Lexias: Joanna Russ

By Matthew Cheney

Joanna Russ wrote some extraordinary sentences. Here's one, from her satirical short story "The Clichés from Outer Space":

Four ravaging, man-hating, vicious, hulking, Lesbian, sadistic, fetishistic Women's Libbers motorcycled down the highway to where George was hiding behind a bush.

Here's another, from her novel And Chaos Died:

He wandered through the woods in the dark for a while, not worrying about treading on something, or putting his foot in a hole and breaking his neck, or walking into a tree; and none of these things happened.

I could go on quoting for pages and pages, but will instead offer just one more selection, this time from the introduction to her last book of original material, What are We Fighting For?:

I began reading science fiction in the 1950s and got from it a message that didn't exist anywhere else then in my world. Explicit sometimes in the detachable ideas, implicit in the gimmicks, peeking out from behind often intolerably class-bigoted, racist, and sexist characterizations, somehow surviving the usual America-the-empire-is-good plots, most fully expressed in the strange life forms and strange, strange wonderfully strange landscapes, was the message: Things can be really different.

Joanna Russ died a week ago as I write this. Or, to be more accurate: Joanna Russ died a week ago as I struggle to write this. I thought I might collect some of her sentences and frame them with my own as a memorial, but once I started rereading her works, I got stuck. It'll be easy, I told myself. Just find some good passages and proclaim their wonders and note what we've lost in losing Russ and

And easier thought than done.

Choosing passages was not difficult; we could create a fine book of The Wit and Wisdom of Joanna Russ. Selecting passages, though, was impossible, because what criteria could possibly filter such richness (the selections above were chosen because they were easily at hand, the first things I flipped to). I put my pile of Russ books on the desk and stared at them, hoping against hope that they would signal what to say and how to note a loss that seemed, and seems, unutterable.

I couldn't write because I wasn't sure I wanted to say the exact truth: Russ's death hurts, and I don't exactly know why.

I never met Joanna Russ; by the time I was going to science fiction conventions and interacting with writers, she had had retirement forced on her by illness. I have read Russ for many years, though not always well—a few of her most famous stories, such as "Souls," were revelations on a first read, but I struggled with others, and some of the novels, in particular, I didn't get any grasp of until relatively recently. My reading of her nonfiction was haphazard until a couple of years ago. But even during these most recent and receptive readings, if you had asked me for a list of ten favorite writers, I might not have mentioned her, even though my engagement with her work had become as intense as with that of many writers who immediately come to mind when asked for favorites.

And then when I first heard she was sick and in hospice care, I gasped. Her work had sneaked its way so deeply into my consciousness that I thought of her as someone who had, yes, been silent for a long time, but who was still out there, a fierce consciousness. There was some sort of comfort in that. I didn't need her to be writing still, for I had all her books and could read them whenever I wanted. What I needed, for some sense of order in the universe, was for her to be alive.

I had just arrived home from work when I received an email with the news of her death. I sat staring out the window for an hour, trying to perceive this new universe: the universe minus Joanna Russ. Then I was overcome with the need to spread the news, to tell people that the world had changed, that we were now more alone, because I hoped all our expressions of aloneness could fill some space in the abyss we circled.

I've only rarely been affected by a writer's death with such force, never mind a writer who hadn't published any new work in over a decade. The intersections of writer and writing are mysterious and powerful. Some people are contemptuous of the cults of personality that seem to accrue to certain writers—Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. The writing should stand on its own, we say, a text apart from a biography. Aesthetic Puritans insist we shouldn't read literary biographies, only literature. They admit somebody wrote the words we read and cherish, but insist we shouldn't misplace the person in the words.

I am sympathetic to the non-Puritan elements of this argument; I am all for Roland Barthes's desire to kill the Authors-Gods; and though I enjoy reading around in literary biographies, I only occasionally get caught up in biographical interpretation. (A body of writing can live far longer than a human body, but human lives are nonetheless the stuff of stories, fundaments of fascination.) It wasn't, though, biography that specifically attached me to Russ's work and life, because I'm mostly ignorant of her biography. How could the end of a life I knew very little about cause me such grief?

It might have had something to do with a class I'm currently teaching called "Special Topics in Women's Studies: Gender and Science Fiction," where early in the term I had assigned Russ's story "When It Changed," and where, on the day Russ died, two of the nine students in the class were in the midst of reading The Female Man for their term papers. Over the course of the class, I had found myself referencing two writers frequently: Samuel Delany and Joanna Russ. No one who knows me would be surprised that I brought Delany up a lot; his ideas are the foundation of many of my own. But the frequency with which I referred to Russ surprised me, because before I taught the class, I had thought other writers and critics had gone beyond her work, supplanted it even. The evidence against this assumption was already in my head, but I had not read or thought about Russ systematically enough to realize it.

Alfred North Whitehead famously said "the European philosophical tradition . . . consists of a series of footnotes to Plato," and I think it is not hyperbole to say that the feminist science fiction tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Russ. In an essay in Starboard Wine, Delany says Russ is an embarrassment to the science fiction critical establishment because SF criticism has no tools to contend with her strengths of style and thought. Since Delany wrote that essay, science fiction criticism has begun to try to work through Russ, and she helped nudge it along via her own insightfully incisive essays, but we've still got a long, long way to go.

Telling the Gender & SF class that Russ had died was difficult, because her words had made her a presence for us. I realized later that, looking out at these nine young women, I should have quoted the famous telegram that labor activist and songwriter Joe Hill sent out just before his execution: "Don't waste time in mourning. Organize."

There's something to be said for mourning, though. It helps clarify meaning: it punches us in the gut and wakes us up to what we value. I had sometimes taken Russ for granted, sometimes assumed she was passť, sometimes thought she had never quite reached her potential. What stupid thoughts those were! Even if she had not written anything other than short stories, she would have deserved a permanent home in the pantheon, because her short fiction is as good as that of anyone who has ever written science fiction; others have equaled her, none have surpassed her. But she didn't just write short fiction: she wrote novels, essays, polemics, parodies, letters, reviews.

Joanna Russ's fiction and nonfiction will outlive all of us who remain here alive, for now, on this planet that she found so vexing, so invigorating. Many of us, whether we realize it or not, owe our eyes to her, for she taught us how to see—how to see what we care about, how to see what to hope for, how to see what needs fixing, how to see that things can be really different.

"My name," she said, "is Alyx."

"Never heard of it," said the gatekeeper, a little annoyed.

"Good heavens," said Alyx, "not yet," and vanished through the gate before he could admit her, with the curious slight smile one sees on the lips of very old statues: inexpressive, simple, classic.

She was to become a classic, in time.

But that's another story.

—"I Thought She was Afeard Until She Stroked My Beard"
by Joanna Russ (1937–2011)


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Locus, SF Site, Failbetter.com, and the anthologies Logorrhea, and Interfictions. He is the series editor for Best American Fantasy from Prime Books, and he writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Read more of his columns in our archives.