Tuesday, 19 October 2010

We Who Are About To... - Joanna Russ

A small group of people are stranded on a planet after an accident. They have limited supplies and absolutely no hope of ever being rescued. It is a simple premiss and one that has been explored before to the point of cliché. But Russ turns the situation on its head. Because instead of a stirring tale of survival against all odds, of populating the planet, blah blah, we have a tale that probably reflects what would actually happen.

One of the group, the narrator, does not see why they should bother attempting to survive. She would much rather they made their peace with themselves and died. This immediately makes her the enemy of the others who cannot grasp such a realistic attitude. The book is the record of her thoughts spoken onto a dictating machine.

Although the end is inevitable, the route there is swift and shocking. Yet it also manages to be full of compassion, wit, and wisdom. And the portrayal of the disorientation of starvation is heartbreaking.

Oh that all books were this well written, this intelligent, this wise, this amusing. It could have descended into a morose sludge, with thick layers of false sentimentality. That we go through the whole traumatic experience with something approaching calm and not the least self-pity makes this all the more powerful.

My admiration is doubled by the fact that Russ (like Ballard and others of that ilk) has deliberately chosen science fiction as a home base and always stayed true to that through her writing life, despite the fact it has probably condemned her quite undeservedly to a ghetto. This is a literary work of great power. It speaks volumes about the human condition, about the relationship of the sexes, about attitudes to life, about how we each cope when we know that life is ending.

The writing is sharp, controlled, and full of subtle imagery that gives it a depth which makes a return reading just as rewarding as all the previous readings. If you haven’t read any science fiction because you have been taught to believe it is all pulp nonsense filled with two-dimensional characters and outrageous plots, this would be the book to dispel all those prejudices.