(This image has nothing to do with the post that follows, but I like it. From here)
Like many people who never read science fiction, I suppose it to be full of things I don’t like – violence, skintight polyester, poor writing – to justify my avoidance of it. At the same time I suspect, since many people I admire do read it, that it’s not like that at all (or, not all of it). So when I recently spotted a copy of Joanna Russ’s Extra(ordinary) People in a charity shop, I was curious; and then the cover was intriguing and the publisher was The Women’s Press, for whom I have a weakness. And I’m so glad to have read it! There was indeed some violence and some skintight polyester trousers, but the writing was excellent and I enjoyed the whole book very much. In fact, it’s definitely a gateway book for people who think they won’t like science fiction…
‘I […] was seeking out very commonplace ideas, very ordinary story lines and assumptions, and doing something else with them. […] one way to make people aware of how morally atrocious and even downright stupid many of their assumptions are is to confront them with a pattern whose meaning they think they’re comfortable with—and then to undermine the whole thing, forcing them to see how arbitrary and wrong they’ve been.’
(Joanna Russ talking about Extra(ordinary) People, interviewed in Across the Wounded Galaxies)
Extra(ordinary) People consists of five stories, connected by a very loose frame – they are a series of history lessons being delivered to a child by a robot teacher – and by recurring themes.Each challenges our assumptions, both in terms of gender, masks, otherness, and in terms of many fictional tropes. Each is some sort of record: usually a series of letters or communications to someone.
The first story, however, ‘Souls’, is not a missive but takes the form of an account written by an old man of a Norse attack on an abbey where he lived as a child. He recounts how, when the local villagers sight the approach long ship, they take refuge within the walls of the abbey. Yet Radegunde, the abbess, goes out with the boy in tow to speak to the Norsemen, to negotiate with them and, if possible, save the lives of those who look to her for protection. Thus the narrative begins in a very straightforward way, this happened, and then this, and then this, yet all the while it’s very tense – will the abbess succeed? And then something happens which is just so weird and unexpected that it blows the story out of the water and I was left thinking ‘What?’
I was a little surprised to discover that this story won the 1983 Hugo Award, just because it is so strangely structured, with this explosive event which flips the story into something else entirely without any foreshadowing. It’s not a structure I expect of a short story; that’s the point though. Russ spends the rest of the collection playing around with narrative and expectations and is here giving fair warning of her intentions. In another story, ‘What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?’, you have to work really very hard to piece together the fragmented and elided narrative, and even then, some things remain unclear (they do to me, at least). The other stories are much easier to follow, but Russ clearly enjoys playing around with how to tell a tale.
The second story is ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’; here we jump forward to the nineteenth century. The narrator, the young gentleman, is accompanying ‘his’ ‘niece’, Maria-Dolores, on the sea crossing from Europe to America, and is writing a long letter home to Denver about their observations and experiences. It quickly becomes clear that the narrator is not male – but not female either – or human – and possessed of astonishing telepathic powers. It is crucial that this is all hidden from the other passengers, including a very curious doctor.
‘Bodies’ is a message written by a fifty-year-old woman and posted on the Net (this was published in 1984, well before most of us had heard of the internet). She and James, a young man, are twentieth-century humans, but they have been revived at some point in the future when humanity has evolved to become kind, loyal and empathetic. The woman, who spent most of her first life as a second-class citizen, and James, who is gay and suffered for it during his first life, feel both liberated and oppressed by the acceptance and niceness of everyone around them in their second lives.
‘What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?’ relates the adventures of a woman who is sent to Storyland/Ruritania (‘a two-bit less-than-medieval Earth’) undercover as an arch-demon – or fairy prince – called Issa. In the final story, ‘Everyday Depressions’, which is set even further in the future, a woman outlines to her lover (?) Susannah (or Susan or Suzanne or something similar) a lesbian Gothic novel she will never write (more’s the pity, it is very funny: ‘Now I need an estate name. Pemberly? Woking? Bother? Bother was always loveliest in the spring...).
Russ roots her stories in science fiction but is fundamentally concerned with relationships, and this is perhaps why her stories are so accessible to someone who doesn’t read this genre. Characters are constantly negotiating their relationships with each other. The narrator and James in ‘Bodies’ have sex with each other yet dislike each other yet need each other; the writer of ‘Everyday Depressions’ seems to be using her outline of a novel’s plot to discuss something about her and Susannah. For many characters, everything is complicated by the necessity for disguise. The young gentleman, Radegunde and Issa are all compelled to masquerade they are not. The young gentleman is usually able to pass this off as a game, albeit a tiring one, but the burden for the others is heavy indeed. ‘Radegunde’ has inhabited her persona for so long that she has started to become her – for good as well as ill – and when she shucks off that identity it came as a loss for me, because Radegunde was such an interesting and, yes, likeable persona. The woman who passes as Issa is overwhelmed by the physical burden of her disguise, which involves introducing viruses to her eyes, nails and hair to turn them silver, hooking a parasite to her skin to blacken it and grafting on painful new teeth and claws. Were human beings kinder and more tolerant, most of these disguises would be unnecessary.
(Portrait of Joanna Russ, found here)
In the interview published in Across the Wounded Galaxies, Russ says that all five stories are conceived as take-offs of science-fiction motifs and narrative conventions, and of course I have no idea about those so miss a raft of allusions. But this is generally a very meta-fictional collection which references Norse sagas, gothic novels, nineteenth-century pulp fiction, cod-mediaeval fantasy novels as well as sci-fi. There’s so much richness here, I don’t mind missing some things. The writer Russ reminds me of most is actually Angela Carter, of her Heroes and Villains and The Passion of New Eve period. Russ’s language isn’t as lush as Carter’s but she shares many of Carter’s concerns, her playfulness and her imaginative fireworks. I’d like to read some of her (Russ’s) novels now. Does anyone have some suggestions of where to start?