Friday, June 10, 2011

Thoughts on We Who Are About To...

Well, it's five and a half weeks later and I'm finally starting my Joanna Russ-a-thon. I decided to start with a re-read, not of The Female Man as I originally planned to do first, but of We Who Are About To..., which I originally said I had read recently but which I realized I actually had read at least four years ago. In my own personal timeline, that's essentially forever. This book needed to be reread.

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
" no bar to being a Communist. Which I was."

"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."
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."

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.


Richard said...

Damn. This sounds awesome. Time to hie myself to the library!

Ethan said...

I think you'll like it. When/if you get around to it I'd love to know what you think.

thebaronette said...

Fantastic entry!

I read this book - actually, the exact same copy - only a few months before Ethan. Never had any exposure to Russ other than references coming from him. So, so glad I did. I can say with relative ease - which isn't easy - that this is the most provocative piece of fiction I've ever read. Her writing's meant a lot to me recently.

Russ' analysis of human imposition - that is, male-espoused and male-dominated imposition - is unbelievably incisive. And I think you did a damn good job doing that.

Ethan said...

Thanks, stranger!

High Arka said...

Even if "the patriarchy," as described by wealthy western feminism, is truly as bad as said memes suggest, anything opposed to it is not necessarily good. Russ' own malignant version of "feminism" is, actually, quite antilife and dangerous. Consider her utopia in The Female Man, where all men are dead and women scientifically (order; control; limitation of mutation, stifling of Life) reproduce rather than using the tools of life.

Colonialism as "liberal westerners" define it is bad, but the expansion, growth and development of life is good (and is, well, Life). Equating being truly female with a resistance to life's natural urge to perpetuate itself, develop, evolve, and cause change and growth in the vacuum of the universe (with baby steps first on planets), as Russ does in We Who Are About To..., is in fact the establishment of a new authoritarian model akin to patriarchy, except that the Bad Man of patriarchy is replaced by the Bad Woman.

Authoritarian structures do not begin by being authoritarian structures; they begin by making themselves out to be victims, which serves as cover for demonizing an enemy group, the presumed negative characteristics of which justify repression and horror. This treatment of women can lead to patriarchy; Russ' commentary on men sows the seeds of an opposite, if largely identical, system of repression and bigotry.

But it's always fun to take it out on someone who really deserves it, right? Kind of like watching Arnold blow up low-down-and-dirty Arabs who Really Had It Coming.

thebaronette said...

"Consider her utopia in The Female Man"? OK then. it is a utopia, you are right about that. but what is often missed about utopian visions is the terrifying degree of sameness that must exist to support and perpetuate them. russ does not miss this. in spite of how appealing certain traits of whileaway may be to russ, she still paints it with great ambivalence.

spoilers ahead

the most explicit example of this is the encounter between janet, the whileawayan protagonist, and a 60-year-old whileawayan who has abandoned her former life claiming that "you do not exist" (you, meaning all of whileaway). so here we see resistance to utopia. why? it doesn't really matter. all that matters is that she is dissent personified - she stands against the whileawayan enforced mode of life. janet, as a safety & peace officer, is obligated to track this woman down and kill her. when the two meet, the older woman says to janet "face facts. kill killer" and janet does.

does janet enjoy killing this woman? no. does she have a choice in the matter? absolutely not. as she is later dwelling upon the murder, she explains her situation: she is a safety & peace officer not by choice, but because she is expendable. this is an extremely important revelation in the book. it shows that what our world and utopias have in common is the expendability of life. the only difference is the scale and the degree of clarity that surrounds it.

whileaway may partially consist of russ' fantasies, but she knows the damage caused by imposing one’s own principles onto another. in "we who are about to..." she investigates this more explicitly than in "the female man". the protagonist - not necessarily the heroine - faces the very likely scenario of death on a barely habitable planet. what she also faces is the possible liberation from a white male dominated society hellbent on its own self-preservation. russ has her character resist against this desire in the most extreme way possible: she chooses to die alone. this act is continuously justified by the protagonist’s own rationale. whether or not one accepts the justification is beside the point as simple autonomy is the greater concern.

thebaronette said...

continued from above -

the other characters in the story are faced with a similar situation: die in space or expand "the frontier". it’s decided for everyone that they will all be frontiersmen. (definition: men who want to impose themselves on that unknown to them and the not-men who are forced to help.) it’s even decided that the women will have to give up their wombs to support this. what happens to those who want to try to choose for themselves? they are oppressed, targeted, called "irrational", and seen as the enemy that should become the slave. in this case, it isn't the protagonist's physical life that is seen as expendable - no, it is her will that is expendable.

so, this is the "Standard Mode of Life"? "Life" - capitalized I'm sure to give your definition some clout - is the "highly rational" expansion of Man's domain and destruction? (Mind you, that Man and Power are virtually synonymous in our world.) here's russ' response to that: neither you, nor anyone else for that matter, can say what life should be for me.

you are right that authoritarians often claim themselves to be victims. (the united states certainly does that, as you point out.) and you see the result of that: only those in power can choose what Life is going to be. those who choose for us all are clearly not victims. russ knows that all too well. her denial of men is not a prescription, it is simply a reflection of the denial woman have faced from men. does she find peace in it? maybe in some regards, but she also knows that what would replace it is not without its own dangers.

depriving russ' work of nuance may be an honest mistake. arriving at the conclusion that she is "antilife" and "dangerous" only goes to prove her point about the exclusivity of Life's definition and what tactics are used to avoid its "subversion".

thebaronette said...

something i should clarify - whenever my language suggests i am speaking russ, it's a falsehood. a misrepresentation in and of itself. a speculation from her made outside of herself. what i am doing is offering others my impression of russ - which is equivalent only to my own response. so, truthfully, any use of phrases like "russ' response" or “as she sees it” can be seen as shorthand for "my impression of russ".

the habit to leave this tacit is clearly problematic, but a difficult one to break. does it weaken what i said before? perhaps. but honestly, it’s beside the point here to argue over which false depiction is “more accurate” or “more understanding”, because both are still cases of others speaking for her. this is something russ taught me and something i hope to always keep in mind.

a related passage from the female man:

The Old Whileawayan Philosopher was sitting cross-legged among her disciples (as usual) when, without the slightest explanation, she put her fingers into her vagina, withdrew them, and asked, "What have I here?

The disciples all thought very deeply.

"Life," said one young woman.
"Power," said another.
"Housework," said a third.
"The passing of time," said the fourth, "and the tragic irreversibility of organic truth."

The Old Whileawayan Philosopher hooted. She was immensely entertained by this passion for myth-making. "Exercise your projective imaginations," she said, "on people who can't fight back," and opening her hand, she showed them that her fingers were perfectly unstained by any blood whatever, partly because she was one hundred and three years old and long pass the menopause and partly because she had just died that morning.

Justin said...

Jeez, Ethan. This sounds like a book I must read right now given the direction I am trying to go in.

As for the child birth thing, this is really relevant to me right now. Without getting personal, I'd just say that from my perspective, the idea of going to a strange land and trying to scratch out a life, actual procreation in the context of a healthy, heterosexual relationship without the benefit of modern birth control seems like a real danger to avoid. To go to the fiction idea, if I crashed on a planet in the scenario outlined, I'd be arguing against the group's idea of reproduction. Who gives a fig about creating a colony, let's just make the best of what we have, and when we are gone, we are gone. That to me seems like a more interesting dynamic to explore, I wonder how that would hold, where the group's decision is not to have any kids for the sake of survival, and how best to deal with the inevitable pregnancies/violations of the reproduction taboo.

High Arka said...

For thebaronette:

(Text too long for "comment" size)

Ethan said...

Justin--it's well worth reading (in case you couldn't tell I thought that). And short!

As a matter of fact, the book does address exactly what you mention with the childbirth subject...I think you'll be interested.