Reflection: We Who Are About To… by Joanna Russ

TW: mention of socially mandated reproduction/rape.

I was wandering thorugh The Book Grocer when I came across this volume. Having loved The Female Man, And Chaos Died, and How To Supress Women’s Writing, I was delighted to come across the novella, We Who Are About To…. I was fresh from the Ethics/Utopias/Dystopias conference (I think that event might shape a bit of my reading this year) and I’m always here for a bright, kitsch cover.

Russ doesn’t disappoint. Like many SF writers of the 1970s her concerns are less with the technological and more with the psychological: how might humans respond to extreme circumstances? She invites readers to consider the fraught social networks that exist in an interstellar desert island scenario, and asks readers to consider the difference between living and survival. A group of travellers are lost in the far reaches of the galaxy on a planet that is not immediately inhospitable to human life. The tension arises between the stranded people: as Satre wrote in No Exit, “L’enfer, c’est les autres”. This line is commonly mistranslated as “Hell is other people”, however it is more truthfully understood as “Hell, it is the Other.” That is, hell is that which is outside of subjectivity. This is where I am going to start to get philosophical, so strap yourself in, get a bottle of wine and a beret, we are about to get continenally existential.*

So, hi. For those of you who are not aware, the study of being (ontology) is kinda my jam. I am here for all of your hot-takes on 42. My specific focus is on subjectivity and otherness. This can be best understood as the ways in which our identities are constructed in relation to the exercise of power within our social, political, legal, and economic contexts.**  So the idea that “Hell, it is the Other” opens a huge discussion in relation to how the subject is imagined in a world that is outside of law. The travellers find themselves on a planet that shows no sign of habitation by anything other than plants. As their only experience of sentient life, they can reimagine the frameworks that construct their subjectivities. However, aside from the narrator, the group is largely insistant on perpetuating the heirarchies of power that they have experienced on earth. This is slowly challenged by, as Russ writes, the realisation that they are “far, far from any law” (13). While the rest of the group uncritically discusses the “colonisation” of this seemingly uninhabited planet in the name of ‘survival’ , takes a more nihilistic approach, preferring to focus on the art of dying (ars moriendi). She sees no benefit in trying to perpetuate “the survival of the species” on this planet, arguing that without the trappings of culture any community they could create would be socially devolved. She observes that it takes all of two days for the men to divest the more experienced women of their assumed leadership positions on the basis of physical prowess. As this realisation becomes clear, hat physical strength provides the new social order, I was reminded of Alderman’s line in The Power that “the power to hurt is a kind of wealth”: the trappings of proto-capitalism and manifested with an economy that privileges brutishness over cunning. Survival is thought of only in terms of biological replication, rather than in terms of social or cultural development. When the rest of the group determine that the group members must all contribute to “colonisation” through a breeding program (see: socially mandated rape) the narrator decides to leave the proto-community. The ensuing events (which I won’t go into in case you want to read it) lead to a series of questions about power, social webs, and subjectivity as a process of relationality.

We Who Are About To… first appeared in magazine form in 1976, and more than 40 years later the themes are as pertinant as they ever were. I was particularly struck by reflections on gender and power (particularly in relation to biology), capital and power, and colonisation. Russ appears to be toying with reader, offering a critique of utopia as the “no”-place: when law/culture is absented, what does it mean to be human? The story acts as a lens through which the reader can explore late capitalism, (particularly the focus on labour and productivity in the service of the market/capital at the expense of cultural practices that do not turn a fiscal profit) and what it means to be human. Similarly it asks readers who would rail against the limitations on the subject (that is, the self in relation to power structures) imposed by regulatory discourses such as law, medicine, economics and religion, to consider how subjectivity might be experienced if the discourses that articulate it are silenced. There’s no easy response to either of these questions, but the fact that this novella still resonates with urgency fourth years after its publication suggests that it is an overlooked classic.

*Fun Fact: “Continentally Existential” is my favourite euphemisim for drunk. Like, maggoted drunk.

** Fun Fact also: Science is socially constructed, bitxhezzzz. Come at me.

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