We Who Are About To… By Joanna Russ July 24, 2011Posted by futurewired in Joanna Russ, Reviews.
Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To… is a strange, brief and and almost unrelentingly bleak book. It is a harsh account of an interstellar shipwreck in an unfriendly universe, a feminist reworking of the ‘new Adam and Eve’ trope associated with stories of that kind, but ultimately much of the book is an uncompromising meditation on death.
NOTE – Spoilers ahead
The set-up is a relatively simple one – an accident on a spaceship, an interstellar liner leads to a handful of survivors being stranded on an unknown planet with no possibility of rescue. They have six months worth of supplies and, as might be expected in this kind of narrative, they set out to colonise the planet and rebuild civilisation, in the style of Robinson Crusoe. All except one.
The narrator denounces these activities as pointless; if the local flora and fauna don’t kill them, without medical supplies, with no adequate shelter and no knowledge of the climate or weather patterns of their new home, disease, accident, childbirth, will do for them all in the end. And if they do survive, to what end? To live in a new stone age, with the lifespan and lifestyle that entails? Civilisation, she points out, continues on quite happily – they just happen to no longer be a part of it. Life for life’s sake holds neither temptation nor obligation. All she asks is to be left alone.
Of course she knows that won’t happen. Survival, society, these are the fantasies that are keeping her companions together. A regressive, elemental patriarchy reasserts itself – clumsily at first, when a male character realises he can assert his dominance through physical force, then over the crucial issue of reproduction. Swiftly, the women’s freedoms are restricted, as child-bearers they are now too valuable to put at risk. Interestingly though, and slightly contrary to my expectations, this isn’t really the real line of division – as the narrator puts it, the disagreement is what matters. The act of dissension, not the subject of the dispute.
The more the narrator struggles against the group, by keeping things back, a supply of drugs that could be used to end her life, and eventually by fleeing, the greater the level of confrontation. Eventually things come to a head and the narrator kills most of her pursuers. Of the rest, one has died of natural causes, another has come round to her way of thinking and kills herself. The narrator returns to the camp and kills the two remaining survivors, once as a pre-emptive act of defence, the other as an act of mercy.
If it sounds like I’ve given away the ending you might be surprised to hear that the above events all occur in the first half of the book. The action, as it were, is all over. The initial conclusion the narrator came to is made inescapably clear; dying is all there is left to do.
For the rest of the book we follow the narrators thoughts as she slowly starves to death. The narrative is presented as her words recorded on a dictaphone and so there is an element of stream of consciousness. She remembers past incidents, time spent as a communist activist, as a neo-Christian. She hallucinates, berates herself, offers justifications for her actions. Her ‘victims’ return to accuse or forgive her, she explores the possibility that she killed them because she wanted to rather than because she had to. She is still not suicidal as such, all she wants to do is die with dignity, to be delivered from the demands of the body. But there is no escape from herself, she has to stay with ‘this awful, awful woman, this dreadful, wretched, miserable woman, until she dies.’
It’s a fascinating read, though not necessarily an easy one. A lot of people seem to have found it dull or tedious, which is partly the point I suppose. Ultimately she never sways from her convictions, her determination to live and die on her own terms and there is something moving about the way she endeavours to ensure her death is in a manner keeping with her life. She is an outsider, who has in her life drifted further and further outwards as a way of coming to terms with the failure of political activism, of religion, and now she has effectively stepped outside the intelligible universe. Is that the only option for someone at odds with the ways of the world? Like I said, a strange, bleak little book, in some ways like nothing else I’ve really read.
We Who Are About To… was published in 1977 a few years after the publication of The Female Man, Russ’ best known book which I might give a go when I have a chance. There are a lot of elements which feel very much of its time but a lot of others that go beyond that. It was reprinted in 2005 and is definitely worth a look if you fancy a bit of feminist sci fi that turns into something quite different.
Personally I think I need something a little lighter now to balance things out. Perhaps a little P.G Wodehouse…