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Joanna Russ: We Who Are About To… [Die]

“You know it was self-defense!…I mean, running into the brush yelling Colonize, Colonize, and all that. They were going to force me to have babies. I was going to be tied to a tree and raped, for goodness’ sake. It was a mass-delusional system…and anybody who doesn’t agree has to be shut up somehow because it’s too terrifying. So I ran away, but they wouldn’t let it be; they came back after me to drag me back into that insanity and I killed them; I had to.”

That passage comes towards the end of Russ’s novel, after our heroine is the only one left alive. She and a half-dozen others had been stranded on a habitable planet where they will never be found, and after making half-assed attempts at “colonization,” our heroine has gotten fed up with them and the dictatorial ways of some of the men and killed them all. This happens about halfway through the book, leaving her seventy pages or so (it’s a short novel) to ruminate on her sins and her upcoming fate of dying alone.

With such a skeletal plot, the book gets by on voice alone. The narrative can seem slapdash or tedious because of the thinness of the other characters, but Russ controls the heroine’s voice more skillfully than her character’s blunt, sometimes clunky rants make it seem. She teeters between despondent, angry theorizing and irrational misanthropy; she’s not merely a “feminist” character, but also a “Trembler,” a member of a rather ascetic and Purtian-ish sect of fatalistic Christianity. (Draw Kierkegaard comparisons as you will.) I think it was Raymond Smullyan who said that Schopenhauer damaged his case by jumping back and forth between cosmic pessimism and whines about every little thing that bothered him. We Who Are About To… mixes those two aspects, the rebellious and the pathological, inextricably.

It’s there first early on, when our heroine gives a list of the reasons why their little group is so very doomed, including:

That there were no mineral poisons, but that we couldn’t test for organics of allergens.

That we could die of exposure in the winter because we had no way to make heat after our bungalow wore out and that was in six months.

That heart failure could kill.

That each of us carried five to eight lethal genes, and that even without them, humanity had not exactly been breeding for survival for the past hundred years.

Even though she’s right that they very certainly are doomed (the general idiocy of the other characters is reason enough), she grasps at too many straws here, both significant and insignificant, because she has a vested interest in their deaths. She is disgusted by society and wants it done with, at least within a billion mile radius.

The other characters tend to be pretty annoying, but the full thrust of our heroine’s disgust is implicit, denoted by the genre in which Russ is writing. Russ is answering the long tradition of macho, libertarian science fiction novels that, even post-New Wave, had shown no sign of abating. Books like Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero idolize the strong, hyperrational man who holds society together by casting off antiquated sentiments like monogamy and altruism; the female ideal is a tough, loose woman who naturally respects that man above all–and sleeps with him (she sleeps with others too, but he’s the one she respects). (See also: Heinlein, Asimov, Simmons, etc., etc.) Even if it’s not as insidious as the great masculine traditions of literature, it’s far more blatant and clumsy, and We Who Are About To… is the equally blatant response. But only in the first half.

The second half is a reflexive analysis of what it means to be that agent of reaction and militancy, the one who snaps and kills everyone. Russ is open-ended on this point. When our heroine is considering the justification (or not) of her murders, there is no answer to be had. She asks herself the question: are her murders justified given that she is a casualty of the imperialistic tendencies she’s suffered under (and her suffering is a given; Russ is scabrous enough about it)? To what extent is she a thoughtful militant reacting to the worst in human society, and to what extent is she simply a homicidal maniac long divorced from any rational cause? Russ does not offer a rational discussion but an intuitive one, as her long-seated ideas mutate and take on dissociative forms. By making her both a fundamentalist and a feminist, by having the voices of sanity and insanity comingle in her head, Russ suggests that there is simply no separating the two sides. She is incapable of isolating her activism from her trauma and victimization. Russ says: how could she? None of us are at liberty to step back freely from the preconditions of society and view the matter from an imagined objectivity. It’s a Fanonian answer, and it makes Russ one of the most distinctive radicals to have written in science fiction. Most portray revolutionaries as rational agents or great unwashed proletarian masses; Russ is not willing to stop at dialectical materialism.


  1. Waggish, have you ever written on Delany’s fiction? (Not being much of a sci-fi fan, the only Russ I’ve read – The Female Man – was on Delany’s recommendation.) I’d love to read similarly well-considered work on his fiction.

  2. I find I like Russ better in theory than in practice, I’m afraid: always interesting and intelligent (and I agree her narrative voice(s) is/are very compelling), her fictions do not ultimately engage me on the grounds of character.

    I am also sorry to say that something about your post reminded me of a delightfully trashy Shirley Conran novel called “Savages”:


    Good stuff! I second the desire to hear your thoughts on Delany.

  3. I remember enjoying a piece of Russ’s dialogue along these lines:
    “What’s it like being a woman?” he asked.
    I took a rifle out from behind my chair and shot him dead. “It’s like that,” I said.

  4. Russ is truly hard sf.

  5. It’s been a number of years since I read that (short, grim) book, but one of the strongest memories I have of it is the heroine’s long internal monologue while she ends her life through starving herself to death in a cave; she denies herself the quick and easy suicide pill she possesses until she is at the brink of death itself. In my memory, this whole last part of the book is an exegesis on the nature of her Christianity (doesn’t she write, at one point “Thou owest God a death”)? So the ending seemed to me to be part of a mystical punishment she endures which leaves her half way between traditional modes of saintliness and a long act of pointless masochism. All very dark, really, and some wonderful imagery. (Happy to see you on FB, btw— pls give my best to N.)

  6. Francois Branchard

    31 January 2012 at 10:52

    “I think it was Raymond Smullyan who said that Schopenhauer damaged his case by jumping back and forth between cosmic pessimism and whines about every little thing that bothered him.”

    He called it “whining”? I sure hope not — this would certainly decrease my admiration for Smulllyan.

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