In this stunning and boldly imagined novel, an explosion leaves the passengers of a starship marooned on a barren alien planet. Despite only a slim chance for survival, most of the strangers are determined to colonize their new home. But the civilization they hoped for rapidly descends into a harsh microcosm of a male-dominated society, with the females in the group relegated to the subservient position of baby-makers.
One holdout wants to accept her fate realistically and prepare for death. But her desperate fellow survivors have no intention of honoring her individual right to choose. They’re prepared to force her to submit to their plan for reproduction—which will prove to be a grave mistake . . .
In Hugo and Nebula Award–winning author Joanna Russ’s trailblazing body of work, “her genius flows and convinces, shames and alarms” (The Washington Post).
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About the Author
Russ received a master of fine arts degree from the Yale School of Drama and was a 1974 National Endowment for the Humanities fellow. She was a lecturer at Cornell and other universities and a professor of English at the University of Washington, where she taught from 1984 to 1994. Her scholarly work includes How to Suppress Women’s Writing and To Write Like a Woman, among others. Her papers are collected at the University of Oregon.
Samuel R. Delany published his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, at the age of twenty. Throughout his storied career, he has received four Nebula Awards and two Hugo Awards, and in 2008 his novel Dark Reflections won the Stonewall Book Award. He was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2002, named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 2014, and in 2016 was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. Delany’s works also extend into memoir, criticism, and essays on sexuality and society. After many years as a professor of English and creative writing and director of the graduate creative writing program at Temple University, he retired from teaching in 2015. He lives in Philadelphia with his partner, Dennis Rickett.
Read an Excerpt
About to die. And so on.
We're all going to die.
The Sahara is your back yard, so's the Pacific trench; die there and you won't be lonely. On Earth you are never more than 13,000 miles from anywhere, which as the man said is a tough commute, but the rays of light from the scene of your death take little more than a tenth of a second to go ... anywhere!
We'll die alone.
This is space travel. Imagine a flat world, a piece of paper, say, with two spots on it but very far apart. If you were a two-dimensional triangle, how would you get from one spot to the other? Walk? Too far. But fold the paper through the third dimension (ours) so that the spots match exactly — if you were a triangle you couldn't see or feel this, of course — and you are at the proper place. We do this in the fourth. Don't ask me how. Only you must be very, very careful, when you fold spacetime, not to sloosh the paper around or let it slide: then you end up not on the spot you wanted but God knows where, maybe entirely out of our galaxy, which is that dust you see in the sky on clear nights when you're away from cities. The glittering breath of angels. Far, far from home. The light of our dying may not reach you for a thousand million years. That ordinary sun up there, a little hazy now at noon, that smeary spot.
We do not know where we are.
At dawn there was an intensely brilliant flash far, far under the horizon, and about an hour later the noise of the thing; I figured the way you do for thunderstorms, the lag between light and sound: one-hippopotamus, two-hippopotamus, three-hippopotamus, four-hippopotamus, five-hippopotamus — there's your mile. Seven hundred miles. That's over a thousand kilometers. In the event of mechanical dysfunction, the ship's computer goes for the nearest "tagged" planet, i.e. where human life is supposed to be possible, then ejects the passenger compartment separately. Lays an egg, you might say. We won't be visited without a distress call, however, now the colonization fever's died down (didn't take long, divide five billion people by twenty and the remainders start getting clubby again).
Goodbye ship, goodbye crew, goodbye medicine, goodbye books, goodbye freight, goodbye baggage, goodbye computer that could have sent back an instantaneous distress call along the coordinates we came through (provided it had them, which I doubt), goodbye plodding laser signal, no faster than other light, that might have reached somewhere, sometime, this time, next time, never. You'll get around to us in a couple of thousand years.
We're a handful of persons in a metal bungalow: five women, three men, bedding, chemical toilet, simple tools, an even simpler pocket laboratory, freeze-dried food for six months, and a water-distiller with its own sealed powerpack, good for six months (and cast as a unit, unusable for anything else).
At dawn I held hands with the other passengers, we all huddled together under that brilliant flash, although I hate them.
O God, I miss my music.
(This is being recorded on a pocket vocoder I always carry; the punctuation is a series of sounds not often used for words in any language: triple gutturals, spits, squeaks, pops, that kind of thing. Sounds like an insane chicken. Hence this parenthesis.)
Of the women: myself. A Mrs. Valeria Graham, actually married to Mr. Graham, in the delicate fifties when alimony becomes mandatory upon divorce (who would pay whom is a conjecture here). Valeria Victrix habitually wears the classical Indian sari, usually gold embroidered on royal blue, like a television hostess's; this does not suit a petite chemical blonde. Ditto the many-splendored earrings: bells within cages within hoops.
A dark young woman who does yoga on her head, off to some "unimportant job" somewhere (she said), hates everyone, says she's called Nathalie. Nathalie what? Nathalie nothing. Mind your own business.
Cassie, thirty-ish, beginning to put on weight; you'll find her waiting, table in any restaurant or nude bar on any world. She looks like an earlier stage in the life-cycle of Mrs. Graham, but that's an illusion; nothing but a convulsion of nature could let either of these two rise or fall to the other's level. (Hydrogen fusion, which provided unlimited power and should've made us all rich, but of course didn't.)
A Graham child, female, twelve, a beautiful café-au-lait so she is either Mrs. Graham 's by a former marriage or Mr. Graham 's ditto, or neither. Hors de combat all trip with one of the few bacterial diseases left, or rather the treatment for it, which had made her dreadfully ill. We'd see her only when she'd stagger into the lounge, looking beautiful and hopeless, and then vomit (again). For whoever finds this and has no Greek, an iatrogenic disease is one created by the physician and we have plenty of them. The physicians and the diseases.
This will never be found.
Who am I writing for, then?
The men: Mr. Graham, a big powerful male in his early fifties, hollow and handsome in the same style as his wife: coloring, dress, and person. Three days out (we were on the way to find the first spot we can then fold onto the second spot) Cassie took off the mask, stopped being squeezably-soft, and lost all expression. The Grahams stopped speaking to her. I say " male" because he emphasizes it subtly, so perhaps she's the buyer and he's the bought. Or both: money marries money. Relations with men are still apt to be patterned on a few rather dull models, especially among strangers, so I know less about the men than I do about the women, but in one way I know more: I mean the conception of themselves they find it publicly necessary to live up to.
Alan: a young man with a set of shoulders like unto those of one who plays le futbol (says he did). Extremely polite and attentive, with a carefully intent way of listening to everybody and agreeing civilly and much too often ("Oh, I do agree with you, Mr. Graham, I really do"). My theory is that this obviously insincere behavior conceals absolutely nothing; he's rich enough to take the poor man's Grand Tour, poor enough to need a job, decent enough not to hurt anyone unless he's frightened or hurt himself (which could happen pretty easily), and anxious enough to flatter whoever he thinks can help him. The Grahams, you see, are slumming.
An historian of ideas traveling from one University to another and extremely evasive about his work, as they all are, now there's so little of it to go around; he wears Mr. Graham's kind of conservative clothes: shorts and sport-shirts, bright but not daylight-fluorescent (Vic Graham in blue, John Ude in red). The only historical analogy to Alan's costumes is Graustark, all gold braid, epaulettes, and boots (except the shako, which I think he had to leave behind on account of the weight, though he never mentioned it). The professor is John Ude. Thirties. A very minor intellectual. Bland. Often displays The Smile. The first day, in the lounge, when Mrs. Graham actually introduced herself as Mrs. Graham — which is rather like presenting yourself as a Dame of the British Empire or a Roman Tribune — Professor Ude displayed (after a blank moment) The Smile. Then he took out from his sporran The Pipe, gesturing at The Pipe with The Smile to show that he was aware of his own self-mockery. He would have received Valeria as Mistress Anne Brad street, had she so required, because the Grahams are rich. Black-body-suited, perpetually angry Nathalie said audibly, "Missiz! Oh God," and turned away with an unbelieving, outraged, I-knew-it-was-going-to-be-one-of-those-trips look. Alan gaped hysterically, then shut his mouth. I said nothing. Think of it: Valeria and Victor in blue, Ude in red, Alan indescribable, Cassie in two stars and a cache-sexe (both silver), and Lori Graham in body paint, mostly blue (to match her parents' clothes). The arrows of Professor Ude's irony point only down in the social scale, never up; when they occasionally point at himself, he is very careful to blunt them.
Oh, we are a dull bunch! The professor once uncrimped enough to get into a long discussion with Victor Graham about the new lease on life given capitalism by the unlimited power of hydrogen fusion, the poor fool. He believes in free enterprise, competition, achievement-orientation, the meritocracy. He's never been behind the crew panels where the technocrats live. Travel enough and you can make friends with the crew, what's this, what's that, ask questions; they even let you fiddle about in sick bay if you're careful. You see things, then.
Meritocracy? We're being kept off the streets, that's all, rich or poor. (Foundations pay me to lecture on music and play tapes of it; that's why I travel. I'm a scrounge.)
I once said to Ude, "How fast do you think things really change?" He said, "That's not my field."
Cassie, determined, bitter, exhausted, full-breasted, wanted to know what a musicologist was and what kind of music.
"Very old," I said. "European twelfth century to Baroque. No farther."
"How nice," Mrs. Graham said. "We must tell Lori."
"Who cares," Cassie said.
I wear body-suits and sandals, like Nathalie, and keep a low profile, especially with passengers. This isn't a luxury liner; you don't have to eat with anybody, just dial a meal out of the locker.
And visit the crew. And envy them.
Behold the new irrelevants: parasites, scum, proles, scroungers. People who do nothing real.
Isn't ... wasn't, I mean, a luxury liner.
Day first. I'm sitting in the corner on the empty tool chest after a little nap. Already excited talk of "colonization," whatever that is. Our tiny laboratory tells us the air is safe, although perhaps a little thin; there's nothing directly poisonous outside. Nathalie's unexpected talent for cataloguing and arranging tools (which is why the tool box is empty). The sun up for at least fifteen hours, taking a slow tour of the horizon at what my childhood tells me is 4 P.M. late autumn, so we have either a very great axial tilt or are in very high latitudes. A few weeks' observation and perhaps we can guess if we're approaching the summer solstice or going the other way, which could give us some idea of how long the seasons will be: could be ten years of summer (and it's hot outside now, about 30 C, they tell me). Through the window you can see ordinary green trees, hilly up-and-downish but not much, some little natural clearings. Very much like New Jersey a hundred and thirty-five years ago, when my ancestors came to Ellis Island: about nineteen-aught-five that was. My maternal something-great-grandfather was a plumber, my maternal something-great-grandmother a sheitel-maker. (A sheitel is a wig which Orthodox Jewish women used to wear after marriage, over their shorn hair. But what do you care.) We don't remember the actual genealogy of the other side nearly so far back, but I've inherited their looks; little, dark, Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish frontier at night with rubies, emeralds, and uncut diamonds sewn into the hems of their cloaks. At least I like to think of them that way. I carry the modern equivalent, the only currency that passes everywhere, sewn into my jacket, my neckband, my belt, so flat you couldn't detect it. I mean a whole pharmacopoeia. Because you never know what you will need. (I filched a little from the ship, too: nothing important)
Our equipment isn't good enough to test whether the life here is edible. We're not supposed to do that. Commonly the problem has been people contaminating the planet, but there have been striking instances of vice-versa. We're supposed to stay inside.
Everybody is getting on everybody else's nerves.
Victor, in his hearty, overemphasized, hollow voice: "I believe I should." (Tail end of a conversation about who's to go out first. Not that it matters. We either go out eventually or cut our throats.)
"Why?" says Nathalie instantly.
"Because I'm old. Expendable. Why else?" (Lori Graham is looking adoring and anxious.)
"Very sensible," says Nathalie. "So should Mrs. Graham." (Lori outraged.)
"Well, if there's any harm. ..." This is John Ude.
"The Grahams will go," says Nathalie over her shoulder, and continues putting together our shovels, our hammers, our axes — "half an hour, no less, no more"— and something longer that comes in sections.
The Grahams go out the air-lock, Victor stooping, Alan kindly restraining Lori when she tries to slip out with them. They have an intense, whispered conversation, with Lori close to tears.
"My, you are just an ordinary traveler, aren't you!" I say to Nathalie, hoping to get a rise from her, maybe learn something. No answer. She's engaged in jointing together what we both realize at the same instant is a single-passenger hovercraft: sealed motor, no cab, kicks up so much dust that you have to wear an air-filter (included in the box; by Saint George, I was right), flies over any terrain with ease, including water (at under 32 kph, however), and looks like nothing so much as a stick with a saddle; hence its name.
"A br —" (she catches herself).
"Broomstick," I finish. On her knees, in the midst of spare parts, in her black skin-tights, Nathalie gives me (for a moment only) a glance of shock, of wild surmise — are you one, too?
"Where were you really going?" I say.
She inspects her fingernails, comes to a quick decision, licks her lips wolfishly.
"Government trainee," she says in a low voice but so naturally, that is to say pretend-naturally, that Cassie (who is lying on a bunk, holding to one ear a cheap, battery-powered music library that will wear out within days, I can tell) can't hear us.
"At what?" say I.
"Doesn't matter," she says sharply. "Not to tell. And I shan't now, not because it matters but because it doesn't."
For a moment she's a death's-head.
Then "What!" says Lori Graham, a little desperately, with the natural irritation of someone whose Mummy and Daddy may, after all, have been eaten by megatheria. "Nothing," answers Nathalie. "Go on screwing with Alan or whatever it is you were doing." (Lori makes a disgusted face and Alan turns aside to blush or giggle.) "If he can," she adds. In the low, trained voice she says to me, "Who are you."
"A musicologist," I say. "Sorry. Nobody like you. I've picked things up because I've traveled a lot, that's all."
Cassie sits up, shaking her radio. She says to Nathalie, "Can you do something with this thing?"
"The batteries are worn down and they're electric; we can't recharge them. You've been playing that ever since we started this trip and you've probably played it before, quite a lot. I know you've recharged them but the case is worn. So that's probably two hundred hours and a couple of rechargings; they do deteriorate each time, you know. And there's nothing we can do — our gadgets are all sealed and shielded. It's a different kind of energy; we can't transform the one to the other. Besides if we tried opening any of the power-packs, we'd probably go boom, you know, just like the ship." This is me. I add, "I'm awfully sorry, Cassie."
"So if you're a goddamn music student," says Cassie at her most insulting, "where's your goddamn music, huh?"
I'm tempted to answer "in the ionosphere" (reduced to its constituent atoms, or even smaller pieces) but I say, "It was in the baggage compartment."
"Oh," says Alan, clearly disappointed. I guess he has been planning on hearing some music. Cassie draws up her knees in the bunk, exasperated, and presses the side of her face against the sealed window.
Alan adds in a friendly way, "Hey, don't you have any of it with you?" Forgetting to be polite, that one.
"Tapes," I say. "Want to use them for ribbons? I have the amplifier and the recorder — see? they fit in my hand — but the speakers are too big. Two meters diameter."
He opens his mouth, probably to inquire why a speaker has to be two meters across, but Lori — who is very well educated, as her parents have been telling us for three weeks — breaks in importantly with a disquisition on the physical reproduction of sound, and how the lowest musical note that can be heard by the human ear is fourteen cycles per second and the lowest sounds that can be felt are even lower, and if you want a really good bass, say for Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for Organ, or Vestal's Electronic
Mass, you just have to have these enormous speakers for your sound environment because otherwise the sounds just won't fit mechanically on the speakers. "Literally," she says.
"O-o-oh," says Alan in mock awe.
Cassie breaks in furiously with, "Your goddamn education —"
(John Ude has been asleep all this time, worn out, poor man; that's why you haven't heard from him.)
Excerpted from "We Who Are About To ..."
Copyright © 1976 Joanna Russ.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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