Review of Joanna Russ

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Joanna Russ

Anna McFarlane

Gwyneth Jones. Joanna Russ. Illinois UP, 2019. Modern Masters of Science Fiction. Paperback. 234 pg. $22.00. ISBN 9780252084478. Ebook ISBN 9780252051487.

This overview of Joanna Russ’s life’s work is part of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, edited by Gary K. Wolfe, which has given a series of in-depth accounts of science fiction writers including William Gibson, Octavia Butler, and Arthur C. Clarke. In this volume, Jones surveys Russ’s career in extreme detail, bringing in the most relevant of secondary sources as well as interviews with those who knew her and worked with her. The book is organised into chapters that each cover a span of years in Russ’s career so that her critical works and reviews are given attention alongside the fiction of those years. This structure serves to foreground the skill of the reviewer to an unusual degree, giving some useful insight into Russ’s thinking at different periods of her life. Russ’s career as a critic was an expression of her love of and commitment to science fiction, and Jones’s structure conveys this to the reader, allowing the reviews to give a wider sense of the science-fictional context for Joanna Russ’s work. There are times where the format stifles the more interesting possibilities of such a survey. For example, the blow-by-blow account of The Female Man’s plot is perhaps a bit unnecessary; Russ’s most well-known work of fiction is recounted chapter-by-chapter and, while Jones’s descriptions are always well-written and engaging, this is perhaps not essential for a book that is still regularly to be found on book shelves and university syllabi. Perhaps this aspect of Jones’s overview will be welcomed by undergraduates and those seeking to discover Russ’s work for the first time, but if one wishes to know a text in such detail it might be wiser simply to read the novel. One might recall the final line of Russ’s short story about female writers, “Swordblades and Poppy Seeds”: “Are you truly curious? Then read our books” (quoted in Jones, 146).

Where this style does come into its own, however, is in Jones’s use of first-hand accounts of science fiction symposia, fan culture, and magazine culture. These elements, so crucial to science fiction’s production and reception, are not often given sufficient breathing space in academic accounts of the genre, and Jones redresses the balance here in some of the highlights of the book. The chapter on the Women in Science Fiction Event gives an account of the Khatru symposium, named after the magazine that organized this exchange of letters on feminism in science fiction between key figures, including Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr., and Samuel Delany. Jones gives a good account of the flavour of these exchanges, offering the reader the context necessary to unpick the complex personality politics of the debate. Alongside analysis of the letters and context from the contemporary period, Jones gives information gleaned from later interviews with the participants so that their insight into the event decades after the fact gives an account of the importance of these exchanges in shaping the situation of women in science fiction today. This analysis is perhaps the highlight of the book, gleaning precious insight from texts that are not widely studied and available.

The study also gives space for some useful analysis of Russ’s role in the science fiction community, with Jones describing Russ’s situation through a reading of Sam Greenlee’s novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969). Greenlee’s novel tells the story of the first black CIA agent and plays on the multiple meanings of the term “spook” to refer to ghettoized African Americans, spies, and ghosts. The idea of the spook who “sat by the door” is one who is displayed prominently to give a (probably false) impression of the organisation’s progressive credentials. Jones argues that Russ was, in many ways, treated as a “spook who sat by the door” as an uncompromising lesbian feminist in a genre that had a tendency to treat women as inferior. Jones’s commentary here is fascinating, and speaks to other situations in which the sf community tends to fixate on a singular individual in order to compensate for the genre-wide failure to integrate excluded groups – an example might be the profusion of scholarship, and placement on course syllabi, of Octavia Butler as a stand-in for African American women in general, a problem that is only now beginning to be eased through the rise of authors like N. K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor.

Another highlight of the book is the attention it pays to Russ’s feminist activism and writing beyond her commitment to sf. In particular, the section on her essays from 1981-89 (137-44) gives a particularly tantalising account of Russ’s engagement with feminisms during this period, an engagement that encompasses some of the movement’s key conflicts and contradictions, including the risks of essentialism and the tension between the violence of patriarchal sexuality and the urgency of finding an authentic female sexuality; a tension which Russ, in an unlikely move, negotiates through her love of Kirk/Spock slash fiction. The brief quotations from Russ’s essays of this period are an invitation to dive deeper and to discover the ways in which the contemporary debates in feminism shaped not just science fiction and literary criticism, but the parameters of feminist debate and women’s place in society today. Highlights such as these will make this book a valuable addition to any scholar seeking to understand Russ’s work in its literary and political context, while offering a detailed introduction for those approaching it for the first time.

Anna McFarlane is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Glasgow working on traumatic pregnancy and its expression in science fiction, horror, and fantasy. She is the co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture (2019) and is co-editing The Edinburgh Companion to Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities. Her first monograph is a study of William Gibson’s novels, Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology: Seeing Through the Mirrorshades (Routledge 2021).

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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