the Little Red Reviewer

We Who Are About To . . . by Joanna Russ

Posted on: July 25, 2016

joanna russWe Who Are About To . . .  by Joanna Russ

published 1975

where I got it: purchased used

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You read the book, or saw the movie of Andy Weir’s The Martian, right?  It’s a story about hope, about survival, about sciencing the shit out of every resource at your disposal. Because when it comes down to it, Mark Watney really doesn’t want to die.

 

And a lot of “stranded on a deserted island” (ok, deserted planet) stories are like that.  Our instinct is to survive.  To make shelter, to find water, to figure out what to eat, to try to get rescued.

 

But what if you were stranded somewhere, and you were pretty sure you weren’t going to get rescued? What if you had no resources? What if there weren’t any experts among the survivors? What if surviving was a pipe dream?

 

In Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To,  an escape pod full of  survivors lands on an uncolonized planet. Off the beaten path, nowhere near a beacon, and with little to no resources, can they survive? None amongst them is a scientist, biologist, doctor, or specialist in anything, really. They’ve got  a few weeks of food and a water recycler. They don’t even know where they are.

 

Some of the more ambitious in the group decide their small group  might as well start colonizing the planet. After all, this place is going to be mapped anyways, eventually, right? And to start a colony, they need more people. Which means they need to start having babies, and all the adult women in the group should be willing to be impregnated by the men. This particular scene was so blunt that I laughed out loud.  Most of the novel is this blunt.

(warning: SPOILERS ahead)

The narrative is the secret voice recording of the main character (whose name is only mentioned once or twice, and tbh I don’t remember what her name is), and when she doesn’t agree with someone, or thinks their idea is stupid, trust me, she lets you know.  She doesn’t mince words. And she most certainly has zero interest in getting pregnant. No one is interested in listening to her when she mentioned that they have no antibiotics, that none of them know how to deliver a baby, that they don’t know what plants on this planet they can digest and what will poison them, that colonizing this world with the resources they have is probably the stupidest thing anyone could ever possibly do. I loved the narrative voice in this novel. This is a woman I probably wouldn’t be friends with in real life, but damn did I love the way she talked about what was happening around her.

 

Everything about this book is disconcerting. The bluntness of the situation, how people psychologically react to what’s going on,  how the main character soothes the man who is dying of a heart attack, what she uses for “bargaining chips”.

 

I make it sound totally bleak, but it really wasn’t, it was actually a super compelling and exciting story to read.   The book I was most reminded while reading was my favorite Vonnegut title, Cat’s Cradle.  

 

The protagonist, she wants her life to happen on her terms.  She wants to live on her own terms, she wants to die on her own terms.  Because We Who Are About To came out in 1975, I don’t mind spoiling some of the shocking scenes for you.  As people challenge her, as people tell her what she “need to do” to ensure the survival of their group, as people get in her way,  she kills them.  The scene where she walks up to the preteen girl, and shoots her in the head, was shocking for me. I just didn’t expect it!  I was like “Are you kidding! You did not just kill that girl!!”  but, she did.   The last third of the book, is the protagonist waiting either for rescue, or to die, and she’s pretty sure she’s not getting rescued. She voice records everything she feels like talking about, in hopes that even if she doesn’t survive, the voice recording will survive. And this planet is going to get mapped eventually anyways, so someone will at least, one day find her recording of what happened, right?      Part of me wonders if she’s an unreliable narrator.

 

I don’t know much about Joanna Russ except her books have proven very difficult to find, and that everyone says you have to read them.  Am I happy I read We Who Are About To? Very much so, I’d read it again in a heartbeat. Do I recommend it? Absolutely. It somehow manages to be dark and horrific while at the same time being optimistic.  Did I get out of it what I was supposed to get out of it? Probably not. I’m reading it in 2016, in a completely different context that the world it was written in.

 

On a funny closing note – what is up with that cover art?  Nowhere in this book does a red eyed zombie in a marching band uniform go flying through space on a jetski.  But wow, I think this other cover art might be even worse.  Is there a anti-grav scooter thing in the book? Yes.  Metal bikinis? Not so much.

 

worse cover art

9 Responses to "We Who Are About To . . . by Joanna Russ"

I remember reading this back in the ’80s – yes, with the metal bikini cover. A great narrative voice that makes you complicit even in the narrator’s more dubious activities. “The Female Man”, as I recall, was even better.

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This is TBR – I have read The Female Man, will get to this one

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My favorite of Russ’ novels. I find it superior to The Female Man, and, the critique of the basic pulp premise of survival when survival might actually be horrible for descendants, extremely powerful…

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Though it’s “old”, I think you should insert a spoiler warning on a separate line, in bold, before you reveal things like that shooting. Just saying’.

I have read something by Russ, but don’t remember what, or if I liked it or anything about it. Must not have made much of an impression, or else it’s so long ago my old memory just let go of it at some point.

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I laughed through this whole book. That may not have been her point, but it rolled better as a dark comedy than a scathing indictment of the patriarchy, or whatever. The people were certainly stupid enough for that take, and Russ was no dummy. She knew that the morons were morons.

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I laughed as well — especially that hilarious comment about minimalistic music… (although, Russ accidentally calls it serial music which isn’t exactly what she describes).

“Then [Lori, 12] added, without the slightest transition, ‘I like serial music. You know, the late twentieth-century stuff where it goes deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle for half an hour and then it goes doodle just once, and you could die with excitement’” (52)

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As a huge fan of minimalism, I remember getting a kick out of that as well….

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As am I! (although Glass does frustrate… hah)

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I think reading this book today is a very different experience from reading it 40 years ago when social expectations for women were still quite restrictive. Today we’re accustomed to female narrators who know their own minds and can appear selfish, even murderous, but in 1975 it was a shock to have a female character who didn’t dissemble even to herself. Russ is a fantastic writer and she certainly upended expectations with this one.

By the way, I would second the suggestion to insert a spoiler alert in the appropriate place of your review. Yes, this is an old book, but it’s not an enormously well-known one and readers should get to have that “oh no!” moment as they read.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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