Book Review: We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1976)

(The hideous uncredited cover for the 1977 edition)

5/5 (Masterpiece: *caveats below*)

We Who Are About To… (1976) is the third of Joanna Russ’ science fiction novels I’ve read over the past few years. For some reason I was unable gather the courage to review The Female Man (1975) and might have been too enthusiastic about And Chaos Died (1970).  We Who Are About To… is superior to both (although, not as historically important for the genre as The Female Man).  This is in part because Russ refines her prose — it is vivid, scathing, and rather minimalist in comparison to her previous compositions — and creates the perfect hellish microcosm for her ruminations on the nature of history, societal expectation, memory,  and death.

Highly recommended for fans of feminist + literary science fiction.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

The classic situation: multi-dimensional explosion hurls a spaceship en route to a new colony onto a barren planet.  Due to the nature of starship travel (folding space) there is zero chance of contacting others.  Rescue is never a possibility.  The unnamed narrator, a musicologist, leaves an audio diary — her words, recorded in secret almost every day, is the version of events we read.

Russ manipulates this common sci-fi scenario.  None of the characters have survival skills.  The planet contains no aliens or fascinating vistas.  Rather, a human drama unfolds — a twisted, dark vision.  Be warned, Russ does not conjure the Star Trek miracle syrup plot device à la “different characters who initially don’t like each other learn to work together and conquer the problem and conjure a communication device that rescues them from the clutches of certain death.”  The reader knows the end result from the first sentence of the first page.

Similarly to D. G. Compton’s brilliant Farewell, Earth’s Bliss (1966), Russ’ varied cast is adeptly characterized from the very beginning.  {The cast}  The women: the narrator (a baroque musicologist, an activist, past neo-Christian leanings, a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals), Mrs. Valeria Graham (a middle-aged wealthy woman who purchased her husband and daughter, wears an Indian sari), Nathalie (a soldier trainee who despises civilians), Cassie (an ordinary woman, the only one whom the narrator cares for), and Lori (Valeria’s  twelve-year-old daughter, hypochondriac, serial music lover, doted upon).  The men: Mr. Graham (strong, manly, plastic surgery), Alan (attentive, careful, polite, flatterer, in love with Lori), and John Ude (professor of ideas, evasive, The Smile).

The narrator suffers an acute crisis upon crashing on the planet due to the fact that no one will ever find them and that no one will remember them — the pharmaceuticals are close at hand.  Added to that, the planet is alien, the planet isn’t Earth: “To die on a dying Earth — I’d live, if only to weep” (27).  Is there any point in waiting to die?  The others discover her drugs and take them away, or at least some of them.

The others delude themselves with visions of colonization, utopian societies, the innocence of primitives: “Day two.  It began.  I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut.  Everyone running around cheerily into the Upper Paleolithic.  We’re going to build huts.  We’re going to have a Village Fire that Lori Graham will tend because she is the Fire Virgin or something” (21).  Unfortunately, the gene pool of the survivors is too small to create a society.  And, no one besides the narrator is too concerned with introducing children into the eventual horrors of life on the planet when the supplies and medications run out and they are forced to eat the potentially toxic plants.  The visions of a proper society, a proper duty to propagate, are too engrained in their minds — the women, viewed by the men as walking wombs, incubating the future… All the women besides the narrator decide to get impregnated — “John Ude was very tender and careful with his walking womb” (59).

When it’s her turn, she drugs everyone and runs away…  And when they wake up from their stupor they come looking for her.  Her womb is prized.

Final Thoughts

“Next day, don’t know what day it is.  Probably five.  Who cares.  If history were not fantasy, then one could ask to be remembered but history is fake and memories die when you do and only God (don’t believe it) remembers.  History always rewritten.  Nobody will find this anyway and they’ll have flippers so who cares” (113).

The most powerful moments of the novel focus in on the painful isolation the narrator feels.  Not only is she separated from Earth but her very words, recorded so diligently, will be read by no one.  If a rescue party had the smallest chance of finding them long after their deaths then they would at the very least be a shred of history, a minute connection to others, but even that is impossible.  The other survivors do not want to accept the inevitable and delude themselves with fantasies about creating a society even if it would doom their children to painful deaths.  Their fantasies that do not accept the reality of the situation.  The narrator wants to control the inevitable.  And she takes matters into her own hands…

Russ’ prose tears into the heart of things.

“Cassie, Cassie, come out to play.

Come over for a chat.

I don’t mind if you’re rotting” (133).

It is poetic and visceral and often, hilarious:  “Then [Lori, 12] added, without the slightest transition, ‘I like serial music.  You know, the late twentieth-century stuff where it goes deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle for half an hour and then it goes doodle just once, and you could die with excitement'” (52).  For anyone who listens regularly to minimalist music…  Well, I suspect you are laughing.

We Who Are About To… is the best I’ve read this year.

(Judith Clute’s cover for the 1987 edition)

For more reviews consult the INDEX

31 thoughts on “Book Review: We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1976)

  1. Science fiction always cracks me up with their amazingly twisted covers that make me doubt whether I actually want to read the book. Oh, the covers. I’m a visual person so they tend to drive me away.

    I actually just discovered Joanna Russ because I’m taking a course on the history of science fiction. I haven’t really read her works yet but this sounds really interesting. Especially the second indented quote, how creepy yet inviting.

    • Well, let’s just say that the feminist that was Russ would be pretty angry at the pathetic covers that were dumped on so many of her books… The book is drastically different — hehe…. As you can probably tell.

      Especially this one (yuck!)

      She is on the experimental side so be warned — people generally start with The Female Man (1975) but I found this one much much better.

    • Most definitely. People generally start with The Female Man — although, this novel is rather more straight forward and appealing in my opinion. But prepared to be rather depressed afterwards….

  2. Joachim, Excellent review. This is one of those books I have a protective feeling about–it made such an impression on me, I don`t want to hear that someone disliked it. Immature of me but I can`t help it, this book was such a beating on 99% of science fiction novels. I love the positive sf that got me into reading for pleasure–still love it after decades–but if that was all I read, I`d have abandoned the genre decades ago. Russ, Malzberg, Delany and others are needed to push back on the overwhelming amount of childish wishful thinking clogging the shelves……These covers are indeed awful [the linked one especially–it is exactly what Russ`s book ISN`T]. The `best` is one has these blue…things; at least it is inoffensive. [My edition is the first you posted, of the Hell`s Angel Crypt Keeper riding his hog in orbit.

    • Well, I seldom give 5/5s….. In 2 1/2 years I’ve given that rating 7 times… Perhaps one or two more sci-fi novels I read deserve that rating but never got around to reviewing — Ballard’s The Drowned World for example… Silverberg’s Dying Inside as well (although both might get 4.75/5… hmm….). But yes, a disturbing but great read. Had to pick up some 30s pulp (Weinbaum) afterwards…

  3. Saw your caption for the ’77 cover and snorted. Immediately I was like: “LOL it’s Disco Lobo” (Cp. The Omega Men #3, 1983).

    How do you feel about novels wherein the narrator speaks to us via a diary/audio file/etc.? My gut-reaction is that it’s goofy – yet such stories always seem to work out well.

    • I have no problem with it. I love diaristic novels, I love epistolary novels…. Malzberg’s Revelations is comprised ONLY of documents found in the main character’s desk. One of the best sci-fi novels of all time — Yvengy Zamyatin’s We (1921) is diaristic…

      • It adds layers of interpretation — especially if the narrator is particularly unreliable, à la Malzberg’s crazy astronaut Beyond Apollo which MIGHT be the novel which he’s writing about his own voyage….

        • I read it last as well. I think 1984 is a blatant rip off… And Orwell had the audacity to accuse Huxley of ripping We off in Brave New World 😉 Now wait a sec, whose novel is much more similar? The women even have color indicators — a yellow dress, a red sash… The plot is basically the same…

  4. That sounds really interesting. I haven’t read any Joanna Russ, though I really ought to. The deedle deedle description of serialism actually sounds more like minimalism (a la Philip Glass), but I can forgive that!

  5. This sounds tremendous, and it’s hard to avoid noticing that their situation is in a sense the one we’re all in – in the long run all our works will be lost after all.

    Much more tempting than any other Russ’s I’ve heard about too. I’ll look out for this.

  6. Joachim, Drowned World and Dying Inside are among their respective authors`s best novels and neither is my favorite of either writer`s. Weinbaum deserves immortality for A Martian Odyssey alone–I have lost count of the times I have reread it. One of the most purely pleasurable stories I`ve read. While I would rate some short stories by Sturgeon, Zelazny, Ellison, Dick, LeGuin and others as deeper, more cutting and so forth, Martian Odyssey manages to describe some of the most ALIEN aliens, and the relationship between human and alien is splendidly done. Damn, off on a tangent again. Now will look through my books to answer my own question, `Is We Who Are About To… the most depressing sf novel I`ve read…?

    • Well, the rest of the short stories in A Martian Odyssey are miserable. Haven’t read the title story yet but yes, it’s considered a classic…. But yes, looking forward to his famous alien descriptions…

      I find it one of the more depressing sf novel’s I’ve read. I also found Beyond Apollo something of downer… possessed by even more of a strain of nihilism. If that is possible.

  7. Pingback: We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ | SF Mistressworks

  8. Wonderful review, Joachim! I discovered Joanna Russ’ book through your comment in Bettina’s blog (Books, Bikes and Food). I just finished reading it. I found it powerful. But I have to also say that I didn’t like it as much as I had hoped to. I loved many of the beautiful passages in the book though. Enjoyed reading your review very much. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am hoping to read other books by Russ soon.

  9. Hello again,

    thanks for the list of sci-fi recommendations. I came here to check if you’d reviewed any of them and found this right off the bat. We Who Are About to… sounds excellent. Very, very dark. I’ll definitely be searching this one out.

  10. Joachim Boaz,

    Just re-read this, excellent review of a book that really left an impression on me. I’m curious if, after the passage of a couple of years, you have read anything since that surpasses it in your rankings.

    • Thanks for the kind comment. Yes, it’s in a similar vein but left an even greater impact — Suzy McKee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World (1974). Wrote a review a while back as well.

  11. Pingback: Things Beyond: November 2022 – Remembrance of Things Past and Future

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