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Russ, Joanna

Entry updated 23 October 2023. Tagged: Author, Critic.

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(1937-2011) US academic and author who taught at various universities from 1970; she was a professor of English at the University of Washington from 1977 until her retirement in 1991. She began publishing sf in September 1959 with "Nor Custom Stale" for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a journal to which she also contributed intermittent but influential book reviews between 1967 and 1980. Her early work is less formally innovative than the stories she began to publish in the 1970s, but The Hidden Side of the Moon (coll 1987), which assembles material from throughout her career, demonstrates her early competence as a writer of Genre SF, and her ability to transmute traditional story forms into work that was clearly, engagingly subversive. This is most evident perhaps in Russ's first novel, Picnic on Paradise (1968), assembled with individual stories as Alyx (coll 1976; vt The Adventures of Alyx 1983), the whole comprising the central part of the Alyx/Trans Temp series of Space Opera tales about a Time-Travelling mercenary Hero who is tough, centred, autonomous and female. Much of the initial impact of the sequence lies in its use of Alyx in situations where she acts as a fully responsible agent, vigorously engaged in the circumstances surrounding her, but without any finger-pointing on the author's part to the effect that one should only pretend not to notice that she is not a man. The liberating effect of the Alyx/Trans Temp tales has been pervasive, and the ease with which later writers now use active female protagonists in adventure roles, without having to argue the case, owes much to this example, which itself may show the influence of C L Moore's Science-Fantasy Jirel of Joiry (see Temporal Adventuress; Women in SF). Alyx herself does not explicitly appear – though the time-travel agency Trans Temp does – in her collection's final story "The Second Inquisition" (in Orbit 6, anth 1970, ed Damon Knight), which Equipoisally hovers between literal and metafictional readings. Russ herself became, in most of her later work, far more explicit about Feminist issues, though her muffled but ambitious second novel, And Chaos Died (1970) tells from a (homosexual) male viewpoint the experiences of a man forced by the psychically transformed human inhabitants of a planet on which he has crashlanded to endure the rewriting of his psychic nature as he perilously acquires Psi Powers. His rediscovery of Earth in the latter part of the book is to Satirical effect.

With Russ's third novel, The Female Man (1975), which awaited publication for some time, programmatic feminist fiction may be said to have come of age in American sf, though it would be unfair to describe this complex tale as exhausted by the iteration of its burden. Deftly foregrounding the feminist arguments about Gender which had sustained her work to this point, it presents a series of four Alternate Histories, in each of which a version of the central protagonist enacts a differing life, all dovetailing as the plot advances. From psychic servitude to fully matured freedom – as made possible in the female Utopia of the planet Whileaway – these lives amount to a definitive portrait of the life-chances of the central protagonist on Earth, and a convincing fictional demonstration of the power of environment over "nature". Savage and cleansing in its anger, the book stands as one of the most significant demonstrations of the power of sf instruments to enable the making of arguments about our own world and condition. Set on a different version of Whileaway, "When it Changed" (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison) more fully describes a world flourishing in the absence of men, eliminated centuries earlier by a plague; the mutilation of Whileaway culture, after the arrival of a Starship with an astonishingly intolerant male crew, is ruthlessly depicted. The tale won the 1972 Nebula for Best Short Story. "Nobody's Home" (in New Dimensions 2, anth 1972, ed Robert Silverberg) depicts, with ironic pathos, the plight of an "ordinary" twentieth-century throwback in a world of exuberant overachievers.

In We Who Are About To ... (January-February 1976 Galaxy; 1977), the survivors of a crash on a planet inimical to human life treat their situation as a Robinsonade in the making, attempting to deny the fact that their deaths are inevitable once their limited supplies run out (see also discussion under Tom Godwin of "The Cold Equations" [August 1954 Astounding]). The tale is narrated by a woman who refuses to be coerced into being made pregnant in line with the dominant group's delusional adherence to an Adam and Eve model of their situation (see Colonization of Other Worlds) and feels herself forced to kill them to prevent being raped (see Sex; Women in SF); in the end, alone but enhanced by visionary moments, she prepares for her inescapable Suicide. The novel works not only as trenchant Satire but as an analysis of the underlying rhetorical biases of much traditional sf (see Hard SF). The Two of Them (1978) shivers generically between telling the realistic story of the oppression – and escape, or rather rescue by an agent of a version of Trans Temp (see Alyx above) – of a young woman brought up in an Underground planetary colony whose Religion is reminiscent of Islam, and deconstructing this generic material, as the novel closes, into the embittered dreams of a woman trapped on an equally oppressive society on Earth. Other short work of note – including "Daddy's Girl" (Spring 1975 Epoch), a reprise of some of the themes of The Female Man, and "The Autobiography of My Mother" (Fall 1975 Epoch) – appeared in The Zanzibar Cat (coll 1983; rev 1984) and Extra(ordinary) People (coll 1984), the latter volume containing Souls (January 1982 F&SF; 1989 chap dos), which won the 1983 Hugo and Locus Award for Best Novella. These collections, along with The Hidden Side of the Moon, make available much of her significant short fiction; a collected edition is currently awaited.

Russ's nonfiction – early collections include How to Suppress Women's Writing (coll 1983) and Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts: Feminist Essays (coll 1985) – articulate with fiery clarity the issues that inform her fiction. Much of this early material is also incorporated into two retrospective assemblies, What Are We Fighting For: Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism (coll 1998) and The Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews (coll 2007); through these volumes her work remained available to the world, though after 1980 or so illness had curtailed her active career. An influential early essay was "The Wearing Out of Genre Materials" (October 1971 College English; November/December 1972 Vector), arguing that sf and fantasy tropes develop from Innocence through Plausibility to Decadence. She won the 1988 Pilgrim Award for sf criticism and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2013.

Russ was the least comfortable American sf author. Like Samuel R Delany, she was a thoroughly grounded intellectual, and every word she wrote, fiction or nonfiction, was shaped by thought in action. Despite this – or perhaps because of this – she remained exceptionally persuasive. She told often unpalatable truths in tales that were, as pure story, a joy to read. [JC]

see also: Anthropology; Arkham House; Automation; Clichés; Critical and Historical Works About SF; ESP; Fantastic Voyages; Games and Sports; Golem; Internet; James Tiptree Jr Award; Janus/Aurora; Matter Transmission; New Wave; Paranoia; Sociology; Transgender SF; Women SF Writers.

Joanna Russ

born New York: 22 February 1937

died Tucson, Arizona: 29 April 2011



Alyx/Trans Temp

  • Picnic on Paradise (New York: Ace Books, 1968) [Alyx/Trans Temp: in the publisher's first Science Fiction Special series: pb/Diane and Leo Dillon]
  • Alyx (New York: Gregg Press, 1976) [coll: Alyx stories plus Picnic on Paradise: Alyx/Trans Temp: hb/nonpictorial]
    • The Adventures of Alyx (New York: Pocket Books, 1983) [coll: vt of the above: Alyx/Trans Temp: pb/Kevin Eugene Johnson]
  • The Two of Them (New York: Berkley Publishing Corporation/G P Putnam's Sons, 1978) [Trans Temp: hb/Norm Walker]

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