The Female Man is a truly astonishing novel. It first appeared in 1975 and I have since worn out two copies. This is my first reading of a new copy and it still surprises me, not to mention the awe and jealousy I also always feel. Awe that such a superb work can be written; jealousy that such a superb work can be written and I know I’ll never come anywhere near.
Words like ‘visionary’, ‘powerful’, ‘classic’, ‘significant’ have all been applied to this work. And they are all true. If you have not heard of the book it is probably because it also has two other labels: ‘feminist’ and ‘science fiction’. Yes it is both, because at heart it is about the experience of women and it uses the idea of alternate worlds to make its point. But it transcends those labels in a way that makes them almost irrelevant. Only almost, because Joanna Russ, thankfully, has never shied away from be a writer of sf.
In the novel four alternative versions of the same person are drawn from their four alternative worlds. And that’s about it. There are subplots, but the vehicle itself is more than enough to carry the dark wit that is used to explore what it means to be a woman. The different worlds offer different perspectives, such that we can also conclude that rather than four worlds we are offered a glimpse into four archetypes, jostling for room in a single mind.
We see a world that never climbed out of the 1930s and never shed the psychic straightjacket that most women wore throughout their lives. In another we see a world where men have long since died off (and it is no utopia). A third world is torn apart by a literal war of the sexes. And sadly my dull description does none of it any justice. Because Russ is an impeccable stylist, some who has a real power over words, someone who makes them run as smooth and warm as honey, as dark and rich as chocolate, as sharp and powerful as a storm.
The intricate weaving of the four tales contrasts and compares the experience of the women in their different worlds. The sparse action allows both character and ideas to have a life of their own that is every bit as intriguing and suspenseful as any action thriller. The writing is assured, subtle; at times laugh out loud funny, at others the sharpness leaves you bleeding.
It is also a work of metafiction. The author is present (she is one of the characters), and we are treated within the text to some accurate observations on how the book (and feminism in general) is and will be greeted by all the usual suspects. Yet this is no vitriolic polemic; no rant. It is a clever and compassionate piece of writing; a superb piece of science fiction; a well argued work of feminist philosophy; and to my mind one of the truly great novels of the twentieth century.