The Country You Have Never Seen
Essays and Reviews
Edited by David Seed
Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007
305 pages, £20 [paperback], ISBN 978-0-85323-859-1
Reviewed by Frédérique Spill
Université de Picardie Jules Verne (Amiens)
Joanna Russ (born February 22, 1937) is best known for her novel entitled The Female Man (1975), whose programmatic title can be interpreted as follows: Joanna, one of the novel’s four main female characters, considers that she must abandon her identity as a woman in order to be respected, stating that “there is one and only one way to possess that in which we are defective… Become it” [The Female Man, 139]. The challenging tone of Russ’s work, whether fiction or nonfiction, is thus set. Russ, who is openly lesbian, is one of the most outspoken authors challenging male dominance of science fiction and, one might add, male dominance in general.
Besides being an academic, Russ is the author of a number of works of science fiction, fantasy and feminist literary criticism. She came to be noticed in the science fiction world in the late 1960s, in particular for her award-nominated novel Picnic on Paradise (1968). She is generally regarded as one of the leading feminist science fiction scholars and writers. For nearly fifteen years, she was an influential review columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Many of her contributions are reprinted in this volume.
Published in 2007, The Country You Have Never Seen gathers Russ’s most important essays, reviews and letters. The first 190 pages are devoted to a selection of her reviews of contemporary new releases in science fiction, fantasy and feminist writing. Spanning fifteen years (1966-1981), these reviews, which are reprinted chronologically, deal with a great variety of works by authors including the renowned Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury or the French writers René Barjavel and Robert Merle. James Blish, Robert Silverberg and Kate Wilhelm appear to be three of the authors whose works Russ most frequently reviews in these pages. The works reviewed include science fiction or fantasy novels, collections of short stories and anthologies, as well as translations and essays. The individual entries are generally only a few pages long and they are usually divided up among several books, which are thus more or less explicitly compared. Put together, Russ’s reviews delineate a precise and relevant tableau of fantastic fiction in the US—but not exclusively—in the course of two and a half decades. Judging from the scope and range of her reading, besides being a science fiction writer Russ also proves to be a scholar in that field.
Russ’s most recent fictional work, The Hidden Side of the Moon, a collection covering short stories published from 1952 to 1983, appeared in 1987. Since then only a few collections of essays have been published, including most recently The Country You Have Never Seen. It is consequently tempting to consider the volume as Russ’s swan song. Indeed, Russ, who is now over 70, has given her collected papers to a university for the sake of future researchers and historically-minded science fiction devotees.
Visiting The Country You Have Never Seen is a challenging experience, even for readers who might not be particularly familiar with the fields of science fiction and fantasy. It soon appears that it is actually not necessary to have read (or simply heard of) the book that is reviewed in order to appreciate the review itself. Russ’s tone alone, which is unburdened by the usual politeness and the expected niceness, is very pleasurable. The freedom she enjoys when commenting on the works of her contemporaries is indeed rather exceptional. For instance, as early as the opening pages, when reviewing Strange Signposts, an anthology of the fantastic published in 1966, she writes: “This is one of that damned flood of anthologies that do nothing but cheapen the market, exasperate reviewers and disappoint all but the most unsophisticated readers” . Writers, editors and readers are all likely to be prey to Russ’s sarcasm. Along the same line, on July 1970, reviewing I Sing the Body Electric (1969), here is what she writes about Ray Bradbury:
[He] does everything wrong. […] To him old people are merely children, in fact everybody is a child; he prefers imaginative magic to science (which he does not understand); his morality is purely conventional (when it exists at all); his sentiment slops over into sentimentality; he repeats himself inexcusably; he makes art and public figures into idols; and there is no writer I despise more when I measure my mind against his, as George Bernard Shaw once said of Shakespeare .
The severity of the judgement Russ thus passes on the acclaimed author of The Martian Chronicles (1950) and Fahrenheit 451 (1953) confirms that she is not likely to be intimidated, not even by living icons. Another example of Russ’s biting tone and scathing humour can be found in her three-sentence-long review of Omar; A fantasy for animal lovers (1968) by Wilfrid Blunt, which she self-disparagingly presents as follows: “It is pleasant, charming and slight. It is a fantasy in the old-fashioned sense (say, talking badgers) and if your sugar tolerance is low, stay away. I liked it” . Such remarks further highlight the extreme subjectivity of Russ’s criticism as well as her readiness to dispense friendly advice to her readers.
Some of Russ’s reviews are related to her second main concern, that is to say feminist writing: in May 1979 Russ reviewed Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978, which she regards as “one woman’s journey past obligatory ‘humanism’ […] to the position of a woman who does not give a damn about such voices because she is talking to women” . She praises Rich’s inimitability while regretting the collection’s unevenness and absence of charm. In July of the same year, she reviewed Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland: A Lost Feminist Utopian Novel, first published in a serialized form in 1915. She both relishes the novel’s “primitive delight of wish-fulfilment, i. e. escorting American men all over Herland […] and hearing them say, ‘Yes, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. Feminism is the hope of the world’”  and regrets Gilman’s notorious racism, “the white solipsism which makes Herland ‘Aryan’” . In most cases, straightforward Russ is also capable of showing a great deal of nuance.
The second part of The Country You Have Never Seen is devoted to Russ’s most famous essays, among which her well-known “Daydream Literature and Science Fiction”, which first appeared in Extrapolation in December 1969. In this essay, Russ somehow invents a new genre—daydream literature—which she opposes to “real dreams”, which “are witty, poetic, poignant, forceful, sometimes painfully vivid, often extremely clear, and […] cover the whole range of human feeling. Just like art” .
All in all Russ defines daydream literature as being based on a voluntary “lack of visualization” and as being essentially anti-dramatic, as suggested by the following quote: “To be brief, nothing develops from anything; nothing generates anything; the stories are entirely episodic, with consistent and apparently deliberate avoidance of emphasis, complexity, or change. The principle of structure is repetition” . She contends that several narratives by Edgar Allan Poe (she evokes the short story entitled “The Assignation” as well as Poe’s only novel The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym) can be considered as early examples of that genre. She finally concludes her essay by drawing a daring parallel between daydream literature and pornography insofar as
pornography is the attempt to bypass the medium and turn a work of art into vicarious experience—to arouse emotion or appetite directly without the inevitable alloy of reflection given by art and without any of the embarrassments of thoughts or the mixedness of real experience .
In another essay, published in 1970, she analyzes “The Image of Women in Science Fiction”, marvelling that the representation of women in the fourth dimension should be so conformist, let alone retrograde:
In general, the authors who write reasonably sophisticated and literate science fiction […] see the relations between the sexes as those of present day, white, middle-class suburbia. Mummy and Daddy may live inside a huge amoeba and Daddy’s job may be to test psychedelic drugs or cultivate yeast-vats, but the world inside their heads is the world of Westport and Rahway and that world is never questioned [206-207].
Besides, Russ resents the fact that in the early 1970s, science fiction should still fail to be regarded as a “respectable genre” in the United States, whereas it enjoys the status of a respected genre in England. In a 1971 article, Russ focused on “The Wearing Out of Genre Materials” showing how science fiction has moved through a series of phases in the course of which the traditional tropes characterizing the genre are created, re-created and then fall into stylized convention, let alone pastiche.
What very clearly emerges from the sundry pieces gathered in The Country You Have Never Seen is the coherence of Russ's thought and analysis as she moves between the fields of science fiction, feminism, and queer activism. The result is an original, entertaining and accessible collection that is likely to appeal to an extended readership of specialists and amateurs. Indeed, even though her readers may not be particularly knowledgeable in the domains of science fiction and fantasy writing, most of them are likely to appreciate Russ’s critical voice for its boldness and self-confidence. Not only do Russ’s reviews, articles and letters deal with some of the major tenets of literature in a broad sense, they also show a rejuvenating freedom of spirit. Most of them can be seen as revolving around the key idea that "[f]iction's only real subject is the changes that occur in human beings" , as she suggests in her 1979 review of Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul's Bane (1977). Often sarcastic, sometime scathing, Russ never minces her words. Both convincing and uncompromising, she also proves to have an unfailing sense of humor. The unchartered territory whose gates Russ opens for us in this volume is certainly worth visiting.
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