Joanna Russ: Writer and critic who helped transform the science fiction genre
Wednesday 27 July 2011
Joanna Russ was a pioneering feminist, both as a novelist and an academic. Along with Ursula K LeGuin she was at the forefront of a generation of women writers who dragged science fiction away from stories apparently aimed solely at adolescent boys. Female writers of the previous generation, such as Leigh Brackett and CL Moore, had often downplayed their gender with ambiguous bylines, and wrote stories every bit as action-filled as the men. But in the late-1960s sci-fi was redefining itself as the broader "speculative fiction", with stories that confronted mature situations, including sex.
Russ's 1975 novel The Female Man remains a centrepiece of feministfiction. It tells the stories of fourgenetically identical women, in effect four Joanna Russes, in alternate worlds, which contrast her society with others more utopian or dystopian. It is a sometimes difficultmixture of postmodern storytelling and a sharp satire of the time it was written in, and reflects Russ's own background and influences.
Joanna Ruth Russ was born in 1937 in New York City, where her parents were both teachers. In high school in the Bronx she was a star science student, but she took her degree in English from Cornell University in 1957, having studied under Vladimir Nabokov, in a programme that produced, among others, Thomas Pynchon and Richard Farina. While working on a Master of Fine Arts degree in theatre writing at Yale Drama School she sold her first story, "Nor Custom Stale", to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction.
Her first two novels were published in Terry Carr's influential AceSpecials series. Picnic on Paradise (1968) continued the adventures ofa time-travelling character named Alyx, whom Russ had introducedin short stories, who in this case acts as a guide to a group of tourists on a hostile alien planet. And Chaos Died (1970), chillingly dystopian, is in some ways her most ambitious work; its style was compared by the writer and critic Samuel R Delany to such postmodern masters as Nabokov and Djuna Barnes.
Russ's 1972 short story "When It Changed" won a Nebula Award from the Science-Fiction Writers of America. The story was an extract from The Female Man, which Russ had begun in 1969, around the time she came out as a lesbian, and finished a year later. It was finally published in 1975, by Bantam, under the imprint of the key editor Frederik Pohl.
Russ's next novel, We Who Are About To (1977), was a sci-fi version of Lord of the Flies, but into this dystopia Russ inserted parallel groups of men and women marooned on an isolated planet and pitted against one another. Her next novel, The Two of Them (1978), again contrasts the plight of a woman held in purdah on an Islamic-like planet with the feeling of a woman trapped on earth. The same year she published a children's fantasy, Kittatinny. Her last novel, On Strike Against God (1980), was not science fiction, but a lesbian love story.
Russ would continue to write short stories, with "Souls" winning a1983 Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction convention. Four collections of her stories have been published, and, with their tighter control of plot, they are in some ways her most accessible work.
Russ's long-term reputation may be even stronger as a critic than a novelist. She began her academic career at Queensborough Community College in New York in the mid-1960s, returning to Cornell, and eventually moving to the University of Washington, where she taught for nearly 20 years.
She was also an active and acerbic critic, and contributed reviews to the mainstream, science-fiction and feminist press. Her criticism blends academic rigour with an understanding of genre and how it entertains. How To Suppress Women's Writing (1983) remains a landmark of feminist criticism, which she followed up with the entertaining essays in Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts (1985), which included one of the first examinations of "slash", in which fans rewrite familiar stories, making the main characters gay.
The title essay of How To Write Like A Woman (1995) made a strong case for Willa Cather's lesbianism, arguing that she wrote, in effect, as a woman in masquerade, much like the women sci-fi writers who preceded Russ. Other collections were What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future Of Feminism (1998); and The Country You Have Never Seen (2008) which collected reviews and letters alongside unpublished essays. There have been two major studies of her work, the second, On Joanna Russ, published in 2009.
Plagued by back pain and chronic fatigue syndrome, Russ retired from Washington in 1994, and settled in Tuscon, Arizona. She died after suffering a series of strokes.
Joanna Ruth Russ, writer: born New York 22 February 1937; died Tucson, Arizona 29 April 2011.
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