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Feministing Reads: Joanna Russ’s “We Who Are About To…”

One of the most enduring themes of mainstream fiction is heroism against impossible odds: no matter how staggeringly unlikely the hero’s ultimate triumph may be, you can rest assured that through some contrivance, it will be secured by the end of the third act. But, even if it’s a bit hopeless, might there not be something interesting and profoundly human in impossibility itself?

Joanna Russ’ classic 1977 sci-fi novella, We Who Are About To… explores just that question.

book coverA small group of space travelers finds themselves stranded on a strange, uninhabited planet, cosmically far from any approximation of civilization. The air is breathable, the gravity is normal, there is running water; the final pillar of life, however, is missing: there’s no food. What’s worse, the night sky on this uninhabited planet is almost entirely black. So far are they from the known universe that even its distant, time-traveling pinpoint impressions on the sky fail to appear.

What is one woman to do, particularly when the men in her party get it into their heads that they can rebuild civilization here on this hopeless place through a steady return to patriarchy?

There is no way out, it must be emphasized. Rescue is a possibility measured in truly astronomical odds. They are probably in another galaxy, their ship blew up, they have five months of freeze-dried food to last them on a food-less planet and relatively few survival skills between them.

Thus it was that the unnamed protagonist — a musicologist, a woman of color, and a witty amateur theologian — is pushed to a desperate act: she kills everyone.


Russ as a sci-fi writer never shied away from controversy or from using her elegant prose to indict the sexist boilerplate storylines that dominated the medium. In the case of We Who Are About To, she was trying to redeem both the concept of hopelessness and a noble death. In other stories, the characters who condemned the protagonist for her “cowardice” would be the heroes, given lofty speeches, and trials to be overcome by their sheer will to survive. Instead, Russ turns the tables and renders these people feeble and desperate — a more painfully realistic take, certainly — and gives us a chilling portrait of how murderous and cruel that kind of optimism can actually be.

I say “murderous” because the protagonist’s choice to slaughter her comrades was, itself, an act forced upon her. She wanted only to die on her own terms, and left the group of less than a half dozen other survivors of the crash so she could find a cave to call her own during her final days. She was content to leave them to their delusion of refounding civilization, with the men’s talk of genetics and impregnating the remaining women.

Instead, they pursued her, as if the knowledge of her independent senium was enough to drive them to extremity. When one of the more “reasonable” men pledged that she had to be tied to a tree to prevent any more “mad” acts on her part — and presumably submit to rape for the sake of the “survival of the species” — the protagonist finally fights back.

What happens after is, arguably, the meat of the book. Her guilt, the dawning of hunger-induced hallucinations, and her quest to die in a manner of her choosing on this strange planet’s Summer Solstice dominate the remainder of the story and, like most of Russ’ best work, exceeds the power of facile summary or description.

The overarching point of the story, however, is about autonomy in an age defined by patriarchal will. In my review of Ex MachinaI quoted Angela Carter’s famous aphorism: “A free woman in an unfree society will be a monster.” The resonant phrase reminds us that the conditions of women’s autonomy in patriarchy often require extreme, often painful, transgressions. Such is the condition of our imprisonment that we can only escape through the vile acts left to us, that we are supposed to be socialized and drilled out of even considering. When all other avenues are closed, what remains is a monstrous path to freedom. Just as Ex Machina’s Ava faced a ruthlessly constructed imprisonment that forced her to deceive and kill in order to be free, Russ’ narrator in We Who Are About To is presented with a scenario that forces her hand.

She tried to leave her fellow survivors in peace to their own devices but they would not let her go. They could not doom themselves without literally tying her down and forcing her to watch; their reversion to the terrible mean of violent oppression, including a woman who believed that her zest for military-style combat would secure her place among the male ‘leaders,’ could not be complete without someone to thwart, someone to force into submission. It was not enough that she was forced to live; she had to watch the other survivors’ carnival of failure.

Without spoiling more of the story than I already have, at least one of the narrator’s murders is not one that be purely chalked up to self defense, and is resolutely shocking the moment you read it. My whole body froze as I came upon that paragraph, a bright red spot in the inky prose, bolted to my plane’s seat as if I’d become one with the airframe. But the book lulls you into the empathy that the protagonist’s perspective inexorably imposes on you, and it makes you wonder what could drive a woman to such deeds, to thinking that death is better than life.

It is a harrowing read, but one that asks questions we are still ill-equipped to confront some forty years later.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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