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We Who Are About To… by Joanna Russ

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One woman’s quest to die with dignity may doom them all.

A multi-dimensional explosion hurls the starship’s few passengers across the galaxies and onto a barren, uncharted planet. With no technical skills and scant supplies, the survivors face a bleak end in an alien world. One brave woman holds the daring answer, but it is the most desperate one possible. Originally published in 1977, this is one of the most subtle, complex and exciting science fiction novels ever written about the attempt to survive a potentially lethal alien landscape.
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After Kameron Hurley recommended this as a book to read after reading God’s War and Ancillary Justice, both of which I adored, and after a discussion of Russ’ writing (I’ve only read The Female Man, which I found interesting, if angry to the point of hard to read), I decided to take this as my next book. I’m not sure, in retrospect, how I feel about that…

We Who Are About To…, as a title, intentionally recalls the famous, possibly apocryphal, Roman gladiatorial cry “morituri te salutant“; and indeed, according to our (unreliable) narrator (who, we discover, may be called Elaine), it is also the fate of the crew of the ship. Elaine is a Quaker – although not quite a Quaker as we would understand it; and she also affects to be a Stoic, although actually acting on Stoic principles seems rather beyond her, instead of simply espousing them. Since the narration is all from her point of view, the other characters are at best moderately rounded; Lori comes closest, with her childishness mixed with a sort of naïve sincerity and dirctness, although the less we see her directly (rather than solely through “Elaine”‘s eyes) the less rounded even she becomes.

The plot can be divided roughly into two halves; the section where “Elaine” is not alone on the unknown planet, and the section where she is. The first section focuses on our narrator’s apparently-fatalistic resistance to the inevitably futile attempts of the rest of the survivors of the disaster that has stranded their ship on this isolated, unknown planet to construct a civilisation despite lacking the necessary tools, knowledge or even numbers to do so. This section also includes the deaths of the rest of the survivors, leading into the second half, which is her solitary isolation and slow starvation and descent into madness. The first half is rather better handled; the narrator’s fatalism is played off excellently against the optimism of the rest of the survivors, and this leads to interesting conflicts and discussions. The second half, however, combines a (likely unreliable) chunk of the narrator’s biography with her slow death by starvation; that she seems to have abandoned her principle – that it is better to go peacefully and quickly, rather than pointlessly draw out death – and her hallucinations undercut her strength from the first half and throw it in a new, different light, but the writing is so chaotic, even from the word go, that it really loses a lot of its force and effetiveness.

In the end this slim volume is half an excellent book, but We Who Are About To… is let down by its concluding half, which whilst having excellent content on one level, really fails to connect.


1 Comment

  1. […] That’s not even what’s wrong. ~~~~~ Genevieve Valentine’s Capclave 2014 offering, Dream Houses is a limited-run printed volume; despite a whimsical-seeming cover and title, the tagline for the novella gives a clearer impression of the kind of story it is: a sort of isolation in space, disaster tale in the tradition of Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To…. […]

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