The ED SF Project

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"When It Changed" by Joanna Russ: An Appreciation by Kameron Hurley

There is a world where women measure their lives in duels, where the only thing to fear on a dark night are the beasts women can kill with their own hands, where the solace one finds is in the arms of another woman. It's a world where women's words on history, science, theology, agriculture, astronomy, politics, aren't dismissed out of hand as being from the mind of a person whose biological destiny has already predetermined their lack of intellectual merit.

It's a world where things can be really different.

It's a world that belongs to Joanna Russ.

I grew up being told that I lived in a world where women are equal in every way to that standard default of humanity, men. I had to be told this, in case it wasn't clear. I was told I could grow up to be President. I could drive as fast, run as hard, as anybody else.

And when I was eighteen years old I broke out and down and found that I was supposed to be smaller and eat less, because I was a woman. And against all reason, I had gotten so tangled up in the idea that I was supposed to become the nurturing, submissive half of a happy hetero pair that I rewrote the abused woman script all by myself.

Why was the world I found so different from the one I grew up believing in? Why was I measured by the status of my boyfriend (and whether or not I was straight?)? Why did I have to fight over the rights to my own reproduction? Why was I still being told that my woman's brain was too weak for math and science? Why were so many of society's ills blamed on "single" mothers who'd seemingly procreated all by themselves?

I read Joanna Russ's "When It Changed" in one of those coveted courses in "Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature" at my local community college. I read:

Katy drives like a maniac; we must have been doing over 120 km/hr on those turns. She's good, though, extremely good, and I've seen her take the whole car apart and put it together again in a day. My birthplace on Whileaway was largely given to farm machinery and I refuse to wrestle with a five-gear shift at unholy speeds, not having been brought up to it, but even on those turns in the middle of the night, on a country road as bad as only our district can make them, Katy's driving didn't scare me. The funny thing about my wife, though: she will not handle guns. She has even gone hiking in the forests above the 48th parallel without firearms, for days at a time. And that does scare me.

In Whileaway, women were people. They weren't "equal" to anyone but each other. They were strong. They could take apart their cars and put them back together again. They could love each other without fear of reproach. And no one told them they were weak or stupid for having been born a woman.

Things could be really different.

What I always appreciated about Russ as a writer was her fearlessness in challenging the happy-hetero status quo and assumptions of social gender equality. A writer like Ursula LeGuin will build you a world where men and women are the default pair, where even in the most radical of social arrangements, the man narrates, pairs up with a willing woman, loves monogamously, and all is happy in the end.

Russ peels back all those assumptions and looks underneath them. She'll tell you a story about those who assume their superiority, about men who assume a woman lacks the core humanity that men are born with, a story about how women view men entering what is a woman's world, and how men will look to change that world into one that suits men. She'll tell you what she's seen of what men expect, what women will give.

Then Russ will tell you to shove it up your ass.

And I love her for that.

Thirty years after Russ wrote that story, I'd like to say a lot has changed, that I live in that world I grew up believing in. But that's not quite so.

I'm lucky to live in a city where I can shack up with a lesbian couple and have sex outside of wedlock with a younger man from another city and nobody's been by to burn my house down. I can support myself on my own salary, defend myself in a fight, and I hold three degrees. In some circles, that's acceptable.

In many circles, it's not.

Because for all that I'm still living in a country nearly as fearful of single, financially secure women who can change their own tires as the one Russ was writing in, and I'm not sure when that will change. I want to live in a world where my strength and character and worth isn't measured in my ability to fake the submissive feminine ideal. I won't pretend I'm stupider than my male boss (or my female boss, for that matter). I won't be anybody's office eye-candy. I won't lie about what I think. I won't pretend I don't think anything at all.

I want to measure my life in duels.

"Where are all the people?" said the monomaniac.

I realized then that he did not mean people, he meant men, and he was giving the word the meaning it had not had on Whileaway for six centuries.

"They died," I said. "Thirty generations ago."

And I don't want Russ's solution to be ours, either.

It's stories like this that challenge our assumptions about our own world, about the way we think, about the way we treat one another. And it's stories like this that ask us how we would make things really different.

If not Russ's way, then how?

Link to story.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whether by plague or murder, Russ’s experiment in “When It Changed” is one of subtraction. Men, all of them, are gone. My criticism is not for her insights into the world that follows from that subtraction, what little we see of it.
Rather, I think that Russ shortchanges that world by portraying its confrontation with the subtracted term—her sly, apelike men--as the popping of a bubble instead of the meeting of two world cultures. From the first, the women lose; their expectation is to lose. The narrators first thought, even before seeing the men: “This is awful.”
In Russ’s conception Whileaway’s feminarchy is never allowed to become more than a subset. They never become something unique, more than or other than we are. At best they live a fugitive existence, a criminal life dependant on avoiding the notice of male authority.
All the life and agency is drained from the women’s private world by the gaze of the Hegemon. Even before their actions betray them for the single-mindedly sinister cretins they so inevitably are, the men’s presence engenders a passive, pleading voice from the narrator. “Give us seventy years… let us go our own pace.” The men’s manner makes her feel “second class and provincial.” Even Katy, whose strength is so elegized by the narrator, can manage only tense retorts, and when confronted directly with the dread gaze is silenced. Only when the man’s back is turned does she dare to shoot.
The Men’s mere presence is enough to instill a feeling of weakness and deference in these strong and prideful people. Being outnumbered seems not to matter, as the absent majority the men represent is seen to speak through them before they have a chance to say anything themselves.
A lost opportunity of the story, it seems to me, is that these male representatives as individuals fill their expected roles so exactly. Their own voices do not clash with the expected voice of what they represent. Things on Earth haven’t changed, cannot change. Male phallic power is coextensive with male presence. A situation predicated on its absence thus falls to pieces once that hole is filled.
Whileaway’s society never got the respect it deserved, from the characters or from the author, and the reasons the author withheld that respect aren’t clear. A living culture of thirty millions is powerless, doomed to be “cheated of their full humanity or turned into strangers.” This world was never given a chance to set the terms of the interaction, not by the characters of either side or by the author. Negotiation and discourse are discounted out of hand. The only alternative to abject submission the narrator imagines is fighting the men to a standstill, thus keeping the separation clean. The assumption is that any contact with patriarchal power meant the resumption of a powerless status, so the power of the real world’s patrimony remains unchallenged. For Russ change is unilateral, inevitable, phallic power a Borg-like menace with which there is no compromise, only submission.
I am captivated by the glimpse we get of Whileaway in the first two paragraphs, which Russ claims came to her entire, "whispered by a Daemon." I cannot help, however, but be distressed by what become of the Daemon's gift.

4:41 PM  

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