Tag Archives: Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ And Chaos Died

Joanna Russ, And Chaos Died (1970,Berkley Books 2009 )

Joanna Russ died on 29 April. This book has been beside my bed for a while now and I decided to read it as my small personal obsequies. It might have been better to reread The Female Man or read How to Suppress Women’s Writing for the first time, these being the books usually seen as marking her place in the history of Science Fiction, but I don’t have copies of either of them. The New York Times obituary doesn’t mention And Chaos Died, which was first published five and 13 years respectively before those books.

A lot of the time it’s hard to tell what’s going on in this book, though it does become slightly less bewildering after the first 20-page section. The main reason for the bewilderment is that the main character, Jai Vedh, having crash-landed on an alien planet, encounters people there who communicate mentally, reading each other’s feelings and thoughts but also perceiving the world at a molecular level and communing with plants (a wise daisy plays a crucial role) and even inanimate objects. When they communicate with ‘visuals’, their words are oddly elliptical, responding to things the others aren’t quite aware they’ve even thought or felt, let alone expressed, and drawing on the others’ vocabularies (‘I’m not used to talking this at all,’ is one of the first sentences he hears spoken). Nothing is explained; the reader, if anything, understands even less than Jai Vedh.

Jai Vedh identifies as homosexual in the early pages, but he becomes sexually and psychically involved with a woman of the planet and soon is telepathing and teleporting with the best of them. He’s captured and taken back to ‘Old Earth’, a late 60s nightmare of overpopulation, pollution, corrupt authoritarian government, and psychedelic licentiousness, where he escapes death many times, befriends a boy who tries to kill him, and so on. Through all this he uses his mental skills without ever gaining complete control of them, so that he often isn’t at all sure whose thoughts and feelings he’s experiencing and has trouble seeing what’s physically in front of his eyes because other aspects of reality, whether microscopic or purely psychic, are claiming his attention – and the prose takes us along with him. It’s hard to pick a representative passage, because the writing keeps changing with Jai Vedh’s level of competence and the mind/mood-altering agents he encounters. But this might give some idea – he’s collapsed into an exhausted sleep on a California beach, and this is his waking up:

He thought he had been taken inside by someone. They were going to fight over his body. He was on the floor or on the sand, sprawled asleep part of a ritual like a piece of wood, the thought: hold him, hold him, hold him, and somebody holding his head and saying (over and over) ‘Sleep, torn man, sleep. Yang only. Sleep, torn man, sleep. Yin only.’ The lights passed over his closed eyes with exaggerated slowness, vanishing off his chin: purple, green, blue, red, yellow, white, with pictures, too, a very old-fashioned and silly piece of stuff. Last year’s. He was lying in a woman’s lap, in some sort of barn with a lot of smoke around and people shuffling. Jingle-bonk. And could not open his eyes. Jingle-jingle-bonk. Foolishness. It occurred to him that he must have been drugged, for the naked woman whose lap he was in had as much mind or as much sex as a puppet, though he could smell her strongly. That is, she had been drugged. (I’ve been drugged!) Although he did not think that he usually thought that way. … There was a small, irritated, hopping-mad part of her mind, too, somewhere; he noted that with interest. He guessed it was the smoke and began to fend it away from him – big, bumbling molecules, as complicated as antique steamships – to let through the little, keen, live ones.

According to Samuel Delaney, The Female Man was written partly as a critique of this novel. You can download the whole book as a PDF.

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.