Sunday, 15 May 2011

Joanna Russ: renewing utopia

I’m saddened to learn, through obituaries in the national newspapers, of the death of Joanna Russ on April 29 at the age of 74. We have had some eloquent testimonies of how her great science-fictional utopia The Female Man changed its readers’ lives when it was first published in 1975. I didn’t encounter it myself till much later, but certainly found it an electrifying book, though for reasons less connected with its gender politics than those earlier readers.

It is a splendidly disorientating work, formally speaking. With its complex time strands and its sly fictional self-consciousness, it may be the first utopia to have fully taken on board the great formal upheavals of the modernist movement of the early twentieth century. No ‘Old Man Who Knows Everything’ (to borrow H.G. Wells’s term) placidly explaining the system here; instead, the actual outlines of the utopian society only emerge in fragmented form across the book as a whole.

The all-female utopian world of Whileaway (all the men died in a plague, conveniently) owes something to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist vision in Herland (1915). But what is most striking to me about Russ’s utopian vision in The Female Man is rather that which links it so closely to Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). For in both books we have, not the traditional visitor from the bad society going forward in time to the new utopia (as William Guest travels forwards to Morris’s Nowhere), but rather a utopian – Janet Evason for Russ, Luciente for Piercy – travelling back in time or probability to the bad old world, our world – as if Morris’s Dick Hammond or Ellen had time-travelled back to 1890. This is a powerful new convention for utopia, which I’m still not sure we fully understand. It seems to suggest how precarious utopia is; for if these visitors from the far future don’t mange to rouse us in the present to fight actively for a better world, they will never come into being in the first place.

Classical utopias can alas be – let us admit it among friends – boring, both in social content and manner of telling; and that is the one thing that could never be said of Joanna Russ’s wonderfully unsettling book. So I salute a bold literary pioneer who made utopia possible again for the late twentieth century.

1 comment:

Tony Pinkney said...

For more cheerful posts on contemporary utopian writers, see my 'Happy Birthday, Ursula Le Guin', 21 October 2009, and 'William Morris on the Red Planet' (on Kim Stanley Robinson), 4 March 2011.