The Country You Have Never Seen. Essays and Reviews  by Joanna Russ

Liverpool : Liverpool University Press, 2007 ; $85.00hc/$35.00 tpb ; 305 pages

reviewed by Henry Wessells

[First published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 21, no.2, October 2008. All rights reserved.]


The Courage of Joanna Russ

For there is a spot the size of a shilling at the back of the head which one can never see for oneself. [. . .] A true picture of man as a whole can never be painted until a woman has described that spot the size of a shilling.

— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


Joanna Russ is the rainy night sky when the whole box of fireworks goes up at once, a blazing angel saying, Look! The Country You Have Never Seen collects reviews and essays from the mid-1960s to 1981; and letters to a broad range of literary journals from 1970 to 1995. There is a fierce, brilliant intellect at work, confronting directly topics that other reviewers and critics skirt or fail to acknowledge. She is especially acute at penetrating sloppy thinking: “There is an eerie idea current in much popular criticism that a critic ought to judge only the ‘technique’ of a novel and not its ‘content’; yet beyond the point of minimal competence technique is content. To judge science fiction by ‘technique’ only is like judging buildings only by whether they remain standing or not; in these terms, I.M. Pei’s NCAR building at Boulder and McDonald’s golden arches are equally valuable. Literature is not only beautiful, like music and architecture; it is also referential, which means that literary criticism inevitably becomes referential also, and hence moral” (122).

Or: “There are plenty of images of women in science fiction. There are hardly any women” (217).

In the essay “SF and Technology as Mystification”, collected in To Write Like a Woman. Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction (1995), Russ wrote, “Hiding greyly behind that sexy rock star, technology, is a much more sinister and powerful figure. [. . .] I think you can see what is being discussed when people say ‘technology.’ They are politically mystifying a much bigger monster: capitalism in its advanced, industrial phase. [. . .] When intelligent people do it, the mystification is harder to see.” Economic, social, and political implications are never overlooked. Russ is equally sharp on other forms of prejudice. “Generally readers don’t notice the presence of familiar value judgments in stories, but do notice (and object to) unfamiliar ones”(165). Her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983) is a cumulation of familiar value judgments that have passed unnoticed and unchallenged, and a call to open one’s eyes.

Yet there is also playfulness: after concluding a brief review, “But as Father says, ‘could one ever think too much about rockets and jets and space?’” Russ continues, “The protagonist of Barry Malzberg’s The Falling Astronauts knows you can. He has gone mad doing so. The real name of the game is depersonalization [. . .] the only character in the book who knows something is wrong is the wife, although she cannot quite explain what it is” (76).

Russ does not equivocate: “None of this month’s hardcover novels lives up to its author’s own best work and in that sense they are not good books. [. . .] The reviewer’s business [. . .] is distinguishing between various levels of failure, keeping in mind that by ‘good’ here I mean very high standards indeed” (103) The analogue here would be Nero Wolfe’s highest form of praise for Archie Goodwin, “Satisfactory.” Precisely because she can articulate these standards, her readings of The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness  by Ursula K. Le Guin are fascinating.

Her 1969 essay “Daydream Literature and Science Fiction” (included here) is a study of Poe, A.E. Van Vogt, and David Lindsay, among others; it also stands as an indictment against the Stars Wars franchise and the big multi-volume bug-crusher series novels before they were envisioned. “Ibsen said that ‘to be a poet is chiefly to see’ and Conrad wished ‘above all to make you see,’ but the Daydream Writer must, above all, prevent you from seeing. [. . .] It is one’s own daydreams that provide the mythopoeic power” (202). The contrast she notes between the concluding scenes of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Stoker’s Dracula is instructive: “the latter is melodramatic and silly, but it’s all there, not dissolved in a mist of strange, twangling instruments, nerves, feverishness, and overblown rhetoric” (200).

A decade later, Russ re-iterates a critique of “‘heroic fantasy,’ that form of twentieth-century escapism pillaged from genuine medieval culture”: “George Bernard Shaw once said that those who have grappled face to face with reality have little patience with fools’ paradises, and another political radical, Virginia Woolf, stated flatly that ‘books of sensation and adventure’ quickly grow dull because they can only present the same kind of thrill over and over” (138).

And she‘s very, very funny: “Thus one group will see plastique explosive in what another regards as Play-doh, and the latter will perceive any request for analysis as another raid by the police.” Or: “R.P. Blackmur is just as baffled as anyone else; he expresses his bafflement more elaborately.”


Gold from Straw

a basket, a fascicle of plant fibres, a few rudely painted sticks, some beads and feathers put together as if by children in their meaningless play, form the totality of the collection. You would scarcely pick these trifles up if you saw them lying in the gutter, yet when I have told you all I have to tell about them, I trust they may seem of greater importance, and that some among you would be as glad to possess them as I am. I might have added largely to this collection had I time to discourse about them, for I possess many more of their kind. It is not a question of things, but of time [. . .] this hour’s monologue represents to me twelve years of hard and oft-baffled investigation.

— Washington Matthews, “Some Sacred Objects of the Navajo Rites”

Just as an ethnographic specialist will evoke the totality of a culture through its ordinary artefacts, the best critics can spin gold from straw. To take one instance, Russ looks into a couple of anthologies on sex in science fiction, one of which illustrates “James Blish’s dictum that ideas alone are worthless, what counts is ideas about ideas. Sex, like all primary experiences, can be named directly but not described directly; one can only describe its effect on people, its experiential dimension, so to speak. In the newness of taboo-breaking, many writers forget this . . . . What matters is not organ grinding but the explosions sex produces in the head” (92).

Similarly, even a “heartbreaking non-book” prompts Russ to discuss in hilarious, atomistic detail the failings of a forgettable minor feminist work, “What is the book about? Hugging, I think. . . . Seldom have traditional female limitations been so painfully insisted upon in a piece of fiction” (183), and then to suggest as a remedy the Edgar Rice Burroughs of lesbian feminism (Sally Gearhart, Wanderground [1978]) or the “Titan with the forge" (Suzy McKee Charnas, Motherlines [1979]). In an essay (ca. 1970),“Somebody’s Trying to Kill me and I Think It’s My Husband: The Modern Gothic”, Russ turned her gaze on modern romance novels: “even where the sado-masochistic overtones are strongest [. . .] the Heroine’s suffering is the principal action of the story because it is the only action she can perform” (To Write Like a Woman, 112).


‘Truth and Danger’

In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993), John Clute described Russ as “the least comfortable writer of sf, very nearly the most inventive experimenter in fictional forms, and the most electric of all to read”. Her critical writings have the same effect as her fiction, and sometimes the two are indistinguishable: “The Zanzibar Cat” is explicitly a critical fiction addressing Lud-in-the-Mist, the 1926 novel by Hope Mirrlees; and “The Extraordinary Voyages of Amélie Bertrand” is a very sophisticated hommage to Jules Verne that challenges many of Verne’s assumptions. Clute also noted that her gifts to the field were two in number: “truth and danger”. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her appraisal of works of fantasy and science fiction.

Russ provoked readers, and in her 1979 column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction she wrote her “statement defending criticism”, a model of clear thinking, humor, and pungent metaphor: “one must continually extend one’s sensitivity, knowledge, and critical care to works that only abuse such faculties. The mental sensation is that of eating garbage, I assure you, and if critics’ accumulated suffering did not find an outlet in the vigor of our language, I don’t know what we would do” (168). Allusions to earlier critics encompass predecessors within the fantastic (Blish and Knight) as well as without (Shaw and Chesterton and Sartre). Her criticism, like her fiction, defines the period when science fiction became a Klein bottle that has swallowed “mainstream” literature and the entire universe. (A generation later and neither side fully understands that this has happened.)

And now a few matters that must be considered unflinchingly. The book has no front matter, just a terse potted biographical note on the back cover, and is as close to anonymous as it could be possible for a book by such a remarkable author: except for the fireworks of the voice. Original publication credits are clearly identified, and a few author’s notes would seem to be evidence of subsequent attention to the pieces. There is an index but it is profoundly flawed and worse than useless, for it only cites titles and authors named in the article headings in the first section of reviews: thus under Le Guin there is no reference to her substantial discussion of The Left Hand of Darkness in “The Image of Women in Science Fiction”; and the only citation for Avram Davidson is to the review of The Phoenix and the Mirror, overlooking discussion of his stories in anthologies edited by Terry Carr or Harlan Ellison.

Neither Alice Sheldon nor James Tiptree, Jr., appears in the index, but pp. 291-2 gives the 1990 letter to Extrapolation in which Russ reports Sheldon’s now famous and widely quoted “I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything it was always girls and women who lit me up” (the author’s note here is succinct and compelling). There are also some surprising lapses in proofreading: in the list of titles in the publisher’s series, “Gene Wolf” is given as the author of Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on Writing/Writers on Wolfe; and Robert Sheckley’s surname is consistently misspelled. Lovecraft is omitted from the index, but Russ wrote an appreciation rich in insight for Twentieth-Century Science Fiction Authors (1981) which is collected here.


The Silence of Joanna Russ

What Mary Shelley might have written under happier circumstances — during a less barren period in English literature, with a happier childhood, without the deaths of children and husband which darkened her life — must, of course, remain a matter of conjecture.

— Joanna Russ, To Write Like a Woman

The most recent of the pieces in the Reviews section of The Country You Have Never Seen is dated 1981; similarly for the Essays (save one brief piece dated 1989); and although there is a substantial section of Letters dated 1982 to 1995, only two concern science fiction. The reasons Russ effectively stopped writing by the mid-1980s are largely medical, and are sufficiently well known that I will discuss effect rather than cause. (A personal note: I have always felt that pleased that I published The Nutmeg Point District Mail edition of Avram Davidson’s El Vilvoy de las Islas [2000]. I now feel doubly pleased, and honored, for it includes a brief preface by Joanna Russ that gets right to the core of the novella, and I understand how fortunate I am to have elicited a paragraph from Russ.)

I have never met Joanna Russ but I miss her deeply. I miss her presence in the field of the fantastic as sharply as Reno Odlin’s (and what an incompatible, kinetic juxtaposition there!). For just as R.W. Odlin would allude to Pound or Eugène Marais or Japanese custom in his reflections upon the fantastic mode of literature, Russ might draw upon nominally unconnected matters — including economics or, invariably and judiciously, childcare — to slice through mystification and expose just what it is that the writer is evading. The Country You Have Never Seen is fascinating, but it is also maddening in its omissions: where is Russ on Pamela Zoline? on A Scanner Darkly or Valis? or Always Coming Home? or Neuromancer? Inevitably, these are omissions that arose because Russ was reviewing topically and from books sent to her, unless something caught her eye and compelled her, such as The Left Hand of Darkness, to which Russ devotes an entire section of “The Image of Women in Science Fiction”. Yet one might wish she had written more.

Who is there among contemporary reviewers who is so clear and direct as to say: the novel by X “is an artificial rabbit. My copy tried to eat grass and died. [. . .] The book is an O.K., intelligent workout for an idle hour or for people who are terrified of live books”? Read The Country You Have Never Seen and look for her earlier collections of essays. What Joanna Russ might have written under happier circumstances must, of course, remain a matter of conjecture. There are few events in science fiction as tragic as the silence of Joanna Russ.

Henry Wessells lives and reads in Montclair, New Jersey.

[First published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 21, no.2, October 2008. Copyright © 2008, 2011 by Henry Wessells. All rights reserved.]