Some writers fade entirely from the common memory, others remain immortalised by a single work. The latter has been the fate of ‘feminist science fiction writer’ Joanna Russ. (The quotation marks are not intended to suggest disagreement: she was a feminist, and she wrote science fiction, but the description also seems an attempt to limit her). Her novel The Female Man (in print today, and, I suspect every day since its 1975 publication) is the novel which has come to define her, though she wrote five others, and numerous short stories. (To be fair, her non-fiction essay How to Suppress Women’s Writing is still relatively well known). Now Penguin’s new Penguin Worlds series, curated by Naomi Alderman and Hari Kunzru, has chosen another of her books as one of their initial five titles: We Who Are About To…
It will not surprise you to learn that We Who Are About To… is a novel about death. Both interpretations of the phrase’s meaning (“Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant”) – is it a fatalistic acceptance of death or a plea for life? – run through the novel, which takes on the traditional SF trope of an emergency landing on an alien planet:
“In the event of a mechanical dysfunction, the ship’s computer goes for the nearest ‘tagged’ planet, i.e. where human life is supposed to be possible, then ejects the passenger compartment separately… We’re a handful of persons in a metal bungalow: five women, three men, bedding, chemical toilet, simple tools, an even simpler pocket laboratory, freeze-dried food for six months, and a water-distiller with its own sealed power pack, good for six months (and cast as a unit, unusable for anything else).”
The novel explores the difference between the passengers’ attitudes to their situation, in particular the divide between our narrator, who believes they have no chance of survival, and the other passengers who retain hopes of some kind – “Already excited talk of ‘colonization’, whatever that is.” Not only does SF generally endorse the view that the human spirit will overcome, but the novel form itself suggests as much – it’s no accident that Robinson Crusoe, one of the earliest examples, is about survival. (For those who only read ‘literary’ SF, it may come a surprise that science fiction is by and large an optimistic genre). Not only does the narrator feel survival is unlikely, but also inadvisable:
“But I think that some kinds of survival are damned idiotic. Do you want your children to live in the Old Stone Age? Do you want them to forget how to read? Do you want your great-grandchildren to die at thirty? That’s obscene.”
Placing the narration in her hands prioritises her logical if bleak viewpoint, frequently making the other characters look ridiculous in their optimism, and in the way they easily retreat to ideas of gender roles long abandoned:
“Nathalie’s life and yours and Lori’s and Cassie’s are too valuable to put in danger. You are childbearers.”
When Cassie is furious with Alan for wasting water by taking a bath he says, “I don’t think… that you ought to talk to me like that.”
“I could take you over my knee and spank you.”
When she still won’t back down he begins punching her in the face. His strength outweighs any intelligence she possesses.
This, however, covers only the first twenty-five pages, and fails to do them justice: each of Russ’ characters brings some vital ingredient to the novel’s opening, and her philosophical intent also includes creating a religion. In the novel’s second half, the narrator’s attempt to leave the group and live alone is catastrophic (I’ll say no more), and Russ follows fictional her proposition through to the end.
We Who Are About To… may be forty years old, but it is certainly not dated. It fully deserves to be rediscovered.