10 March 2011

Joanna Russ, The Female Man, 1975

Some may have been thinking this inclusion on the SF Masterworks list is well overdue, and they’re probably right. Russ plays a part in her own novel (her most famous) about alternates of herself that may exist out there in the multiverse, with the broad differences between them being defined along the lines of their degrees of emancipation. By including herself in her novel even though she largely takes a back seat, this seemed to be the most honest way Russ could explore the subject of women’s unequal role in society by comparing four possible universes, one of which is her own. The most prominent is of course the Joanna Russ that is Janet Evason, inhabitant of a far future Earth renamed Whileaway in which men died out in a selective plague 800 years previously; then there’s the Russ that is Jeannine Dadier from an alternate present in which WW2 never happened and American women are universally the stay-at-home types, and the fourth Russ is Jael Reasoner, combatant in a protracted and violent future war against men, who brought the four of them together for purposes she will eventually reveal. Russ does not fire off her flaming arrows at only the men, as her female characters often come in for an equally tough critique. She wrote the story scattergun-fashion with the four different points of view interchanging frequently and denying the reader any chance of experiencing a straightforward narrative, however the novel still hangs together nicely and the unusual composition is a major part of the book’s originality.

On publication The Female Man may have been a wake-up call for the men at the time who were prepared to take it on, as it is undeniably didactic. As a sequel to her Nebula Award-winning short story ‘When It Changed’, it’s probably fair to say Russ’s prickly and often very humourous rants are a little less reflective, directly, of the experience of Western women today. However much things have improved and however much the battleground may have shifted, the objective hasn’t: the glass ceiling is still there and the ongoing battles for equality of opportunity in the West are still no less important than those that went before. The Female Man can still put fire in the belly of feminists everywhere, including myself, and while it’s probably a layer or two beneath the current strata of feminist experience and thinking (that evolution could certainly be commented on better by others, not myself) it was certainly pivotal to some of the feminist literature that came after. However much this was a product of its day, its age is beginning to show a little and that’s actually something to celebrate, as its impassioned and very likeable ending itself makes clear. Certainly a masterwork, and still an invigorating book which I’m glad to have finally read.  PY


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