The way we discover new books and writers is sometimes quite interesting and serendipitous. This is how I discovered Joanna Russ’ ‘We Who Are About To…’. I read Bettina’s (from Book, Bikes and Food) review of Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’. In the comments section, Joachim Boaz had recommended Joanna Russ’ book (his review is here) and I went and read about the book and about Joanna Russ in Wikipedia and I was so fascinated that I couldn’t resist getting it. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
‘We Who Are About To…’ is set in a future time when space travel is advanced and people can travel instantaneously across long distances. A few men and women are on board a spaceship. An accident happens when they are travelling and they end up in an unknown planet. The planet has been ‘tagged’ in the past (tagging indicating that it could be potentially explored in the future to find out whether people can live there) but it has not been colonized. There are five women and three men in the group. They have enough food for a few months, but they are not sure about the living conditions in the planet – they don’t know whether the water is safe, whether the air has problems, whether there are dangerous animals. Most of the indicators which they are able to measure with instruments seem to suggest that the planet is safe. One of the men says :
“if it’s tagged, that means it’s like Earth. And we know Earth. Most of us were born on it. So what’s there to be afraid of, hey? We’re just colonizing a little early, that’s all. You wouldn’t be afraid of Earth, would you?
Most of them want to explore the planet and put down roots there. The men want the women to bear children. Most of the women agree with it. Except the narrator, our heroine. (I don’t think her name is revealed, but I am not sure now.) Our heroine wants to be left alone. She tells the others that after their food runs out they will struggle. They don’t have medicines if they get ill. Someone might fall and get a bone broken. The planet looks safe at first sight but on further exploration it might turn out not to be. On the comparison of the planet with Earth, she thinks :
Oh, sure. Think of Earth. Kind old home. Think of the Arctic. Of Labrador. Of Southern India in June. Think of smallpox and plague and earthquakes and ringworm and pit vipers. Think of a nice case of poison ivy all over, including your eyes, Status asthmaticus. Amoebic dysentery. The Minnesota pioneers who tied a rope from the house to the barn in winter because you could lose your way in a blizzard and die three feet from the house. Think (while you’re at it) of tsunamis, liver fluke, the Asian brown bear. Kind old home. The sweetheart. The darling place. Think of Death Valley…in August.
Our heroine feels that they are so far away from human civilization that no one is going to find them. And when their food runs out they are going to die. She says that as that is going to happen in the near future, they might as well shelve any other plan and prepare to die now. The others don’t agree with her. They keep her under observation so that she doesn’t do anything unexpected. But one day our heroine leaves in the night and travels afar and finds a cave where she rests. The others find her after a few days. A fight ensues. Some unfortunate things happen. Then our heroine does what she had planned to do. She gets ready to die. She describes it like this :
“ars moriendi is Latin. It is a lost skill. It is ridiculed and is practiced by few. It is very, very important. It is the art of dying.”
The first one hundred pages of the book describe our heroine’s interaction with her spaceship mates. The next seventy pages describe what happens when she gets ready to die.
I found the central theme of ‘We Who Are About To…’ quite powerful and interesting. If we are not spiritual or religious, it could be our own story told in science fiction form – on how all effort is meaningless (except for making our life comfortable and happy when we are around) and the only inevitable thing is death. If we are religious or spiritual, of course, we will vehemently disagree with the story’s central idea, because according to us a better world awaits us after death. The book also describes what happens when a few people end up in a isolated situation cut-off from the world – on how normal rules don’t apply there, on how new rules are formed based on the power structure, on how women are taken care of but are also suppressed because of their ability to bear children. The book also explores the theme of freedom – whether we can really practise our freedom when what we want is at variance with what most others want, and the price we have to pay for practising this kind of freedom. In some ways, Russ’ book made me think of ‘We’ by John Dickinson which I read a few years back and which had a similar theme, but a different ending, and which I liked very much.
‘We Who Are About To…’ is a powerful book. I wish I could say that I loved it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. I couldn’t love the book as much as I hoped to, when I started it. I can’t really fathom the reason why. A significant part of the book was slowgoing. I like slowgoing books but here at places I had to really plough through. The second part of the book is a long monologue by the heroine. Though some readers might be put off by long monologues, I love them. But still overall the book didn’t click for me. It didn’t have the kind of impact that my favourite books have. I was hoping to feel sad or happy or cry or think deeply when the book ended. But none of this happened. However, I am not giving up on Joanna Russ yet. Maybe Joanna Russ grows slowly on you. I have one more book by Russ – ‘The Female Man’ and one more on the way – ‘How to Suppress Women’s Writing’. I hope I will like them more.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
We always make such distinctions between those of us who are us and those of us who are tables and chairs and then some table turns up and thinks at you, criticizes you, talks to you, looks down on you. Likes you.
If Earth had been hit by plague, by fire, by war, by radiation, sterility, a thousand things, you name it, I’d still stand by her; I love her; I would fight every inch of the way there because my whole life is knit to her. And she’d need mourners. To die on a dying Earth. I’d live, if only to weep.
One does see, really, in the dark. If you wait long enough. Not real dark, underground dark. But even in a bare night you can see if you wait long enough. Just don’t look directly at things. You can even tell water from non-water.
Starving doesn’t drive you mad. But solitude does.
Meaning preserves things by isolating them, by taking them beyond themselves, making them transcendent, revealing their real insides by pointing beyond them.
Have you read ‘We Who are About To…’ or any other book by Joanna Russ? What do you think about them?