For those unfamiliar, the concept of the novel is rooted in (but not remotely limited by) a response to two (related) clichés of primarily pre-New Wave science fiction: first, what Kurt Vonnegut (as quoted by Samuel R. Delany in his introduction to my edition) called "the impossibly generous universe," i.e. a fucking spaceship fucking crashes on, out of all the infinite near-emptiness of the universe, a planet that just happens to be inhabitable, and everyone survives to have adventures; and second (and it sure ain't just sci-fi that's guilty of this one), the story (Delany mentions Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations," but there are horrifyingly many others) in which a woman or women must be convinced to sacrifice herself or themselves for the survival of a man or men*. Where these overlap are the dozens and dozens and hundreds of stories about people crashing on an inhabitable planet and, for some hideous reason, finding it essential that they immediately begin to reproduce, populate the planet, conquer it! How the women feel about all this childbirth is, of course, not typically addressed--and when it is, there's usually a lot of simpering and delight and maternal instincts going on.
*Yes, that sentence has five sets of parentheses in it.
So Russ gives us the mixed-gender survivors of a wrecked spaceship. She even concedes to convention and throws them onto an inhabitable--or survivable, at least--planet (though as the narrator likes to point out, there are plenty of places even on friendly old Earth that will kill you in hours or minutes). But what happens there is struggle, not adventure, and when the talk of breeding starts up the already-anxious narrator gets frantic.
The book is sometimes compared to Lord of the Flies (e.g. Delany in his introduction calls it LotF's "guilty conscience" in part for being primarily about adults rather than children), but the comparison strikes me as inaccurate. (Though please note my only experience with Golding's book is of having hated it in 10th grade, so it could be that my memory and understanding of it are skewed*). My understanding of LotF is that the big Theme is that whole stupid thing of the thin veneer of Civilization, that we all are but one step from savagery, etc forever. Not so with Russ. Here, the problem is not the loss of civilization (though that is touched upon with Alan-Bobby's realization that, hey, there are no laws here, and hey, I'm the strongest person around), but rather its retention. The survivors don't waste much time thinking about simple survival before they start thinking about colonization--settling the wilderness, civilizing it and themselves. They get to work building a house (the narrator, sensibly, finds herself a decent cave), they form schedules and arrangements for reproducing ("the great womb robbery"). And more than that: these people, by and large, are not physically suited for this--they have the ailments and weaknesses and allergies that come with civilization and, as the narrator points out, "humanity had not exactly been breeding for survival for the past hundred years." Most telling of all is how quickly the two bureaucrats of the group begin facilitating themselves into leadership.
*And talking about high school English classes reminds me of all those facile constructions they taught us (or me at least)...10th grade was all about "man's inhumanity to man"--"The theme is man's inhumanity to man," my teacher would say almost every day, about every text--and the different types of conflict, "man vs. man" and "man vs. nature" and all those. Woman, of course, is assumed inhuman, to have no conflicts worth mentioning.
When I first read the book, I recognized its brilliance but found it frustrating and impossible (much the same words men have used to describe smart women for time out of mind); I kept wanting to shape its narrator, who I did sympathize with (to a point, oy, not realizing that my sympathy is entirely beside the point), into, and I hate to reveal that I thought this, someone more...rational. Someone more willing to (yeesh) compromise. More than that, I wanted to shape Russ's work into a simpler, more pleasant story of female solidarity. This was what I had expected to encounter, what I was prepared to understand and accept, so when faced with this difficult, bleak story of a difficult, bleak woman in a difficult, bleak situation, my mind rebelled, kept trying to convince me that I was seeing a differently shaped story, kept trying to force Russ into the pattern I wanted for her--my own little bit of patriarchal behavior, there. Feminism's all well and good, dear, but why can't you be nicer?
It actually astonished me how little I had gotten out of the book that first time, relative to what it has to offer--especially considering how much I did manage to get, back then.
I have seen several writers say that We Who Are About To... is about how to die, and how to live, and this is true--very true. But it is just as much about the right to say no--not just in terms of sex, or reproduction, but to anything and everything that you want to say no to, to everything that needs saying no to--or even to things that you just don't feel like saying "yes" to right now, for no good reason. It's about the right to not agree, to walk away from your society, and your culture, and your existence--and about the impossibility of exercising that right even at the most extreme remove imaginable from all these things.
When the other survivors discover that the narrator is a member of a small but well-known and much ridiculed religious group (a syncretic thing we later discover she may have played a part in creating), they taunt her; that and other of her views, such as her Communism, allow the others to safely disregard everything she has to say about their situation. One of the other survivors, the ostentatiously rich Mrs. Graham (who refuses, with the complicity of the others for a time, to acknowledge that she is no longer rich in any meaningful sense), mockingly asks how the narrator can reconcile her religion and her politics. She responds that her religion
"...is no bar to being a Communist. Which I was."Interestingly, in her narration just two pages earlier, she had referred casually to one of the other women--one who, much later, she will describe as "The only one I liked"--as "frigid."
"You're not one any longer?" she said.
"Mrs. Gee," I said, "none of us is anything any longer."
"Frigid little woman," she said, stepping back. I said, "Oh, call me a salad, why don't you, that makes as much sense."
Towards the end, the narrator--who has (as she says several times, Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you...) by the time of the crash become a lecturer in Renaissance and baroque music--semi-hallucinating, semi-remembering, hears music from everywhere and just throws in this gorgeously accurate description:
And they played and they sang and I wept, everything I ever knew, for Baroque music is keyed into Isaac Newton's kind of time; it's the energy of that new explosion of philosophic time: perspective, mathematics, instant velocity, the great clock, the great wheel, harmonies, the Great Godly Grid.She goes on to compare music post-Stravinsky to Einstein and relativity, unhappily ("it makes my head ache, referring to things in all dimensions and sometimes backwards"), and it's lovely musicology, but it's also, no matter how much the narrator might not want it to be, a reminder that everything is, in fact, relative, that the music we play and the religion we follow and the way society treats us and the way we treat others are all relative to the assumptions of the prevailing culture, even and especially when that culture goes away, because at this point there's nothing else left to us.