Review: We Who Are About To? by Joanna Russ

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Well-Known Member
Oct 20, 2013
25th August 2013 06:37 PM

Victoria Silverwolf


We Who Are About To… by Joanna Russ (1977)

One of the notable characteristics of speculative fiction is the tendency for newer authors to build on the work of earlier writers. Sometimes the connection is obvious, particularly when the new story is a satiric commentary on an older work. To fully appreciate Harry Harrison’s Bill, The Galactic Hero, for example, it helps to be familiar with Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein.

In other cases, the author may refer to a common theme in science fiction in order to offer a new perspective. A good example is We Who Are About To… by Joanna Russ, which takes a familiar premise and forces the reader to think about it in new ways.

This short novel (serialized in the pages of Galaxy magazine in 1976) begins with five women and three men marooned on a planet after an unspecified accident on a starship. So far from Earth that not even the stars are familiar, unable to communicate with any possible rescuers, left with only enough food to last six months, their plight seems hopeless. The opening lines of the novel offer no reassurance.

About to die. And so on.
We’re all going to die.

At this point the reader may expect a tale of survival against overwhelming odds. Despite the fact that the planet offers nothing edible, the more naive castaways imagine they can live on this isolated world. Some even believe that the men should impregnate the women, to begin a colony.

The narrator demolishes this idea at length. The author seems to be attacking the idea, common in science fiction, that the primary goal of human beings is to survive and reproduce, no matter how short and miserable their lives may be.

The first half of the book can be read as a dark satire on the optimism of much speculative fiction, in which humans beings triumph over a hostile environment. It is clear from the beginning that these people are doomed. There are also signs of the author’s strong feminist viewpoint, as one of the male characters appoints himself as leader, using force to control the women when he thinks it is necessary. (Russ is far too intelligent a writer to offer us broad stereotypes. She also shows us one of the female characters joining the man as a co-ruler in this petty dictatorship.)

Without giving away details of the plot, it is enough to reveal that certain events lead to a change in the second half of the book, which is an extended meditation on death. Speaking into a recorder which she knows will never be heard, the narrator relates her memories, fantasies, and hallucinations as she prepares to die. The novel becomes introspective, a mood rarely seen in science fiction.

In her refusal to follow the typical narrative pattern of speculative fiction, in which characters confront problems and overcome difficulties, Russ steps outside the usual boundaries of genre fiction. Her novel can be seen as experimental New Wave science fiction, in a way similar to Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss. Where Aldiss refuses to provide a plot, Russ refuses to provide the slightest trace of hope for her characters.

We Who Are About To… is a novel which is likely to elicit a strong response from every reader. There are those who will see it as a complete waste of time, since the fate of its protagonist is announced at the start. Many will find all the characters unpleasant, including the narrator. The story’s grim mood, relieved only slightly by touches of dark, sarcastic wit, will leave many readers cold.

Others will find the book a remarkably brave and clear-sighted examination of a fate which we all face.