Joanna Russ is not an easy read. This is not to say her writing is not fluid, exciting, interesting. It is. It runs like a refreshing mountain stream. But it is so packed with ideas and rich imagery; you have to concentrate to pick up the nuances that are integral to the work. This is the poet singing. And it is a song worth the listening.
With an idiosyncratic voice, Russ tackles interesting ideas. Ostensibly science fiction (a future setting because that best serves the story to be told), such categorization serves to put Russ in a ghetto where many readers fear to venture. This is a shame. The natives might be a bit odd, their culture a bit a strange, but they are mostly harmless.
The premiss of the book is simple. Two survivors land on a planet with a small population of human telepaths. Whilst there, one of them has his latent powers awakened. When they are rescued, attempts are made to understand and utilise these new found powers. This could have been a gung-ho techno-thriller or a paranoid fantasy of the kind Dick did so well. In Russ’s hands we view the story from within the person struggling to come to terms with their new view of the universe.
It is a dreamlike vision, part nightmare, part hallucinogenic trip. Everything is seen afresh and we glimpse a future world through the disorientation of a human mind that has had all its assumptions about the world and how it is experienced turned inside out. This is handled with consummate skill. There is always a rationale for what happens (rather than some writers who have tried this simply by writing nonsense). But what gives the story its real strength is the fact that at its heart there is a strong, human story.
This dense, poetic work, repays all the effort you put into reading it as images stay long after the covers are closed. For a second novel it is phenomenal.