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RIP Joanna Russ
April 29, 2011 11:44 AM   Subscribe

After suffering a series of strokes earlier this week, feminist science fiction author and essayist Joanna Russ has died. Russ's best known work is probably her novel The Female Man; this and her other works were often misunderstood and dismissed by the male-dominated science fiction field of the 70s. Despite this, her short story "When It Changed" (which was included in Harlan Ellison's Again Dangerous Visions) won a Hugo award in 1973, and her novella, "Souls," won a Nebula award in 1983. In retrospect, of course, hers is one of the names that will be remembered from that era of imaginative writing.
posted by aught (87 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by kipmanley at 11:45 AM on April 29, 2011


This transcription of a conference interview by Samuel Delany is probably also worth looking at.
posted by aught at 11:46 AM on April 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


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posted by ottereroticist at 11:49 AM on April 29, 2011


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posted by cgc373 at 11:50 AM on April 29, 2011


I remember being a youngish lad in college and picking up "The Female Man" because it looked like like another Sci-Fi book. It absolutely blew me away. I was amazed. Amazed to the point that almost 40 years later I still have that paperback copy and could walk into my room and put my hand on it in 30 seconds.

I was, perhaps naively, surprised that it didn't get the heaps of praise I thought it deserved. After all, isn't the best speculative fiction about exploring different idea and viewpoints?
posted by cccorlew at 11:51 AM on April 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


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posted by zarq at 11:53 AM on April 29, 2011


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posted by sonascope at 11:54 AM on April 29, 2011


Oh, what a shame. She really helped blow the doors open for an entire branch of scifi. Such a loss.

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posted by rmd1023 at 11:57 AM on April 29, 2011


No no no no no. This absolutely cannot be true. This is awful.

Oh god, now I know that the grave gapes for me too, as one by one all the heroes of my youth pass on.
posted by Frowner at 11:59 AM on April 29, 2011


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posted by LMGM at 12:00 PM on April 29, 2011


After all, isn't the best speculative fiction about exploring different idea and viewpoints?

Some might argue that Russ (along with others like Delany, LeGuin, Varley, Ellison, and Disch (to name just the Americans) helped re-shape the field to be that way, after it had mostly been about tough men and their nifty rocket ships for several decades before that.
posted by aught at 12:01 PM on April 29, 2011 [11 favorites]


Damn it.

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posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:05 PM on April 29, 2011


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posted by plep at 12:05 PM on April 29, 2011


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posted by asperity at 12:08 PM on April 29, 2011


NOOOOO, fucking no. Goddamn it. She was fucking brilliant, a voice that guided and led me and shaped how I see the world since I was 12 years old and stumbled upon a short story she'd written about vampires and bloody fucking hell, death, damn you.
posted by jokeefe at 12:09 PM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


And this book, which is essential: How to Suppress Women's Writing, from 1983. I could probably quote you sections from it, still. Table of contents and excerpt, here.
posted by jokeefe at 12:11 PM on April 29, 2011 [15 favorites]


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posted by Faint of Butt at 12:12 PM on April 29, 2011


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posted by klapaucius at 12:14 PM on April 29, 2011


So sorry to hear this.

How to Suppress Women's Writing, a wonderful read, taught me a lot.

Oh, I see others know if it too!
posted by lathrop at 12:15 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


She was wonderful and this is a great loss.

If you've never read her nonfiction -- it has a sharp-edged angry brilliance to it, and at the same time an undeniable crackle of humor. Her acerbic pillory of gothics : "Someone Is Trying To Kill Me, And I Think It's My Husband" Her writings on worlds without men before Tiptree and Russ herself had the audacity to say, "worlds without men, that might be pretty fine, actually."

And, of course, "How to Suppress Women's Writing." It is a thing of joy that I still bring out when I hear women writers excluded from the canon by well-meaning men who don't mean anything by it (it's just that Austen is too romancey, or Emily Bronte is too emo).
posted by Jeanne at 12:15 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


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posted by Gorgik at 12:19 PM on April 29, 2011


I was, perhaps naively, surprised that it didn't get the heaps of praise I thought it deserved. After all, isn't the best speculative fiction about exploring different idea and viewpoints?

I'm not sure about your premise; TFM was on the shortlist for the Best Novel Nebula along with other worthy contenders like Samuel Delany's Dhalgren. The winner was Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. One could construct an argument, perhaps, that Russ or Delany deserved to win but it would be just that; an argument. Because The Forever War is rightly considered one of the foremost classics of the genre.

TFM is widely praised and considered at the forefront, if not the progenitor of feminist science fiction. It couldn't really be praised more highly. It's true it didn't make the Hugo ballot. But anyone who thinks the Hugo ballot is consistently representative of the absolute best science fiction is just begging for disappointment. Many books which deserve to make the ballot do not, and some books which do make the ballot do not deserve to be there.

In any case, Russ was a giant and the genre is less without her.
posted by Justinian at 12:20 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Great writer.
posted by gerryblog at 12:21 PM on April 29, 2011


Goddammit, what a huge loss. The Female Man is a book I keep going back to (and forcing on people). I hope she's as well remembered as she deserves.

> I'm not sure about your premise

I am. I well remember how viciously the book was attacked at the time, and how condescending even most of the favorable reviews were. The world wasn't ready for it, and it helped create the climate in which it can be forgotten how high a hill she had to climb.
posted by languagehat at 12:32 PM on April 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


Oh, damn it! I loved her writing, especially her less well-known stint as reviewer for Fantasy and Science Fiction.

A series of strokes, losing more and more of yourself, is a horrible way to go, especially for such a whip smart person. Damn it.
posted by maudlin at 12:32 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am. I well remember how viciously the book was attacked at the time, and how condescending even most of the favorable reviews were.

Well since I was 1 month old at the time and thus my recollection of events is somewhat murky, I will bow to the memories of old more experienced readers and assume this is one of those books whose recognition grows over time. Because Russ, Wilhelm, and Tiptree and basically the equivalents of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke for feminist SF. But in a lot of ways that says even more about a novel's power than when a book is met with wdespread praise right out of the gate.
posted by Justinian at 12:40 PM on April 29, 2011


"This too shall pass. All good things must come to an end. Take my life but don't take away the meaning of my life."

-- Joanna Russ, When It Changed

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posted by kyrademon at 12:43 PM on April 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


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fuck.

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posted by feckless at 12:45 PM on April 29, 2011


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But it's encouraging to see that writers seem to be living longer.
posted by New England Cultist at 12:47 PM on April 29, 2011


Finding The Female Man at a used book sale in college was key to my development as a feminist.

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posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:47 PM on April 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


My cherished writers' deaths always hit me hard, for some stupid reason, even though they are strangers and even when they have lived a full life.

It feels wrong to leave a period for a master of the fully punctuated sentence, but I don't know what else to say, except that I will miss her voice.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:51 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read "When It Changed" after I'd read "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", and so it didn't have quite the same impact that the Tiptree story did for me, but in a way it built on Tiptree's story in my mind; by addressing the same subject (albeit in a much different way), it made the subject--the implications and possibilities of a world without men--as legitimate a subject for science fiction as a world with starships or cyborgs or genetic engineering. Pretty powerful stuff for a kid just entering adolescence.

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posted by Halloween Jack at 12:51 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some favourite Russ moments:

There's a long passage in The Female Man where the character Jeanine, after a long struggle for meaning in her life, suddenly agrees to marry her (rather awful) boyfriend, and Russ ends this sequence with one sharp concluding sentence which slaps the rest of the long sentences which precede it in the face: "And there, but for the grace of god, go I."

Radegunde, the medieval Abbess in Souls, who in the face of a Viking invasion tells her people calmly that "God protects our souls, not our bodies."

A minor story of hers which I read when I was 11 or 12, in one of my father's collections of Best Science Fiction (from Analog? something), which was about vampires. But not just vampires: it was the most swooning experience of prose I had yet had; her style was just dazzling and I'd never read anything like it, so quick and nimble. One sentence, which impressed the hell out of me at the time, and which I still remember (one of the main protaganists has been visited by the vampire in the night): "In the dim light her hands were black with blood." Words of one syllable. A perfect rhythm and rise and fall, alliterative without being pushy about it, and visual as all get out. It's harder than it looks, you know?

The very knotty and difficult meditations on Christianity in We Who Are About To. And what a bleak shiver of a book that is.
posted by jokeefe at 12:52 PM on April 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


That The Female Man and How to Suppress Women's Writing helped shape the writer and artist I am today is a paltry tribute to a hero of women in literature.

For my favorite author: .
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 12:53 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


What a shame.

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I'd never heard of her, until a few weeks ago when I picked up The Female Man on a whim from the library. There's a chapter in there which suggests her work was quite strongly attacked.

What made me saddest was the suggestion in the final chapter that it would be good if a future reader couldn't understand the book. The fact that it's still relevant is sad.
posted by Infinite Jest at 12:55 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Okay, and one last quote (if I can call things drawn from memory and perhaps not perfectly accurate quotes): When somebody once asked if she was dedicated to the women's movement, she said no, the women's movement was dedicated to her, and she wasn't going to forget it.

Goodbye Joanna. My world is so much richer for your work.

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posted by jokeefe at 12:57 PM on April 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Dammit.

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posted by rtha at 1:01 PM on April 29, 2011


Wait - is there actually confirmation that she has died? Did I miss the link somewhere?
posted by rtha at 1:06 PM on April 29, 2011


rtha:

http://www.locusmag.com/News/2011/04/joanna-russ-1937-2011/
posted by kyrademon at 1:09 PM on April 29, 2011


And the news is on Eileen Gunn's and John Scalzi's twitter feeds.

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posted by Zed at 1:14 PM on April 29, 2011


Well, shit. I guess I just wanted to live in denial for a little while longer.
posted by rtha at 1:22 PM on April 29, 2011


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posted by lord_wolf at 1:26 PM on April 29, 2011


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posted by brand-gnu at 1:32 PM on April 29, 2011


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posted by DreamerFi at 1:33 PM on April 29, 2011


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posted by motty at 1:45 PM on April 29, 2011


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posted by Artw at 2:00 PM on April 29, 2011


Well since I was 1 month old at the time and thus my recollection of events is somewhat murky, I will bow to the memories of old more experienced readers and assume this is one of those books whose recognition grows over time. Because Russ, Wilhelm, and Tiptree and basically the equivalents of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke for feminist SF. But in a lot of ways that says even more about a novel's power than when a book is met with wdespread praise right out of the gate.

I remember how viciously this book was attacked as recently as the mid-nineties, on the feminist SF list serv, no less. If my memory serves me well, SM Stirling in particular had some unpleasant things to say about it. Many women on the list serv at the time viewed it as "too angry", "too strident" and all the various things which Russ predicts will be the books reception in the last segment.

Oh, and this--the thing I admire most of all about Joanna Russ is that, unlike some feminist SF writers, she backed down from and apologized for instances of racism and transphobia that appear in her books. The Female Man, for example, has a long passage which is at best clueless about trans women and at worst transphobic; her novel The Two of Them, which has some really terrific and sad parts, takes place on Oppressive Muslim Planet. In each case, she owned what she'd written and apologized for what was written in ignorance and bias.

It's not that her books are angry; it's that they are bitter and sad and adult in a way that not a lot of science fiction is (even science fiction that I like a lot). "The Second Inquisition" for example. That's a sad, sad story if you're looking for one.
posted by Frowner at 2:04 PM on April 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


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posted by redyaky at 2:15 PM on April 29, 2011


Reading "When It Changed", and then Harlan Ellison's infinitely tool-ish introduction to same in Again, Dangerous Visions tells you everything you need to know about the contemporary attitudes Russ was fighting against. Joanna Russ - "she looks great in a bikini."

Later in the same collection, if I wasn't hallucinating, is Piers Anthony's tale of a world where naked women are bred as milk cows. According to the author's note, it's a parable about the evils of factory farming.

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posted by ormondsacker at 2:18 PM on April 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Oh how sad I am to read this. She was one of my favorite SF authors. RIP, lady!
posted by Lynsey at 2:25 PM on April 29, 2011


How To Suppress Women's Writing explicitly named patterns that I was seeing, but hadn't yet consciously articulated, in my own research on business, science, and sport history. "In this book she's talking only about writing and getting published, but the same thing happens in this other field...and over there in that field too...and over there...and over there...and... Holy shit, where hasn't this happened?"

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posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 2:27 PM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


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Particularly enjoyed Picnic on Paradise but all her fiction is good.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 2:30 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Later in the same collection, if I wasn't hallucinating, is Piers Anthony's tale of a world where naked women are bred as milk cows. According to the author's note, it's a parable about the evils of factory farming.

You are not hallucinating. I remember that story, too.
posted by maudlin at 2:31 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ugh. Me as well.
posted by jokeefe at 2:36 PM on April 29, 2011


Reading "When It Changed", and then Harlan Ellison's infinitely tool-ish introduction to same in Again, Dangerous Visions tells you everything you need to know about the contemporary attitudes Russ was fighting against. Joanna Russ - "she looks great in a bikini."

And sadly, things haven't changed a great deal since.
posted by jokeefe at 2:37 PM on April 29, 2011


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No, I refuse to believe it! Her critical and fictional work has meant a great deal to me, and she will be sorely missed.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 2:52 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would like to add an appreciation for her Ace Special, And Chaos Died, which was her first critical and commercial success. Among many other things, it was an imaginative treatment of what the sudden experience of telepathy would be like.

Joanna Russ once lived and taught in Seattle. And, as she was once a reviewer for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction -- her review of Jack Vance's Emphyrio was a classic in its concision -- she must have gotten a ton of paperbacks sent her way everafter. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was always a delight to open a used science fiction paperback at Horizon Books on 15th East to find her Ex Libris pasted in it. I have an R.A. Lafferty novel somewhere with one of those silver and black bookplates with her name and address on its title page.
posted by y2karl at 2:53 PM on April 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


Magic Mamas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts and How to Suppress Women's Writing had a huge effect on me. I remember reading this analysis of a particular kind of toxic interaction that I had noticed but could not describe, and I was floored. She was an excellent writer with an incredibly sharp critical eye. No wonder she was never as popular as she deserved.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:02 PM on April 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Now I will never write her a fan letter! Now she will never by some miracle speak at WisCon during a year I can attend! Now I can never imagine meeting her by some happy coincidence! Now when I reread her books and hear that wry, clever voice which has become so familiar...now I have to remember that she is gone.

Ah, it's a hell of a thing. It's so hard to think of her being dead when I can instantly conjure up so many images from her work, sharp and clear.

She and Orwell are the only authors where I've read just about everything they've published, right down to the odds and ends of reviews and letters.
posted by Frowner at 3:04 PM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Piers Anthony story mentioned above is called "In the Barn" and was published in Again, Dangerous Visions and in Anthony's anthology Anthonology.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 3:21 PM on April 29, 2011


Well, shit. We still needed her.
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posted by likeso at 3:34 PM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


What a great writer, and what a loss.

y2karl - how nice to have one of books! Books continue on...

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posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:45 PM on April 29, 2011


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posted by ursus_comiter at 4:02 PM on April 29, 2011


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posted by arha at 4:13 PM on April 29, 2011


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I will add to the chorus that reading When it Changed is one of those events that permanently changed me in ways I will never be able to undo.

And while anyone's death is bad news, remember that she was 74 years old, and lots of people both more and less talented don't make it that far. I think at this point as a fan I think celebrating her life and work is probably more appropriate than mourning.
posted by localroger at 4:49 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


If my memory serves me well, SM Stirling in particular had some unpleasant things to say about it.

Ah. SM Stirling used to be able to tell a good story (he appears to have forgotten) but he's... well, he's SM Stirling. It's like pointing to something John Ringo or John C. Wright said; shooting fish in a barrel.
posted by Justinian at 5:21 PM on April 29, 2011


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Love her stuff, loved it as a kid and went out of my way to track it down later.
posted by mwhybark at 5:29 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Damn it.

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posted by jadepearl at 5:33 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ah. SM Stirling used to be able to tell a good story (he appears to have forgotten) but he's... well, he's SM Stirling. It's like pointing to something John Ringo or John C. Wright said; shooting fish in a barrel.

But you see, he was posting on a feminist SF listserv - the feminist SF listserv, in fact - where he was taken surprisingly seriously. Feminist SF has gotten a lot stroppier since then.

And while anyone's death is bad news, remember that she was 74 years old, and lots of people both more and less talented don't make it that far. I think at this point as a fan I think celebrating her life and work is probably more appropriate than mourning.

It may be "more appropriate", but it doesn't even touch how sad I feel. Why? Don't know. There's hardly another author in the world whose death I'd feel so strongly about; I'm not much of a one for crying about people you didn't actually know.
posted by Frowner at 5:50 PM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


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posted by Leucistic Cuttlefish at 6:46 PM on April 29, 2011


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posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:03 PM on April 29, 2011


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posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 7:21 PM on April 29, 2011


The Female Man is one of the 10 or so books I re-read every few years. Thank you, Joanna, for that and everything else.
posted by minervous at 7:28 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


A minor story of hers which I read when I was 11 or 12, in one of my father's collections of Best Science Fiction (from Analog? something), which was about vampires. But not just vampires: it was the most swooning experience of prose I had yet had; her style was just dazzling and I'd never read anything like it, so quick and nimble.

Yeah, jokeefe, I loved that story, "My Dear Emily." Such a lush representation of vampires. She even noted that she would die if Hammer made a film of it. If only.

She turned me on the feminist scifi, which fortunately is still going strong today.

RIP Ms. Russ, you were a groundbreaker.
posted by nikitabot at 7:34 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


ormondsacker, I vigorously agree with what you said, thanks for saying it.

Also, Joanna Russ, thanks for writing SF under your obviously female first name.

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posted by LobsterMitten at 7:41 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


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posted by Slithy_Tove at 9:19 PM on April 29, 2011


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*resolutely not thinking about which other favorite feminist writers are getting on in age or in poor health*

*resolutely not checking Wikipedia entries on certain names that are coming to mind; would prefer not to know for sure for the moment*

*thinking about some who are already gone*

Dammit.

posted by Lexica at 9:34 PM on April 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Russ remembered at Making Light. Some good stories there.
posted by maudlin at 9:53 PM on April 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


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posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:37 PM on April 29, 2011


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posted by hoodrich at 2:27 AM on April 30, 2011


I am torn between feeling a sense of panic and a joy that she lived as long as she did. Reading "A Few Things I Know About Whileaway" when I was sixteen was a very transformative experience for me. Now, I was raised well by good feminist Nordics, but feminism was still a somewhat abstract thing for me. Putting it into the context of science fiction, which had been my overriding interest in life since I was ten years old helped bring it home. It was a moment of "oh yeah!" for me. Having feminism articulated through the tropes of SF with such skill and imaginativeness opened a door into feminist theory I could enter confidently. Joanna Russ gave me a lot as a person and I'm happy she lived as full and productive life as she did.

My sense of panic comes from the feeling that there's no one else like her out there. That the time of combative feminist SF has passed. I know the reactionary fuckheads are dying too, but there seems to be an endless resupply of them. I hope my feeling is wrong and that out there there are in fact plenty of feminist SF writers pushing the boundaries. There will never be another Joanna Russ, but we still need about ten thousand of her.

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posted by Kattullus at 6:00 AM on April 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


A link to one of her stories online, via Making Light.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:49 AM on April 30, 2011


She is absolutely one of the most important writers in my life. I am also sorry to see her go, but so glad we had her voice.

In addition to all her great work mentioned here, I re-read the Adventures of Alyx periodically. I never understood what it would mean to have a real, living, breathing woman at the center of a fantasy story until I read this. It changed the way I read all other types of fantasy, and all other stories about women.

I think the Alyx stories were sometimes considered "lighter", for Russ, but I can't explain how refreshing and, really, mind-blowing it was to see a female fantasy protagonist that was just a clever, complicated, complete person.

I am so glad we have her work.
posted by lillygog at 10:21 AM on April 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Reading How to Suppress Women's Writing today, though much of it is painfully relevant, there is significant practical change (for example, she talks about Vilette, by Charolette Bronte being available in only one edition, expensive and hard cover). Penguin and Oxford World Classics now have inexpensive paperbacks with full scholarly apparatus, for a few bucks.

This isn't to say that work doesn't need to be done. But part of her extensive legacy, is to allow undergrads to read Villette, and that's really important.
posted by PinkMoose at 6:16 PM on April 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


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posted by theora55 at 10:57 AM on May 1, 2011


I was looking for a review of And Chaos Died and found a critical review by Samuel R. Delany. But also, for what it is worth, I found the book entire.
posted by y2karl at 8:54 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


If my memory serves me well, SM Stirling in particular had some unpleasant things to say about it.

Heh. That as disposable a writer as Stirling would dismiss Russ's work is pretty amusing, actually.

But you see, he was posting on a feminist SF listserv - the feminist SF listserv, in fact - where he was taken surprisingly seriously. Feminist SF has gotten a lot stroppier since then.

From the bits and pieces of that list that are google-able it looks like they were being polite to his pontificating.
posted by aught at 1:48 PM on May 2, 2011


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