The Country You Have Never Seen by Joanna Russ
Reviewed by Sarah Monette
22 October 2007
"The less I say about this story," Joanna Russ says of Fritz Leiber's "Space-Time for Springers," "the less I will slobber over the page and make a nut of myself" (Russ p. 8). That's pretty much exactly how I feel about The Country You Have Never Seen, Russ's collection of reviews, essays, and letters, out this year from Liverpool University Press. I have a weakness for good literary criticism—the kind that is trenchant and witty and intellectually rigorous, but also passionately and personally felt—and Joanna Russ hits all my buttons, lighting me up like a pinball machine.
Reviews are the bulk of The Country You Have Never Seen (making a nice balance with To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction ), but there is also a selection of essays, including the groundbreaking feminist critique, "The Image of Women in Science Fiction" (1970), and letters published in various public fora, mostly feminist journals, letters which are just as rigorous and passionate as her essays and reviews. By its nature, the book is not a coherent argument; it is a series of snapshots of Russ's mind at work over the past forty years. It's sad how relevant some of her topical essays continue to be (America? Still hung up about sex, thank you), also sad that her Utopian vision of academic engagement with science fiction ("Alien Monsters," 1977) still hasn't been realized. She has resisted the temptation, in putting this collection together, to edit herself retroactively, leaving—for example—"The Wearing Out of Genre Materials" (1971) to stand as-is, even though she herself contradicts it in a later essay, "Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction" (1975, reprinted in To Write Like a Woman). What emerges very clearly is the coherence of Russ's thought as she moves between the arenas of science fiction, feminism, and queer activism. Her political passion is not separable from her literary passion, as she says, she will keep politics out of her reviews "when the authors keep politics out of their stories" (p. 165). What The Country You Have Never Seen does beautifully is show the holistic nature of Russ's intellectual enterprise. Everything informs everything else.
The thing that strikes me most strongly about Russ's reviews is her insistence on intellectual, critical engagement with every book she reviews, whether the book deserves it or not:
Only those who have reviewed, year in and year out, know how truly abominable most fiction is. And we can't remove ourselves from the pain. Ordinary readers can skip, or read every third word, or quit in the middle. We can't. We must read carefully, with our sensitivities at full operation and our critical-historical apparatus always in high gear—or we may miss that subtle satire which disguises itself as cliché, that first novel whose beginning, alas, was never revised, that gem of a quiet story obscured in a loud, flashy collection, that experiment in form which could be mistaken for sloppiness, that appealing tale partly marred by (but also made possible by) naiveté, that complicated situation that only pays off near the end of the book. Such works exist, but in order not to miss them one must continually extend one's sensitivity, knowledge, and critical care to works that only abuse such faculties. (pp. 167-8)
The consequence of this engagement is sometimes a salvo of throwing stars which have all the deadly bite and dazzle of Dorothy Parker—"[The Mind Parasites] is not in the Lovecraft tradition but in the Boy's Life Gee Whiz tradition and ought to be called 'Tom Swift and the Tsathogguans'" (p. 7)—but it also produces reviews that sing with the reviewer's intellectual and emotional delight. In either case, it is not necessary to have read—or even heard of—the book being reviewed in order to enjoy the review itself. Russ writes reviews crackling with infectious energy that leave the reader (or, at least, this reader) charged with enthusiasm for the project of science fiction as she sees it.
And that even though I do not share Russ's vision of science fiction. Russ is a Utopian thinker, and she judges science fiction by the possibilities she sees in it, possibilities she does not see in fantasy: "We [the SF community] know we're good. We know we're on to something. I knew it ever since I was fourteen, when I found out that science fiction was more exciting than vampire stories. And it is, too" (p. 231). My vision of science fiction is not utopian; I don't think it's inherently better than—or even all that different from—vampire stories.
"Fiction's only real subject," she says in her review of Lord Foul's Bane, "is the changes that occur in human beings" (p. 139), and I agree with this absolutely. I don't agree with her further argument that science fiction is better suited to that subject than fantasy. Certainly bad fantasy avoids it—but so does bad science fiction. The correct distinction is the one she makes in "Daydream Literature and Science Fiction," between real dreams and daydreams: "Real dreams are not at all like daydreams; they are witty, poetic, poignant, forceful, sometimes painfully vivid, often extremely clear, and they cover the whole range of human feeling. Just like art" (p. 202). Or, as she develops this idea, the difference between art and pornography: "Pornography is the attempt to bypass the medium and turn a work of art into vicarious experience—to arouse emotion or appetite directly without the inevitable alloy of reflection given by art and without any of the embarrassments of thought or the mixedness of real experience" (p. 203). These distinctions have nothing to do with genre and everything to do with the seriousness of the artist. Or pornographer.
So I disagree with Russ, but truthfully, if literary criticism has a purpose, that purpose is to encourage people to think about literature, and in that purpose The Country You Have Never Seen most emphatically succeeds. I've thought more, and more deeply, about science fiction in the process of writing this review than I have for all the rest of 2007 put together. I enjoyed this book tremendously, and part of my enjoyment is the argument it allowed me to engage in, as much with my heart as with my head.