Book Review: And Chaos Died, Joanna Russ (1970)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Nominated for the 1970 Nebula Award for Best Novel

“The ground was covered with old names…” (76)

Joanna Russ, famous for her feminist sci-fi novel The Female Man (1975), weaves together a bizarre (and difficult) novel filled with strange images, peculiar characters, and a fragmented/layered/bewildering narrative structure.  And Chaos Died (1970) is a startlingly original take on the staple sci-fi themes of telepathy and overpopulation.

This novel deserves be read (and re-read)!  A lost classic…

But be warned And Chaos Died is a challenging (and occasionally baffling) experience/trip/stream of conscious hallucination.  I echo Fritz Leiber’s praise, And Chaos Died “explores more fully than I have ever seen done what telepathy and clairvoyance would actually feel like.”  If that is possible to gauge…

Brief Plot Summary (“plot” might not be the right word…)

The “plot” crops its little head every now and then in a few moments of straightforward prose.  Pay special attention to the few pages before Jai Vedh gains his telepathic abilities and one hundred pages (pg 105-107) later to Evne’s interrogation on the spaceship which summarizes a few salient points.

The last third, when Jai Vedh arrives on the overpopulated Earth, is also much more “straightforward.”  However, getting from the first point to the second point will require a dedicated reader — and most likely, a reread.  And a peek at Samuel R. Delany’s review available online…

Jai Vedh, an intensely troubled individual, crashes (along with the captain of the spaceship) on a planet with a lost colony of humans who have developed extraordinary skills including telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation.  Their social system and stages of human development are highly unusual — children talk like adults, adults refrain from verbal communication, they have no families/professions/or ranks, and wander around telepathically “communing” with rocks and birds and leaves and each other…

In short, humanity has completely reorganized its goals and entered a vaguely transcendent state — a “spiritual” state?  Here Jai Vedh meets a woman by the name Evne who “teaches” him her people’s ways — a section characterized by long passages of cryptic/beautiful images.

Eventually Jai Vedh is “rescued” by a spaceship which returns him to the diametrically opposed society of the overpopulated Earth.  Evne, after interrogation by the ship’s officers, flees/teleports from the spaceship to Earth.  Jai follows after her.  Russ at her most straightforward:

[…] the human race slipped more and more under the sea along the continental shelf of the Atlantic; thickly settled three hundred, four hundred, even five hundred feet down, and further out the “floating cities,” though few of these, and a prodigal scattering all the way across of ore-sweeps, floating refineries, and food manufactories.  To the computers on the Moon the dawn-line revealed only more of the same and the sunset-line concealed more of the same; up to the altitude of twenty thousand feet people lived, died, bred, and analyzed themselves […] (123)

Humans living in this overpopulated world have lost their individuality and live in a state of oppression (mental, physical, governmental) — meaning is gained (somewhat) by unusual acts of violence — vending machines dispense weapons.

Jai Vedh wanders aimlessly with a young man named Ivat across this disturbed/drugged landscape inhabited by humanity drained of sensation:

[Jai] wondered why the crowd-mind is so flat, drug-bound, silence, individuality is all lost, found he could not tune out either the silence or the blast of sound, an unpleasant business of tearing his brain to pieces, falls over a couple in continuous orgasm, a drug thing, lasts hours and hours until the nervous system is used up (he’s heard about it,) clutches at his groin, and thinks […] (162)

A world consumed by violent desires…

In the nearest house a young lady, taking off her clothes, steps with a wink into boiling sulphur and lasciviously dies; this is a fantasy and what is really happening is that some dozen people are pulling down the walls and feeding them to a fire; when they finish the’ll have nothing else to do (162).

Final Thoughts

And Chaos Died is by far not only stylistically but also thematically the most challenging science fiction work I’ve ever read.  It takes a while to figure out the tenants of Russ’ utopia let alone the actual sequence of events of the “plot” or the exact meaning of the “actions.”  Everything starts to come together in the last third when the Earth sequence can be compared with the utopic society.

The persistant reader will be deeply rewarded…  And Chaos Died explores the social ramifications of overpopulation, loss of individuality, de-sensitivity towards violence, etc.  I’m still peeling away the layers.

This is social science fiction close to its best.

What an experience!

Any comments/interpretations from those who’ve read the work (and others of course) would be greatly appreciated!

Sadly, Joanna Russ passed away recently. 

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6 Replies to “Book Review: And Chaos Died, Joanna Russ (1970)”

  1. Ah, this novel was ace, wasn’t it? And you have the same edition as me! 🙂

    I’d like to make some more insightful comment on this, but I’ve nothing to add at this point. I think I shall re-read it a bit more closely.

    It’s a real shame, though, that this stuff isn’t better known. I only discovered Joanna Russ a couple of years back and I’m annoyed that I hadn’t read more before.

    1. I loved this novel! Yup, the publisher is ace….

      Yeah, because the work is so complex/difficult/bizarre I tended to expend most of my effort simply figuring out what was happening instead of analyzing Russ’ concepts/ideas etc. I really should re-read it — but…

  2. Finally responding to your kind remarks on my review of We Who Are About To… the other month.

    Intrigued by your review – normally telepathy and ‘spiritual’ utopian societies are sci fi tropes that are something of a turn off for me but the quotes here are enough overcome my prejudices!

    The stylistic differences look quite pronounced from We Who Are About To… which was, despite the presence of visions and hallucinations, written in quite a stripped down ‘realist’ style, to my eyes anyway. Will be interesting to compare the two from that perspective.

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks! I agree with you — I generally stay away from telepathy and spiritual utopian societies as well — Russ’ prose is often beautiful. It is also, as I point out, a very layered/difficult read in general but worth it. No stripped down realist style here!

      Thanks for stopping by!

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