We Who Are About To

We Who Are About To
Joanna Russ

I natter on quite a bit these days about gender stuff and other equality-based issues, hoping (fruitlessly?) that I don’t maroon myself in The Land of White Mansplaining. It was hardly my intent when I started the blog, but somewhere along the way this became part of the Two Dudes Party Line. Now, under the tyranny of my own editing, I am forced to meekly toe said line. Anyway, with Vintage SF Month in full swing, it is time to remedy a major hole in my SFF experience: foundational works of gender and cultural activism. I decided to grab either James Tiptree, Jr. or Joanna Russ for this, choosing We Who Are About To because I became convinced somehow that it was a military SF story with a pro-woman perspective. I may be confusing the book with something else.

Disclaimers first. There are many more lucid deconstructions of this book out there, written by people a) smarter than me b) more involved in activism or c) both. I am going to skate lightly across the surface in a bid to introduce and/or showcase the work, leaving the literary heavy lifting to those more qualified and less tired than I am. If this sort of thing tickles the Gentle Reader’s fancy, please use this post as a jumping off point. Engagement in the comments is also welcome; I shall endeavor to keep up.

As I said, my expectations when picking up We Who Are About To involved some combination of MilSF and feminism. I have no idea why I thought this, because, while there is feminism a-plenty, I found nary a mention of power armor or space battles. Oh well. Instead, transgressive trope busting ahoy. Russ takes on a popular story from days gone by: plucky humans crash land on an uninhabited but strangely livable planet and make a go of it. However, instead of having her people rise to the challenge, tap hitherto unknown reservoirs of creativity and talent, and beat back the frontier ala Little House on the Prairie, Russ decides to unleash The Lord of the Flies and basic laws of planetary biology. We have two choices at this point: read on and be shocked by the bracing, unforgiving story, or laugh at all the poor dorks as everything unravels. Regular readers can probably guess where I went when these two paths diverged in the yellow wood.

Russ has a lot to say about how close we are to savagery, how many men reflexively treat women, what defines a life worth having, and the limits of personal freedom. Our narrator prefers to have her right to die peacefully pried from her cold, dead hand, and doesn’t play well with others. Russ’ chosen protagonist is, shall we say, of the unreliable persuasion, but we automatically cheer for her because she’s the viewpoint character and the others are fools. Her fellow castaways are ready to start up a human breeding program before luxuries like a food supply are settled, basically becoming caricatures of Campbellian Boys Be Ambitious types. The narrator is suspicious not just because she opposes a baby boom, but is also some sort of religious weirdo, probably a drug addict, and is an all around disagreeable type. Still, it is decided that she must bear children, by force if necessary.

If all of this stuff is taken completely seriously, We Who is a bracing and cynical look at humanity. It’s also really hilarious, if one’s humor turns toward the darkness a bit. I fear the author would not be amused watching me chuckle my way through the mayhem. That’s fine though, she was apparently a University of Washington Husky at some point, so we are family, and family forgives these sorts of trespasses and indignities.

I should probably wrap up this inappropriately irreverent look at a classic of New Wave SF. My advice concerning it: Definitely read We Who Are About To. It is an exquisitely crafted jewel of a story, where every word is packed with dense meaning that leaves a much heavier impact than one would expect from such a slim volume. Readers in the right frame of mind will have their view of SF altered, likely as not to emerge from the experience with everything around them tilted a bit into a new perspective. It’s also very short, so even people who will just end up puzzled and/or angry won’t have put too much time into the effort. I’m glad I picked it up and fully plan to read more of Russ and her contemporaries. One word to the wise: skip the Samuel Delaney forward until after reading the book. He spoils everything.