Book Review: We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1975)

July 12th, 2013 4:14 pm by Kelly Garbato

Womb Raider

five out of five stars

Caution: minor spoilers ahead. Also, trigger warning for rape and violence.

The year’s 2120 (roughly), and an unlucky group of space travelers find themselves stranded on an barren alien planet devoid of animal life. Hurled there by a multi-dimensional explosion, they have little hope of being rescued, the nature of space travel being what it is: in essence, the folding of spacetime. Do it wrong and you can end up “God knows where, maybe entirely out of [y]our galaxy, which is that dust you see in the sky on clear nights when you’re away from cities.” (page1)

Though the planet is “tagged” – meaning that, at some time in the distant past, a team of scientists surveyed a square mile of the planet’s surface and found nothing in the atmosphere that’s immediately lethal to humans – it’s far from hospitable; the narrator variously describes it as the Sahara, a tundra, the Mojave desert. They have few supplies – a water filter, enough dried food to last six months, a pharmacopeia of drugs stashed on the narrator’s person, and the ship itself – none of which present a solution to their precarious situation, the book’s futuristic sci-fi setting notwithstanding. With no way to call for rescue (assuming that rescuers could even reach them during their natural lives!) the survivors are left to their own devices. They are five women and three men.

Most of the group resolves not just to survive, but thrive: almost immediately, they set about colonizing the planet. Within days this new society devolves into an Upper Paleolithic patriarchy, the women of which are reduced to little more than baby makers, walking wombs. With the middle-aged Mrs. Graham luckily excused from service, and her daughter Lori a few years too young to bear children, that leaves three women: Nathalie, a young adult who was on her way to begin military training when the ship crashed; Cassie, a thirty-something ex-waitress; and the narrator, a 42-year-old musicologist with medical issues. Whereas Nathalie and Cassie somewhat reluctantly agree to “do their duty,” the narrator (cynically but realistically) scoffs at their plans. In an especially amusing exchange, one of the men insists that it’s their responsibility to rebuild civilization. “But civilization still exists,” the narrator points out. “We just aren’t a part of it anymore.” (I paraphrase, but you get the gist.) Humans, always the center of their own little worlds!

Naturally, the narrator’s fatalistic observations do not go over well.

Despite the obvious difficulties of starting over with nothing, the women are initially disallowed from doing manual labor (though this policy changes rather quickly), and just four days in the seemingly affable Alan savagely beats Nathalie for “disrespecting” him. (I guess he didn’t get the memo that womb-bearers are to be protected.) When the narrator gets especially “uppity” and starts to talk of suicide, she’s put on 24-hour watch so that her precious uterus is not compromised. Eventually the narrator – who’s recording these events after the fact on a “pocket vocoder” – escapes on a “broomstick” (a small hovercraft), finding refuge in a cave several day’s travel from the group’s camp. Instead of letting this “troublemaker” go her own way, the group chases her down and attempts to drag her back “home,” where she’s to be tied to a tree, raped, forcibly impregnated, and made to carry and birth a child against her will. Barbaric, right?

And yet many reviewers seem to blame the narrator for her own predicament. She’s nihilistic, narcissistic, a feminist harpy shrew. Indeed, by story’s end the narrator comes to believe that she deliberately provoked her fellow survivors into a confrontation because she wanted an excuse to lash out at them physically. And perhaps this is true. But they still took the bait. Even after she removed herself from the situation, leaving them to do as they pleased, they hunted her down, with the intention of violating her in the most intimate and traumatic of ways. She (and the other women) was dehumanized and objectified; treated as little more than a means to an end. I fail to see how a little extra politeness on the narrator’s part would have altered the men’s plans.

Suicidal throughout the story – likely even before the crash – in the narrator I see not misanthropic feminazi, but rather a burned out and disillusioned activist (Communist, neo-Christian) who, when suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with death, is overcome with a sense of tired resignation. In life, she was unable to change history; and now, she will die outside of it. “I’m nobody, who are you? Are you a nobody, too?” (page 33; lower-case mine.)

We Who Are About To… is dark with a capital “D” – definitely not for everyone, as evidenced by the book’s polarized ratings on Amazon. I found it compulsively readable – kind of like Margaret Atwood’s dystopias (The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood), but minus her tentative sense of hope. I’m a newcomer to Joanna Russ – I think I accidentally stumbled upon this book via a BookMooch recommendation, perhaps because Atwood, Octavia Butler, and Ursula Le Guine are heavily represented on my list – and have already added most of the rest of her oeuvre to my wishlist. A must for fans of feminist science fiction.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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