder, between meaning and meaninglessness, and so is making literature.(17)

In the first part of the novel, clock time rules strictly. The narrator numbers the days; the action unfolds as a series of events that can be understood as linked in causal chains. Once the chief events of the novel have been completed, however, the narrator's self-winding watch ceases to work; her homemade "calendar" gets messed up; she forgets to move the pebbles that mark the day; and she even discovers her hormonal clock to have broken down into amenorrhea. In other words, the clock and the calendar no longer provide a meaningful temporal structure for the narrative.

But time itself--and the order and meaning time can assert--does not vanish from the novel. The "real" that the second half of the narrative "tries to encounter," as Acker puts it, is not the same "real" as that of the first half of the narrative. And this is a part of the genius of Russ's structuring of this novel: the "real" of the second part of the novel could not have been elucidated in the strict clock time of the first half. Without a shift to lyric display--the fat lady's death aria that takes almost half the opera to sing--the novel would have been just a story of a group of feckless humans in a bad situation needlessly pushed to the point of manslaughter and murder. On clock time, the reader would have been waiting for the final piece of action needed to end the story and been bored if it had taken more than a few pages to happen--and have likely judged the narrator unreliable besides.

The measure of time that regulates the lyric is that of the singer's breath. In the absence of clock and calendar time, meaning is produced through associations and links, all of them appearing out of the narrator's past, produced as words for the vocoder. Because the narrator knows that it's improbable that anyone will ever listen to the text she is producing (other than, perhaps, beings with no understanding of human language, customs, or biology), she is basically talking to herself and for herself. She speaks first out of boredom. I imagine that she continues out of habit, and then, finally, because it is the only project she has, other than the ever-slower mechanical functioning of her body. Speaking into the vocoder, listening to it play back her own voice, is the only form of conversation she has left (other than the voices of her hallucinations and memories)--and the only possible source of meaning.

In baseball as in opera, it's not over until the fat lady sings. Russ's narrator is apparently not fat (and is growing thinner with every note she sings); and "over," as the narrator herself makes clear from the top, is debatable. From the narrator's point of view, everything was "over" when the ship crashed (viz., before she spoke even the first sentence of the novel's text). For those who take a "bare existence" point of view, it's only "over" when all the bodies have begun to compost, and since the text of this particular novel consists of words spoken by the narrator, it can't ever, in that sense, be technically "over" since the reader will never see the evidence of the narrator's death. From the point of view of the story Russ is telling, however, the story itself cannot be over until the lyric has been performed. The novel's major dramatic events, that is, aren't all there is to the story.

So what is the lyrical soliloquy of the second half all about? Readers and critics who have declared the book boring apparently, like my younger self, did not get it. (Indeed, one of these claimed that the book said everything it had to say in the first twenty-five pages!) As I read it, the soliloquy not only allows the narrator to put herself--once a "Neochristian"--on trial for murder, but also explores enough of her history to make it possible for the reader to understand her series of responses to the situation following the crash. Through the soliloquy we discover that the narrator's despair is not so much existential as political in the most fundamental sense of the word. At the time of the crash, the narrator was in full flight from a life of political activism and idealism that had smashed on the rocks of discursive politics. As part of a burgeoning movement of dissent, she learned the painful lesson of who may speak in a polis controlled by vast political and financial machinery (which these days we generally name "gobal capitalism").

On hallucinating her "Six Lasting Things"--i.e., Valeria, Nathalie, Cassandra, John, Alan, and Lori--her first, defensive response is telling: "All right. I'm a coward. Satisfied? I didn't have the guts to stand up against you in '25. I let myself be scared off" And of what do her Six Lasting Things accuse her? Of killing a fool, of killing a weak old woman she could have disarmed, of failing to persuade "a reasonable man," of being incompetent. Only Lori, the child, accompanied by Victor, whom the narrator comforted as he lay dying for a heart attack, does not accuse her. Lori thanks her. Even in the narrator's worst moment of despair, she feels confident that she did the right thing in shooting her.

In the narrator's moral universe, killing Lori bears a distinctly different meaning than that of killing Valeria, Nathalie, and John and indirectly causing the deaths of Cassandra and Bobby-Alan. In a typical US court of law, of all these deaths, the narrator would likely only be held culpable of Lori's, given the extenuating circumstances. But for the narrator, Lori's death is a mercy killing, while the other deaths are the consequence of a life-and-death struggle over the politics of the body and a total breakdown in discourse. The arguments she wages with herself concerns (1) the morality of resisting groupthink in the first place; (2) whether she tried hard enough to make her position intelligible to the group; and (3) whether she was correct to run away. The latter point particularly torments her in light of her having "run away" from her past failure as a political activist:

So you took the whole world on your back and put yourself in the center of it and said It's mine and said I'm going to get everything and I'm going to change everything. And when it didn't work you ran away. (101)

Much of the narrator's aria, then, worries at the question of how responsible a group's outsider is for the group's actions and whether and how far it is permissible to go in challenging an insanely misguided discourse and its policies, particularly when they impinge intolerably on one's own life. Reflecting on her brief excursion into politics, she muses

Although the Civic Improvement Association was worse (or better?); anyway, they still thought they were at the center. You have to think that or die. Either you limit what you think about and who you think about (the commonest method) or you start raising a ruckus about being outside and wanting to get inside (then they try to kill you) or you say piously that God puts everybody on the inside (then they love you) or you become crazed in some way. Not insane but flawed deep down somehow, like a badly-fired pot that breaks when you take it out of the kiln and the cold air hits it. Desperate. (81-2)

And the narrator concludes, "God knows I'm private now. And on the periphery now. As far from anything as one can get. Outside the outside of the outside." (82)

The narrator's taking final refuge in music--"Bach from the hills and bushes and when I looked into the blazing blue sky, Handel" (111)--echoes her having taken refuge from political failure by becoming a musicologist. In the narrator's words, "All the music in the world says all the things in the world--I mean the universe, of course--and that's everything there is. So it all cancels out."(114) What more appropriate refuge for one excluded from the dominant discourse could there be?

And yet, "so it all cancels out" offers only the bleakest comfort. As though to say, it's impossible to make a difference, and so oceanic oneness with the universe--submersion of the individual in the whole: peace at the cost of striving, vibrant life--is all that an outsider can hope for.

The narrative's conclusion is stark. I end by feeling the narrator's pain even as I tell myself that her despair need not be the last word, even when insane groupthink is driving the government. This is an important book. Read it afresh and let it speak to you.

Seattle
July, 2005
©2006 L.Timmel Duchamp

Works Cited

  • Kathy Acker, "The Killers" in Mary Burger, Robert GlN|ck, Camille Roy, and Gail Scott, eds. Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004
  • Joanna Russ, We Who Are About To... Forward by Samuel R. Delany. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press: 2005

This essay first appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction, February, 2006.
Publication Date: 
2006