One of the twentieth century's greatest science fiction authors, Joanna Russ, died peacefully this morning after suffering a series of strokes. Controversial, political, poetic, and full of crazy action, Russ' work has seduced and troubled readers for decades.
Like many great writers, Russ was often misunderstood and neglected in her lifetime, but as author Samuel Delany points out, her work is the kind that will undoubtedly stand the test of time. People will be reading Russ when they've forgotten entirely about many of the top selling science fiction authors of our day. Here's why.
Russ began writing fiction in the 1950s, the same decade when she went to college and earned her MFA. Growing up in New York City, she'd been very interested in science, even winning a prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent award for a science experiment she conducted with fungus in high school. In college, she turned her inquisitiveness to cultural pursuits. She was fascinated — and disturbed — by the strange way people seemed to react so differently to female heroes in books than they did to male ones.
For most of the early 1960s, Russ worked as a professor. Her mind stuffed full of ideas about science, literature, and gender, she began writing what became her most celebrated novel in the mid-1960s. She finished The Female Man in 1969, but it wasn't published until 1975, three years after she'd won a Nebula for the short story "When It Changed," and had made a name for herself as the author of short, sharp adventure tales featuring her tough, time-traveling heroine Alyx.
The Alyx stories are collected in The Adventures of Alyx, but by far the best of the lot is a novella released under the title Picnic On Paradise. Alyx is on a pleasure cruise that crashes to a lovely vacation planet, but with only enough supplies for the nice picnic everybody was hoping to have. Without a way to leave this planet, the pampered rich people who hoped for a pretty afternoon in an exotic locale have to cope with the reality of surviving on their tourist destination. Alyx takes charge, managing everybody on a long march for help and supplies. Along the way she strikes up an unlikely love affair with a young man who is a complete cyberpunk — always plugged into his devices — before such things existed in fiction. As members of the group begin to die, the story becomes a dark, satirical look at what it takes to survive.
Though Russ is a terrific adventure writer, she never lets you have the adventure you're expecting. Especially when it comes to well-trodden scifi tropes like "stranded on a planet." This is a theme that Russ explores again in her 1977 novel, We Who Are About To..., which is also about a group of people who have crash-landed on a planet. The men want to recreate human civilization by forcing the women to breed with them, but the women refuse.
And Chaos Died, which Russ published in 1970, turns many psychedelic 1960s scifi story tropes on their heads, then shakes them until all the change falls out of their pockets. At first, the story seems like a kind of Ursula LeGuin tale of cultural meetings, with a deeply alienated man finding a planet where everybody uses ESP to bond and create a peaceful society. But then when he tries to bring the lessons of these aliens back to Earth, we're dragged through a kind of nightmare world where hippie self-indulgence has become the norm - people are poking out their own eyes and lighting themselves on fire for fun, while their stoned friends groove on it. So much for the aliens bringing us peace, because who wants to merge minds with these losers? And so much for drugs opening our minds, too.
I should pause here to say that one of the great joys of reading Joanna Russ is that her writing is so poetic and just downright weird that you can take many different messages away from it. Reading And Chaos Died is almost like watching somebody's dream and trying to figure out what's really happening.
Undoubtedly The Female Man is one of Russ' greatest books, and is probably the place to start with her more surreal fiction once you've read the Alyx stories. It's the story of several women who exist in alternate universes, but who are all dealing with the questions that troubled Russ for most of her life: why are women treated differently than men are? Why are women constrained, and how can they escape? The interwoven tales of our heroic woman/women stretches from university faculty parties where women's writing is ridiculed to a far future where women and men are fighting a war to control Earth. Angry, funny, and downright bizarre, this novel is a tour de force - basically, it's Sliders as written by James Joyce. And it's possibly the greatest book about what it's like to be a woman in America that I've ever read.
When she wasn't writing speculative fiction, Russ also wrote essays about feminism and literature, many of which have been collected in books like To Write Like A Woman and How to Suppress Women's Writing. I'm particularly fond of her semi-autobiographical novella On Strike Against God, one of the only pieces of fiction she wrote in a straightforward narrative style and set on contemporary Earth. It's about a woman discovering what it's like to fall in love with another woman, and it's a terrifically fun but bittersweet romance that reminds me of Michele Tea's classic Valencia.
Samuel Delany interviewed Joanna Russ at WisCon in 2006 — one of the last interviews she ever did — and she was still deeply engaged in the literary life, talking about her love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, early twentieth century writer Sarah Orne Jewett, and Geoffrey Chaucer.
In her novels, stories and essays, Russ nails psychological truths that few other authors can touch. Her heroes are never simple, even when they are just crass adventurers looking for cash. They make bad decisions. They kill people they love. They are angry and petty. But they are real, and the strange worlds they inhabit throw into relief the strange world we live in here on Earth. Even Russ' simplest tales are political, but she's as obsessed by the pitfalls of so-called social justice as she is with rousing calls to change the world. A lifelong feminist and leftist, she was never afraid to talk about the failings of the social revolutions she was part of.
Read her if you dare. Or if you are hoping to become brave enough to dare.