September 01, 2005


We Who Are About To… By Joanna Russ. Wesleyan University Press. $14.95.

Morituri salutamus, said the gladiators of ancient Rome to the Emperor: we who are about to die salute you. But there are no salutes in Joanna Russ’ book and certainly no grandeur. This is a new edition of a short 1977 novel long hailed for its strong feminism but now seeming, in retrospect, to represent the sort of feminism that inspired an anti-feminist backlash, such phrases as “femi-Nazis,” and a new generation of young women who have built on their forebears’ accomplishments by wearing torn and/or minuscule clothing and multiple tattoos.

The underlying premise of Russ’ novel is sound: if a spaceship should someday crash on a distant planet, the odds of a small group of survivors founding a colony would be so infinitesimal as to approach zero. This is a far cry from the typical SF situation, in which hardy survivors somehow build a subsistence civilization that survives against long odds until they or their descendants are rescued or rediscovered. In this book, there are eight crash survivors, including the unnamed narrator, and Russ makes sure that every one is a cardboard character of a most unpleasant type: the ultra-rich woman; the husband she has bought after he groomed himself to be purchased through extensive prostitution; the seriously ill daughter she bought to keep the husband occupied; the would-be government agent who will never get her training; the dull, slightly overweight waitress; the athlete with few brains; and the professor with many of them but no practical skills. There is not a single character for the reader to care about, and it is doubtful that these mismatched creatures could get along on a vacation on Earth, much less survive on an unknown world.

But Russ does not choose to show the group’s deterioration. She wants the narrator to be the agent of everyone’s death, including her own. Why? That is never really clear – the narrator is fatalistic, cynical and uninterested in sex, which would of course be necessary for any colony to survive (Russ herself is a outspoken lesbian). Like Greta Garbo, who famously said “I want to be left alone,” Russ’ narrator wants everyone else to go away so she can die on her own terms, whatever those terms might be. They turn out to involve one natural death, two suicides and five murders – all done by the narrator or instigated by her. To what end? To no end; it all just happened, Russ seems to say. In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes said that giving power to the individual would start “a war of every man against every man” that would make life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In Russ’ work, that is how life turns out – and probably had to turn out, given the circumstances. But watching the solitary narrator wage war on the other survivors makes for a nasty, brutish, short book.

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