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We Who Are About to [Hardcover]

Joanna Russ


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Book Description

January 1977 0839824955 978-0839824954
A multi-dimensional explosion hurls the starship’s few passengers across the galaxies and onto an uncharted barren tundra. 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.

Elegant and electric, We Who Are About To... brings us face to face with our basic assumptions about our will to live. While most of the stranded tourists decide to defy the odds and insist on colonizing the planet and creating life, the narrator decides to practice the art of dying. When she is threatened with compulsory reproduction, she defends herself with lethal force. 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 hostile alien environment. It is characteristic of Russ’s genius that such a readable novel is also one of her most intellectually intricate.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Review

“This is an important science fiction novel.” —The New York Times Book Review

“One of the pioneers and luminaries of women’s science fiction!”—MS. Magazine

“If this were a film it could be one of Peckinpah’s, violent, self-indulgent, obsessively contemptuous of humanity, nihilistic and fascinating.”—Publisher’s Weekly

"Wesleyan University Press, fortunately, has seen fit to reissue [We Who Are About To...] in a handsome trade-paperback edition. ...This is an important book. Read it afresh and let it speak to you.” —New York Review of Science Fiction --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Review

“Perhaps the most subtle, complex, and exciting science fiction novel ever written about the attempt to survive a hostile alien environment. It is characteristic of Russ’s genius that her most sheerly readable novel is also one of her most intellectually intricate.” (Carl Freedman, author of Critical Theory and Science Fiction) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For those who believe in survival of none Feb. 25 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I was young when I first read "We who are about to..." Too young, really, to grasp the full concept of life and death, the two main currents that lie within the book.
A cruise vessel of the future manages to miss the point in space that it was attempting to fold to, spinning amazingly far off course and crashing into a planet that is in no way guaranteed not to kill the survivors. A politician, an upper class family, a "jock", a young sex object, a washed up waitress, a supposed tactical expert, and a musician (our heroine) all help make an ensemble from Hell. Nothing goes according to protocol, and chaos ensues as the musician experiments liberally with her psychoactive drugs.
While in a science-fiction setting, Ms. Russ manages to maintain a surprising lack of the technological; the underlying concept of the story being Gilligan's Island on Acid. As Social Darwinism takes its course, the value of life itself is called into question.
This is not a book for those who are set in their ideas of God and living; this is for those who remain unsure as to what lies in store for them, and what may be the meaning of life.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reviews lead to a erroneous expectation March 5 2011
By Laura - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I read the reviews, and expected something very different that what I read in this book. I expected a angry, egotistical feminist rant. I expected thoughtless, selfish murder who knocks off everyone else simply because she is twisted and hateful. This book wasn't like that at all.

I will say, though, that the way it was written, especially in the begining, was really frustrating. The main character is making a recording of happenings, and the book is written like those recordings. The punctuation was wierd, with periods in the middle of sentences sometimes, and the whole mess was very choppy. There were side comments or sarcastic remarks in parenthesis. It got better later on, but at the start of the book, really annoying, hard to understand at times, and unnecessary. I subtracted one star for that. I really don't like to read stories that are "told" like diary entires. I want a story, not a dictation.

Spoilers are below . . .

A group of people crash land on a planet, with earth like gravity and air. There are four women, one of which is 13 or so, and three men. The social structure reverts to a male dominated one. The main female point of view, is that of the odd person out. Everyone is all geared up for survival and colonization. None of them have survival skills, the only real tool they have is a water purifyer, they have only a very basic, and minimal med kit, with a few antibiotics and such, and they have no way of testing food or water for poisons.

There is one woman who is smart and has the best survival instincts. She takes charge of finding water, after a pair of men say they are going to and then don't. Upon her return, she chastizes one of the said men for waisting bath water on the ground when it could have been recycled. He physically attackes her and beats her up. He orders her to treat him with more respect. The woman allows this man to take charge, and she actually support him after that, they kind of tag team the leadership, but she pretty much goes along with what he wants. When he elects himself chairman of their group, everyone but our female protagonist supports him.

The female protagonist doesn't think that wasting energy and time on survival and colonization is worthwhile. She gives a big speech in the begining regarding all the things that can kill them, child birth, food poisoning, ect . . . which pretty much ostrisizes her from the rest of the group. No one wants to hear it and shun her. Her posessions are forciably convescated. The group, meaning the men, and one woman that I could see, decide to build shelter and start having babies. The men decide who will have sex with who, in what order, without input from the women. Our protagonist wants no part of it. They argue they have to continue civilization, and she says, quite rightly, that civilization is doing just fine somewhere else. She says she won't do it, they tell her she has to, she tries to leave, they physically prevent her. Now, remember, the chairmen has already physically attacked one of the women for asserting her authority over him. Our protagonist is a petite woman much smaller than the others. She lies, she pretends to go alone, she hides part of her possessions (those not stolen by the group) and steals other supplied. She runs away, but the group follows, attacks her. Along the way, she lets one man dies, kills three in self defense, is forced at gun point to give over medication so another can commit suicide. She does out right murder the last, the 13 year old, and by that point, I finally saw definate madness. But, though I won't argue that she was predisposed to madness, I feel she was clearly driven to it by the situation and the rest of the group.

Afterwards, we have a complete descent into madness. There is starvation, and hallucinations. She goes through guilt, self doubt, self justification, self dillusions and self hatred. She doesn't try to eat any of the indiginous plant life and she doesn't go back to the original camp to get more food. She goes through many thoughts that would plague any woman. Woman are raised to be self deprecating, serving, accomidating and dedicated to the well being of others. There is this whole struggle in her hallucinations of conflict between these sterotypical female traits, and the preservation of the group, and the preservation of herself, both body and mind.

What I got from this book, was the sttuggle between supporting the whole however the whole decides it should be supported with no consideration to individuals right to choose, and the actualization and preservation of self. What would I do in a similar situation? When my personal liberties are violated and my right to choose for myself is forciably denied? What legnths would I go to? At the begining of the book, I would have said - not murder - without question - not that. But, if I was under threat of personal violence, rape and forced pregnancy? In a inhospitable world with little to no chance of survival let alone rescue? I wouldn't want to have children in that environment, and I shouldn't have to, and I certainly feel I shouldn't be forced to. The human civilization in the book is moving along just fine elsewhere. I found myself sympathizing with the protagonist a great deal. She wasn't a thoughtless, blood thirsty, despicable person. Did she have to cross the line she did? No. Did she have valid reasons for doing so? I feel she did. Would I have done the same? I'm no longer sure I wouldn't. What would a man have done if he were asked to sacrifice his leg so the group could live? Prevented from refusing? Hunted down and dragged back if he runs away? Tied to a tree and forced to in an environment without medical care? He could die from blood loss or infection. Anyone think this isn't the same thing at all? I read an article that 25% of birthings were fatal to the mothers before modern medicine. So, the danger to the mother is obvious. Our protagonist didn't want to perticipate, for many reasons, some of which were the danger to herself, but also the baby and the futility of attempting to start a colony with no skills, no supplies and so few people. When backed into a corner, and threatened, she fought back.

This story brought up very interesting questions of group versus self that many of us don't want to consider. And the thought of a woman willing to abandon the group and kill to protect her individual self is shocking to some. But, it is a damatized expression of what many women have to go through every day, what every person has to go through in some form or another really. The question becomes, where will we each draw the line? Where should is be drawn? Who will try to tell us where to draw it? Does anyone else have the right to redraw it for us or remove it all together? If our line is crossed, what will we do? What should we do?
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is not here for your enjoyment June 5 2012
By J. Hancox - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
As I review this book, the average rating on Amazon is three stars, despite the fact that nobody has rated it so. This book polarizes; readers either love it or hate it. And that was Russ's intention. She did not write a feel-good book; even those who love the book are not uplifted, entertained, pleased to read it. The book is an assault on your preconceptions, your belief in life, civilization, human decency. It is the long suicide note of a deeply depressed person that the world simply will not leave alone. You are not supposed to like the protagonist; she is not a likable person. You are, however, meant to understand her. And of course there are those who don't; these people tend to decry the book as a boring feminist screed. These are probably the same people who just can't understand what feminists are so angry about - women earn a whole 80 cents for every dollar a man earns!
12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best SF novels I have ever read. June 9 2005
By Patrick Nielsen Hayden - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
John W. Campbell's formula for great science fiction was, famously, "ask the <em>next</em> question." That's exactly what this bracing, challenging, bleak, funny, deeply subversive novel does, elegantly undercutting decades of unexamined science-fiction adventure cliches.

Recommended for anyone who ever wanted to lay into Compulsory Optimism with a meat ax. "The human race is fine. We're just not there."
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Womb Raider July 4 2013
By Kelly Garbato - Published on Amazon.com
Caution: minor spoilers ahead. Also, trigger warning for rape and violence.

The year's 2120 (roughly), and an unlucky group of space travelers find themselves stranded on an barren alien planet devoid of animal life. Hurled there by a multi-dimensional explosion, they have little hope of being rescued, the nature of space travel being what it is: in essence, the folding of spacetime. Do it wrong and you can end up "God knows where, maybe entirely out of [y]our galaxy, which is that dust you see in the sky on clear nights when you're away from cities." (page1)

Though the planet is "tagged" - meaning that, at some time in the distant past, a team of scientists surveyed a square mile of the planet's surface and found nothing in the atmosphere that's immediately lethal to humans - it's far from hospitable; the narrator variously describes it as the Sahara, a tundra, the Mojave desert. They have few supplies - a water filter, enough dried food to last six months, a pharmacopeia of drugs stashed on the narrator's person, and the ship itself - none of which present a solution to their precarious situation, the book's futuristic sci-fi setting notwithstanding. With no way to call for rescue (assuming that rescuers could even reach them during their natural lives!) the survivors are left to their own devices. They are five women and three men.

Most of the group resolves not just to survive, but thrive: almost immediately, they set about colonizing the planet. Within days this new society devolves into an Upper Paleolithic patriarchy, the women of which are reduced to little more than baby makers, walking wombs. With the middle-aged Mrs. Graham luckily excused from service, and her daughter Lori a few years too young to bear children, that leaves three women: Nathalie, a young adult who was on her way to begin military training when the ship crashed; Cassie, a thirty-something ex-waitress; and the narrator, a 42-year-old musicologist with medical issues. Whereas Nathalie and Cassie somewhat reluctantly agree to "do their duty," the narrator (cynically but realistically) scoffs at their plans. In an especially amusing exchange, one of the men insists that it's their responsibility to rebuild civilization. "But civilization still exists," the narrator points out. "We just aren't a part of it anymore." (I paraphrase, but you get the gist.) Humans, always the center of their own little worlds!

Naturally, the narrator's fatalistic observations do not go over well.

Despite the obvious difficulties of starting over with nothing, the women are initially disallowed from doing manual labor (though this policy changes rather quickly), and just four days in the seemingly affable Alan savagely beats Nathalie for "disrespecting" him. (I guess he didn't get the memo that womb-bearers are to be protected.) When the narrator gets especially "uppity" and starts to talk of suicide, she's put on 24-hour watch so that her precious uterus is not compromised. Eventually the narrator - who's recording these events after the fact on a "pocket vocoder" - escapes on a "broomstick" (a small hovercraft), finding refuge in a cave several day's travel from the group's camp. Instead of letting this "troublemaker" go her own way, the group chases her down and attempts to drag her back "home," where she's to be tied to a tree, raped, forcibly impregnated, and made to carry and birth a child against her will. Barbaric, right?

And yet many reviewers seem to blame the narrator for her own predicament. She's nihilistic, narcissistic, a feminist harpy shrew. Indeed, by story's end the narrator comes to believe that she deliberately provoked her fellow survivors into a confrontation because she wanted an excuse to lash out at them physically. And perhaps this is true. But they still took the bait. Even after she removed herself from the situation, leaving them to do as they pleased, they hunted her down, with the intention of violating her in the most intimate and traumatic of ways. She (and the other women) was dehumanized and objectified; treated as little more than a means to an end. I fail to see how a little extra politeness on the narrator's part would have altered the men's plans.

Suicidal throughout the story - likely even before the crash - in the narrator I see not misanthropic feminazi, but rather a burned out and disillusioned activist (Communist, neo-Christian) who, when suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with death, is overcome with a sense of tired resignation. In life, she was unable to change history; and now, she will die outside of it. "I'm nobody, who are you? Are you a nobody, too?" (page 33; lower-case mine.)

WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO... is dark with a capital "D" - definitely not for everyone, as evidenced by the book's polarized ratings on Amazon. I found it compulsively readable - kind of like Margaret Atwood's dystopias (THE HANDMAID'S TALE, ORYX AND CRAKE, THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD), but minus her tentative sense of hope. I'm a newcomer to Joanna Russ - I think I accidentally stumbled upon this book via a BookMooch recommendation, perhaps because Atwood, Octavia Butler, and Ursula Le Guine are heavily represented on my list - and have already added most of the rest of her oeuvre to my wishlist. A must for fans of feminist science fiction.

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