Joanna Russ’s Adventures of Alyx

Joanna Russ, The Adventures of Alyx (1976, Baen 1986)

I believe Joanna Russ carried the flag for uncompromising feminism in the science fiction/fantasy community in the 1970s. Apparently she invited James Tiptree Jr out of a fanzine symposium on women in science fiction because as a man Tiptree had no business speaking on the subject (for those who came in late, Tiptree was really Alice Sheldon lurking behind a male persona, and she responded graciously, in role, to the disinvitation). So it’s no surprise that Alyx in these stories is a strong female character. There are three short stories featuring Alyx, little more than active character sketches really, and a much longer narrative, then a final short story that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have anything to do with Alyx.

Alyx the adventuress from ancient Tyre is a marvellous character, so the sketches – in which Alyx respectively helps a young noblewoman escape a potentially lethal marriage, escapes her own marriage to take up with a pirate, and deals with a gross man who claims to have created the world – hold up well. The first two happen entirely in a version of earthly antiquity. So does the third, though the nasty patriarchal figure has the language and paraphernalia of a time traveller rather than those of a demigod. In the fourth and longest piece, ‘Picnic in Paradise’, Alyx is transported by the Polysyllabic Agency for Temporal Gobbledygook (or something like that) to a future where her skills – and her lack of knowledge of technology – equip her perfectly to shepherd a group of tourists out of a war zone. In this piece the book well and truly transcends the ‘of historical interest’ niche. It’s funny, touching, and sexy in an over the top way. It points vicious satire  at the Prozac generation before the name. Then, just as one is thinking of Alyx as a kind of moral touchstone, one who keeps her head when all around are losing theirs, a role model even, she confounds all expectations by going so far off the rails it’s hard to understand how the story manages to keep us sympathising with her. She’s a real hero, and the story brilliantly refuses to be neat.

Then the last, short story, as far as I can tell, is not an Alyx story at all. A teenage girl in rural USA in 1925 is visited by a strange woman who turns out to be a descendant from the distant future. The young heroine (and we with her) understands only a fraction of what her strange visitor is up to. She helps her to kill another visitor from the future, but we’re left with only glimpses the relationship between the two visitors. And there’s more. It’s a tantalising narrative in which all the huge world-changing events happen offstage and/or in a language we don’t understand. Yet it’s also a satisfying coming of age story. After all, what teenager understands the world s/he finds him/herself part of.

I don’t have fond memories of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, which I read (in 1970 something) as an undisciplined scream of rage. This book suggests strongly that I may have got it wrong.

If you want a proper, informed, intelligent discussion, I recommend you have a look at Niall Harrison’s review at Torque Control.

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