starlady: (dodge this)
Russ, Joanna. The Two of Them. London: The Women's Press, 1986. [1978]

The late Joanna Russ was one of the giants of feminist science fiction (I have the T-shirt to prove it), and eventually it's my goal to read everything she wrote. This necessarily involves scrounging around in used bookstores, because a good chunk of what she wrote is out of print--though happily this particular novel is actually back in print, from Wesleyan University Press, which SFF fans should already know as the re-publishers of many of Chip Delany's under-appreciated books. I'm pleased to have a Women's Press edition of this one, though, since it matches my Women's Press edition of The Adventures of Alyx (thanks, Ireland!).

The Two of Them is the last SF novel Russ ever wrote. It follows the adventures of two agents of the TransTemp Agency, which features in some of the Alyx stories and which has only ever recruited one woman, Irene Waskiewicz, the protagonist of this novel. Irene and her partner/mentor/lover Ernst, who rescued her from the doldrums of adolescence in 1950s America and took her, literally, across the universe(s), arrive on the remote settlement Ka'abah, apparently practitioners of some warped and truncated form of Islam, to do their usual work, stealing information for the Agency. When Irene decides to take the would-be poet Zubeydeh out of the confines of her patriarchal society, however, the two of them discover some depressing truths about the place of women just about everywhere.

The novel is, for the most part, lively and depressing, which is a combination that Russ is good at. I did find Irene sympathetic, though I really didn't care for Zubeydeh (after Violet in Magic Under Stone, my tolerance for tiresome spoiled girls is at a low ebb), and I'm not broken up over Ernst's eventual fate, either.

Overall, I don't think this novel is as much of a mess as Brit Mandelo does--I'd urge you to read that post, as it's a really good discussion of the novel, but I found the fourth-wall breaking interjections by the author to be, if not quite hilarious, amusing, and the ending is bleak but also, against the odds, hopeful, though hopeful in that "Atlantic City" kind of way, I suppose. The central problem of the novel is the problem that Irene comes to discover, that there is no way out, no escape even for an extraordinary woman, and she isn't actually extraordinary. And even if she was, what right does that give her to even a temporary reprieve? Zubeydeh is saved because of her poetry, but what about all the other ordinary girls and women throughout the universe? Don't they deserve liberation too? In this context, the metaphorical ending of the novel, hopeful as it is, doesn't seem to outweigh what facts the narrative gives us about actual Irene and actual Zubeydeh.

The Joanna Russ meme )
starlady: (dodge this)
Anderson, C.L. Bitter Angels. New York: Random House, 2009.

I first heard about this book via [personal profile] cofax7 when she posted Anderson's appearance on John Scalzi's The Big Idea. Clearly Anderson had put a lot of thought into real, firm peace in our time in sff, and I checked out the book with interest. Basically, Bitter Angels follows retired Guardian Therese Drajeske, who is pulled back into a life she left 35 years ago when her former superior officer nominates Therese to take her place with her dying breath, at a possible cost of Therese's husband and children's affections, at the risk of galactic war and the destruction of the Pax Solaris. I really liked Therese, as well as the other characters, and I thought the book was engagingly plotted and paced; in short, I'd recommend it to people who like "hard" and/or "military" sf, though the Guardians' serving peace, not war, makes for an interesting dynamic.

At least for me, the obvious point of comparison with Anderson's book is David Weber's Honorverse--advanced galactic diaspora, ridiculously long-lived human beings, total gender equity, lack of or invisibility of gay people, more or less everyone speaks English. Anderson's take on these issues, particularly her innovation of the immortality regulations and the "Van Helsings" (or, as Therese corrects, "Immortality Infractions Investigators") is distinct from Weber's; in Anderson's world, people who've received chemical immortality treatments are required to divest their assets and either change or start their careers over every century, which tends to separate people from their birth and successive marriage families. David, Therese's Van Helsing husband, actually argues that people in Solaria (derisively termed "saints" by people outside the Pax's ambit) live too long, that living five, six, seven hundred years hopelessly scrambles loyalties, and we see that play out in the book. Anderson's treatment of the Companions, the electronic sidekick implanted in each Guardian's brainstem, is fascinating as well. I'd recommend it.

Russ, Joanna. The Zanzibar Cat. Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 1984.

This omnibus edition of Russ' short stories includes the Nebula Award-winning short story "When It Changed," as well as the very last short story about Russ' iconic heroine Alyx, "A Game of Vlet" (the others were collected in The Adventures of Alyx). I really can't recommend Russ highly or widely enough, though I should note that (perhaps not surprisingly for a very early feminist and out lesbian writer) her view of gender relations, and of humanity in general, tends rather towards the brutal than the delicate. I don't mean that Russ' work is violent--very frequently, it's not--but she is not a particularly cosseting writer. "When It Changed" is perhaps the best example of this (talk about starting off a book like a two-by-four upside the head), but stories like "Dragons and Dimwits" (a very sardonic take on Epic Fantasy) and "Corruption", about a sleeper agent on an inhospitable world, possess their own full measure of the tendency.

These stories are also very 70s, and I don't mean that as an indictment but rather as a descriptor, or rather what I mean when I say "70s" is that it reminds me from a lot of Samuel R. Delany's work from the same general time period. Delany and Russ were evidently great friends--Trouble on Triton incorporates playing the game of vlet as a major plot-motif, and at least one of Delany's Neverÿon stories appropriates a dragon out of one of Russ' works. "Useful Phrases for the Tourist" in this volume was actually partly made up with the help of Delany and students at one of the first Clarion workshops. Moreover, the Joanna Russ papers at the University of Oregon list scads of letters between the two of them (though sadly this correspondence is currently not available to researchers. I'd love to read Russ' thoughts on slash and fanfiction).

And now I present the Joanna Russ Meme, yoinked from [insanejournal.com profile] yonmei.

The Eternal Adventurer )

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