Back in the ’60s and early ’70s, science-fiction readers noticed their genre was changing: The old gosh-wow, science-worshipping pulp fiction of the “Astounding Stories”/John W. Campbell era was giving way to a wildly various group of young writers with dark, literate and often highly political sensibilities. Much of the heaviest lifting in this cadre was done by women, who overcame the resistance of an old boys’ genre that often required women writers to hide behind their initials (see: the great C.L. Moore) or androgynous-sounding names (the equally great Leigh Brackett).
With the ’60s came the likes of Kate Wilhelm, Ursula K. Le Guin, Suzette Hayden Elgin and Vonda McIntyre, but a less familiar name should also be included in this group: Joanna Russ, the subject of an important and compact new study from Gwyneth Jones, simply titled “Joanna Russ.” Russ wrote several powerful and incomparable genre- and gender-bending novels, including 1968’s “Picnic on Paradise” (recently reprinted as part of a lovely, gift-worthy anthology of ’60s science-fiction novels from Library of America), 1978’s “The Two of Them” and her once-bestselling, now cult-favorite novel of women living across various dimensions, “The Female Man.” Russ also wrote dozens of beautifully crafted short stories, including one of my favorites, “The Little Dirty Girl,” set in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Russ knew the city well — she was a popular, inspiring professor of English at the University of Washington until her retirement in 1991. (I had my own brief tenure with Russ, in the workshops she taught during the UW’s first Clarion West summer program in 1971.)
Jones’ “Joanna Russ” is the latest in a series of critical studies of significant science-fiction authors from University of Illinois Press, this one written by a significant science-fiction author in her own right. Jones is the U.K.-based author of the 1984 classic “Divine Endurance” and the wild Aleutian Trilogy (published between 1991 and 1997), which explores strange and unpredictable adventures in the ways we think about gender; it’s just the sort of stuff pioneered by Russ. Also like Russ, Jones is a recipient of the Pilgrim Award for science fiction and fantasy scholarship, so it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate matchup of critic and subject. As with previous books in the series, “Joanna Russ” is designed to provide a substantive bibliographical introduction to works by and about Russ, as well as lend historical context to her major books and essays, especially as it fits into what is now understood as the emergence of a feminist science fiction.
Russ, who was born to a Jewish family in the Bronx in 1937, discovered science fiction (a genre that was unfairly disparaged in the 1940s) in her mother’s Groff Conklin paperback anthologies. “[Science fiction] and fantasy seemed to me a revelation, a tremendous widening of the horizons,” she said of the discovery. And when she began writing in the ’60s, her coming out as a lesbian converged with her enthusiastic restructuring of existing fantasy and science-fiction conventions — most notably in her invention of Alyx, a small, quick sword-and-sorcery heroine who was as unlike the usual Conan-styled, “mightily-thewed” barbarian as she could be. As Russ explained years later, “I had turned from writing love stories about women, in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.”
Like many of her generation’s genre revolutionaries, Russ loved science fiction, and never apologized for it. Instead, she pushed the boundaries of the genre, becoming one of its fiercest and most eloquent critics. “A great deal of science fiction is a kind of misogynist power-tripping,” she declared. She once wrote to a young up-and-coming writer: “I think from now on, I will not trust anyone who isn’t angry.” Russ herself was angry. She was angry when writers weren’t as good as they could be. She was angry when society wasn’t as fair as it should be. And as Jones makes clear, Russ maintained that anger long enough to keep trying new things, right up through her last, partly retrospective collection of stories, 1987’s “The Hidden Side of the Moon,” and the essays found in 1983’s “How to Suppress Women’s Writing” and 1997’s “What Are We Fighting For?: Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism.”
Despite her accomplishments, Russ was an unfairly neglected writer, and Jones’ introduction is a great place to start learning about her.
“Joanna Russ” by Gwyneth Jones, University of Illinois Press, 217 pp., $99 hardback, $22 paperback