The Narrative Topology of Resistance in the Fiction of Joanna Russ

This essay was originally published in On Joanna Russ (edited by Farah Mendelsohn, published by Wesylan, 2009)

  1. Introduction

joanna-russNarrative is both a kind of engine and a kind of friction, creating a tension that both drives and prescribes story. The stories of our lives motivate us along certain narrative arcs, but to stray from those arcs is to move out of bounds. Narrative, in other words, is a way of mapping and transacting with the epistemologically dicey territory of life, culture and world. Narrative is epistemologically dicey in that knowledge of life and culture is riven with the gaps of the unknown and the plains of negotiated reality. We know and become ourselves in terms of our stories and it is thus appropriate and useful to theorize narrative in explicitly topological terms. Narrative, then, is not only literary. It is, in reality, primarily cognitive, due to the social formation of human ontology (see Ochs and Capp). Narrative exerts constraints on human epistemology (see Harré) and emotion (see Hsu et al.) as well as on human cultural and political constructs (see Bhabha).

How do we know when we’ve strayed out of the bounds of a given narrative arc? We know because we are edge-detecting animals. When we stray out of bounds our social milieu applies friction by various means: by indicating that we have not been understood; by critical remarks (“those shoes with those pants?”); and by more extreme measures, such as prohibition, arrest, exile, and even death.

Russ challenges the boundaries of a hegemonic narrative topology. In this essay I explore the edges and bounds—the topology—and uses of Russ’s narrative through an analysis of her novels On Strike Against God, And We Who Are About To…, And Chaos Died, and other works. I celebrate Russ’s arc-defying fiction by showing, with the help of the theoretical and philosophical writings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, that she resists oppressive territorialization. Deleuze and Guattari are especially valuable for understanding Russ’s deterritorializing challenges, her resistance to authoritarian and a priori narratives, in that the French philosophers specifically work within a topological mode. Russ’s radically feminist science fiction creates a refrain—a territorial call—that deliberately lures the engaged reader out: not just “off” the map of patriarchal-capitalism, with its colonial insistence on “straight” narrative, but out of the map completely in order to, first, disorient us through critical challenges to our molecular assumptions about syntax (such as the use of certain pronouns and prepositions) and, second, to reorient us in new directions such that we do not passively “dwell in possibility” (Dickinson Poem 466) but rather actively or even violently work through the ramifications of minoritarian potential (see also Walker).

  1. Narrative Edge Detection and Visual-spatial Orientation

Reader perception of a narrative proceeds and is motivated by edge detection: by contrasting motivations among characters (Shakespeare), or by grosser contrasts between light and dark, good and evil, opportunity and crisis, doubt and certainty—and, significantly for Russ’s work, between oppression and liberation.

When we are walking and we see a gap, we avoid the gap, thanks to the brain’s primordial ability to detect edges. When we are reading or writing and we see a gap we very likely will want to explore that gap

John Le Carré writes stories about stories full of interpersonal gaps and about the bridges that only ever partially span those gaps. In The Little Drummer Girl, someone (an underground Palestinian cell?) has just blown up a number of people in the German town of Bad Godesberg. In the ensuing crime scene investigation, Israeli agent Schulmann’s detecting mind notes a chunk of wire.

This chunk of wire is too much: it is more than is required in the reconstruction of the terrorists’ bomb. The other agents on the scene placate Schulmann: “ ‘It has no meaning, Mr. Schulmann. It is left over,’ ” the investigators say. “The moment was past,” says the narrator, “the gap was sealed….” (Drummer Girl 22-23).

Schulmann, a nationalistic vigil ante with both qualifications and doubts, seeks signs, symptoms, and gaps. From previous investigations, he recognizes the wire as a signature. From the signature he constructs an edge-blurring narrative, as the central character (an out-of-work Left darkling English rose) takes on the identity of another (Palestinian terrorist). Le Carré crosses a line with The Little Drummer Girl. He disrupts smooth space with his insistent narrative neutrality which forces the reader to transact both the Palestinian and Israel ideological landscape simultaneously.

Genre writers, especially (think of the thriller with its vertical walls of epistemological walls of revelation), use edge detection as entrée to the potential, the incline and fall, of narrative topology. Gaps in the topology of power are often greeted with malice, however (witness the reception of Le Carré and, especially, of Russ). For reasons of maintaining order and selling goods and services, then, it is desirable to create a “smooth space,” to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, a narrative that allows no communicative or ideological gaps, no edges, no violations of the story-as-smooth-space.

In We Who Are About To… the unnamed narrator, a mole, a subterranean with no direction home, starts off mildly enough by backing-and-filling her story after she and a few other men and women have crash landed on an uncharted and uninhabited planet

This female narrator interrogates the epistemological boundaries of the narratives functioning around her among the other crashed interstellar travelers: “Travel enough and you can make friends with the crew, what’s this, what’s that, ask questions; they even let you fiddle about in sick bay if you’re careful. You see things, then” (5). She’s retrospecting because she’s in an archetypal Russiesque situation: the survivor of a crash who has been utterly deterritorialized. The crash site in We Who Are About To… is off all maps; the narrator is beyond cartographical redemption. She finally, and ultimately, is with the ones she’s with, never mind how harsh love is and Steven Stills be damned.

We find a similar scene in And Chaos Died, in which the character Jai Vedh crashes on a planet of beings who are richly endowed with telepathic and telekinetic powers. Likewise in On Strike Against God—generally considered autobiographical and thus often treated as out of the bounds of the Russ science-fictional canon—the narrator, Esther (“star”), crashes when her lesbian lover unaccountably abandons her. Russ embraces science fiction’s change of landscape for her own purposes: her narrative purpose is to interrogate the status quo. Russ is a bomber, she blows across entire landscapes and ideologies without notice, landing in a place unrelated to either Kansas or a mainstream science-fiction novel plot.

The crash site as scene-of-crisis enables Russ to deterritorialize her narratives. Russ uses deterritorialization to interrogate “gaps and discontinuities” (Wolfson, 19; see also Delany and Russ 29) in patriarchal and capitalist narratives. Russ isn’t so much “deconstructing” these narratives as attempting to rethink narrative from a new perspective. New, that is, as in novel or nova, and with Russ the perspective is an explosively queer-feminist one. There is a powerful edge of utopian romanticism in Russ’s work, one that seeks apocalyptic scenarios within which to play out stories of deterritorialization., however ephemeral such liberations be..

The crash site of crisis empowers a reconsideration of the (typically colonialist) foundations of culture. In And Chaos Died and Extra(ordinary) People, for instance, there is again movement towards a utopian moment—but Russ repeatedly rejects this moment, she turns away from the utopian edge by undermining the very narrative she is constructing.

  1. Resisting Smooth Space in And We Who Are About To…

Russ resists the smooth space of edgeless narrative in a variety of ways, most cogently through relentless self-examination and interrogation. The Socratic axiom—“the unexamined life is not worth living”—works to counteract the perpetuation of story-as-smooth-space, of edgeless, authoritarian narratives. In her interview with Larry McCaffrey, Russ remarks upon the unexamined life: “People accept all sorts of attitudes—about racism, sexism, and class—simply because they don’t have the time or energy to think these things through. It’s easier to accept the status quo, especially if you’re part of a privileged group and want to think well of yourself” (McCaffrey 183).

The nameless, almost faceless, narrator of And We Who Are About To… survives and ultimately defeats the seemingly utopian and colonial potential presented at the crash site through her own memories. Without memory, we are edgeless, blunt, smooth; Russ’s narrator punctuates this equilibrium with a braid of memoir: a life passes before our eyes. As Russ says in How to Suppress Women’s Writing: “When the memory of one’s predecessors is buried, the assumption persists that there were none and each generation of women believes itself to be faced with the burden of doing everything for the first time… Without models, it’s hard to work; without a context, difficult to evaluate; without peers, nearly impossible to speak” (93).

Even with memory (as armor, weapon, and edge-detector), Russ’s characters are often defeated by the hegemonic agency of cultural narratives, as in this grasping after Marx parodying Hegel: “one could ask to be remembered but history is fake and memories die when you do and only God (don’t believe it) remembers. History [is] always rewritten” (We Who Are About To 78).

Speculative fiction, at its heart, is an interrogative mode of inquiry. Russ’s inquisition of the bonds of the patriarchal narrative arc ruptures ideological control—but where do we emerge? She continually catapults us into the unknown of striated space, into “temporary autonomous zones” (Hakim Bey), where freed of the conformities of smooth space we are forced to confront difference.

The narrator of We Who Are About To… “dreamed” of her friend L.B: “we were back together at my place, all this sensuality a topography I couldn’t describe to you, a sort of lovely pocket universe” (108). Russ discovers “pocket universes,” shimmering zones of autonomy where utopian lights flicker, but wherein we never take comfort. More pragmatic than Romantic, Russ’s zones of autonomy are always only temporary; the monolithic authority of patriarchal-capitalism is never truly defeated. Instead, Russ attacks authority with critical inquiry—why must this be the way it is?—and interrogative intensity in hopes of exposing the gaps, cracks and seams of the monolith. As Russ says, “Science fiction is a natural… for any kind of radical thought” (Delany and Russ 29).

“WE WUZ PUSHED,” Esther insists her reterritorialization of her and her sisters’ stories being the topic of On Strike Against God (37). Pushed by those great (as in overwhelming, not noble) tropes of male homoerotic bonding: a conversation at a party moves “from a Western to a hockey game to a fight” and then in comes “Olga Korbut, the Russian gymnast” in her skintight suit of prepubescent glory (35). Pushed, Esther says in response to the white-male-flung accusation that feminists are “selfish,” because “Radicals are people who fight their own oppression. People who fight other people’s oppression are liberals or worse” (35). This, of course, is easily demolished nonsense which nevertheless tsunamis a wave of folk wisdom about how to deal with political battles. Keep ‘em at home. It’s that simple, and no wonder we were pushed.

A radically interrogative stance is needed to create “lines of flight,” as Deleuze and Guattari say throughout A Thousand Plateaus and Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, lines that let out and open up territories of egalitarian alterity. The radical cannot work with the materials given her: they must be dynamited and then left behind. Russ’s rugged alterity outs herself and attempts to imagine a narrative that suits her desire to speak the tongue of imagination and experience.

  1. Linguistic Reterritorialization

In The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie asks, “How can we imagine a new language when the language of the enemy keeps our dismembered tongues tied to his belt?” (152). Alexie suggests that the way to reterritorialize a new language, to discover new narrative territory, is through the agency of imagination itself: “Didn’t you know? Imagination is the politics of dreams; imagination turns every word into a bottle rocket” (Lone Ranger 152). Alexie’s “politics of dreams” is kin to Adrienne Rich’s “dream of a common language” and both are elaborated in Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the minor literature. The member of a minoritarian culture is, on post-colonial theory, the subaltern, and therefore membership has nothing to do with statistical numbers. Rather, the minoritarian is “a way of being ‘a foreigner… in one’s own tongue’, of being ‘bilingual, multilingual, but in one and the same language’ ” (Bogue 120 quoting A Thousand Plateaus 98). Russ works through this concept in How To Suppress Women’s Writing. The “dominant sapients” of “Tau Ceti 8,” the “Glotolog,” speak the majoritarian dialect of “Glotologgi” and who, with their superior “super-nerd essence,” look down upon and do not understand the wide variety of Glotologgi dialects spoken around them by other sapients of lesser “essence” ( 3). Russ is writing in a code here that infuriates the “dominant sapients” because they can’t understand what is being said. Bruce Sterling’s remark that “SF in the late Seventies was confused, self-involved, and stale” (in Gibson xi) is the perfect example of a “super-nerd” deaf to the voices of minoritarian alterity.

Russ is clearly in this mode of a “minor literature” in her attempt to inscribe lines of flight out of patriarchal narrative and into a new space of female autonomy. Indeed, the minoritarian community outlined in Kafka’s Diaries is seen in the feminist community, and especially among feminist SF writers. Schools of thought in conflict work out their various ideas in small-press magazines, while the history of literature is an important project among feminists and other minoritarian groups, including the recovery of “lost” (that is, erased by the authority of the smooth patriarchal narrative) texts and the discovery of new logics of symbols, metaphors and modes of speech.

  1. “The skies flew open”: Discovering Lines of Flight

Joanna Russ described to interviewer Donna Perry how she discovered feminism in late 1968 or early 1969 at a Cornell University symposium. “It was the first time feminism had hit Ithaca,” she told Perry (Backtalk 295). Russ saw several of her students at the symposium including “two [female] students… who stood up and said, ‘We’ve been lovers for several years’ ” (Backtalk 296). Although Russ told Perry that she’d had an inkling that she was a lesbian when she was eleven years old, it was this experience that I understand as a key deterritorializing moment for Russ: as she said, “The skies flew open” (Backtalk 295). She came out and began writing The Female Man.

The Female Man forces us to read in a deterritorialized fashion. The novel accomplishes this by “freeing the molecular” (Deleuze and Guattari A Thousand Plateaus 346; emphasis in original), that is, by freeing the details harnessed by the major forces at work in a milieu in an assault, in Russ’s case, on the hegemony of the masculine pronoun. As Peircian philosopher Kathleen Nott points out, the negotiation of reality depends on “a system of categories which implicitly classify our concepts and experiences and thus provide us with a meaningful, hence a useful language” (89). The question, of course, is useful to whom? Nott notes in passing what becomes for Russ a territorial dispute: “abuses of language” must “be properly stated in order to disappear” (89).

But clearly stating the erasure entailed in the exclusive use of the masculine pronoun doesn’t make the problem “disappear.” In her interrogative wrestling with this problem, Russ forces open “lines of flight” that striate the space created by the edgeless use of the masculine pronoun. Russ doesn’t consider the mere “proper statement” as a cure because, as Nott suggests, “the quest for ‘ordinary language’ [in the discourse of philosophy] may be a piece of epistemological salvationism…. It is attached to the old hankering after the absolutely verifiable—at which we shall never arrive” (Nott 91). The epistemological stakes are high, in other words, and the battle over linguistic territory has been bloody. In On Strike Against God Russ outs her position baldly: “One moves incurably into the future but there is no future; it has to be created” (85). Beyond mere statement of a problem lies, first, the dismissal of the extant narrative in which the problem is so deeply embedded and, second, a discovery or invention of narrative territory which more closely adheres to the truth of experiential reality.

Numerous critics (e.g. Barr, Freedman, Hicks) have noted Russ’s resistance to patriarchal hegemony in the Whileaway stories (“When It Changed” and The Female Man). It is instructive to map out a few of the resonances of this toponym, Whileaway. “While away,” that is, “while on an outing, I learned something about myself and about my culture.” The peripatetic wandering implied in the toponym suggests a shaking off of the Glotologgi’s static and smooth Weltanschauung. Additionally, to “while away” the time is, in the majoritarian use of the term, to waste time. “Whileaway” invokes philosophies of anarchic laziness and proto-Taoist “aimless wandering” as a deterritorializing act of resistance, as, for instance, in the works of Bob Black and Peter Lamborn Wilson. In a minoritarian sense, to “while away” is to resist the hegemonic project of patriarchal-capitalism in the form of wildcat strikes, nomadism and absenteeism.

The majoritarian territory of racist, paternalistic capital is an “imbrication of the semiotic and the material” (A Thousand Plateaus 337), that is, an ordered layering (as of fish scales or roof tiles) of signs and technologies (in the sense of tekne, “made-things,” especially in its vernacular sense of “boy-toys”). “ ‘Man’,” Russ writes, “is a rhetorical convenience [i.e., a tekne] for ‘human.’ ‘Man’ includes ‘woman.’ Thus: 1. The Eternal Feminine leads us ever upward and on. (Guess who ‘us’ is)” (The Female Man 93; my emphasis; see also Barr Alien 13). As Marleen S. Barr points out, Russ interrogates the assumptions in the masculine pronoun by substituting the feminine: “That single personal pronoun [i.e. “she”] signals that readers have a false view of the story’s [“When It Changed”] beginning, that they have fallen into Russ’s prearranged linguistic trap. The glaringly inappropriate use of ‘she’ announces that on Whileaway women have wives” (Barr Lost in Space 61). But this use of “she,” while a “trap” for sure, is not “inappropriate” so much as interrogative. Barr writes of “When it Changed”, “men take pains to emphasize the reestablishment of sexual equality on earth, [while] they still insist on falsely viewing Janet and Katy according to patriarchal conceptions of proper power relationships: ‘Which of you plays the role of man?’” (Lost in Space 61). The self-doubt and insecurity heaped upon the minoritarian victims of colonialist patriarchal-capitalism is here held up to a mirror; in The Female Man it is Medusa who holds up the reflecting shield against the patriarchal brutality of the Perseian hero. Russ’s use of the feminine pronoun exposes a gap in the patriarchal narrative; a trap for the patriarchal reader, but a point of intensity (identification and emotive power) and potential for the minority reader.

In On Strike Against God, Russ unleashes a molecular interrogation of prepositions: “When you fuck someone, you are fucking with their eyes, too, with their hair, with their temples, their minds, their fingers’ ends” (59, my emphasis). This is a distinctly collaborative (and distinctly queer-feminist) way of theorizing “fucking.” We can see the collaborative reterritorialization at work in this sentence by considering the political implications of two typical ways of talking about sex, which I present here as mere sentence fragments in order to highlight the difference in preposition use: “to make love to” as contrasted with “to make love with.” It is a far different thing to have something done to one’s person that to have someone collaboratively do something with one’s person. The subtle matrix of syntax is spring-loaded and hair-triggered with explosive political potential and its detonation is a blow against the “slithery little man with his techniques and his systems and his instructions about what ‘wives’ do for ‘husbands’ and what ‘husbands’ do to ‘wives’ ” (On Strike 41; my emphasis).

These examples are particular formal blows against the story-as-smooth-space, molecular refrains in the creation of a minor literature in which various modalities of violence are Russ’s primary tools of deterritorialization. Narratively speaking, Russ’s deployment of violence is tantamount to going “nova,” as Esther describes her burgeoning lesbian awareness in On Strike Against God: characters and entire narratives “blast into an intensity surpassing that of [the] normal state” (24, quoting George Gamow, The Life and Death of the Sun [Mentor: 1959] 155).

  1. Interrogation as a Way Out

Russ begins her award-winning novella, “Souls” (the first chapter or story in Extra(ordinary) People), with an epigram from one of Emily Dickinson’s poems:

Deprived of other Banquet

I entertained Myself—
(Poem 872, ll. 1-2, quoted in Extra(ordinary) People 1; citations to Dickinson’s poetry are from the Franklin edition)

The verb entertain connotes a holding, as in to hold attention or to contemplate. Emily Dickinson’s poems enact a profoundly multiperspectival epistemology and she “entertained” herself by holding forth with her own inquisition. Roland Hagenbüchle puts this succinctly when he writes, “Dickinson’s oeuvre is… an ever-renewed ‘research,’ and each of her poems a heuristic act” (143). The shared turf of poets, philosophers, and their hybridizing cousins, science fiction writers, is the deterritorializing contemplation of the interrogative, the unknown, the “what if?”. As an explorer of questions, Dickinson lived in the dangerous wilds; so too do many of Russ’s characters. In Extra(ordinary) People, narrative reality is a banquet. The question that lurks behind this novel composed of a linked chain of stories is who is to be served?

The subject is deprivation: Russ, like Dickinson, is an entertainer of dark doubts; both force us to consider difficult questions. Russ is an interrogator of the deprivation of women’s cultural positions. Russ’s questions entertain the possibility that we are all cognitively colonized. We have entertained a planet-wrecking capitalism that enslaves even the masters, though the masters demonstrably and monstrously benefit by controlling access to the banquet. Extra(ordinary) People is a history of “extra” people, the losers whose history remains unwritten because they are enchained: the links that bind them are narrative because the narrative is controlled by those who sit at the banquet. Extra(ordinary) People thus says non serviam and deterritorializes itself.

There is “always a problem when you write anything with real social or political consciousness,” Russ told McCaffrey: “what you’re describing hasn’t ended” (187; emphasis in original). One of Russ’s primary means of deterritorialization is that of doing violence to narrative in order to resist authoritarian closure. The smooth ending of most fictions is, in Russ’s work, rejected, exploded, Freytag’s pyramid is assaulted with a wrecking ball. For Russ, the interrogative mode is a means of writing oneself out. Extra(ordinary) People thus progresses through various manifestations of epistemological uncertainty. In “Souls” the narrator, a man who as a young boy witnessed an alien intervention in human affairs, is told by the alien presence to “Think again,” to reassess what he presumes to know (59; emphasis in original). “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman” is precisely that: an epistemological enigma in which the narrator tells us that some people “can’t stand two kinds of knowledge that don’t mix” (Extra(ordinary) People 83). The oil-and-water battle of engendered epistemologies is explicitly topological, “like a switchback on a train ride” (Extra(ordinary) People 84). The story ends with a self-referential enfolding when a manuscript called The Mystery of the Young Gentleman is placed “on the table” near the narrator’s bed: the mysterious young gentleman is “a not-so-young lady, we find out” (Extra(ordinary) People 92). By outing “straight” SF’s patriarchal, racist and capitalistic tropes, Russ discovers terrain that is both “ordinary” (obvious to those who have eyes to see) and “extraordinary.”

Extra(ordinary) People, ostensibly a document of the evolution of telepathy in Homo sapiens, doesn’t “end” (as the brief links between the stories would suggest): it is written out, off, and away, Russ told McCaffrey, as “a comment on the whole utopian theme” (187) of patriarchal-Romantic science fiction. The chain-linked stories over which the author climbs in order to out herself, to free herself from the false consciousness of the Romantic-utopian dream of the perfectly smooth space of telepathic omniscience, ends with an interrogative blastoff into the unknown:

What is Life?

Is it anything?

Who invented it and when?

Is it patented? (If so, what#?)

Why does it always turn green in the wash?

When does the guarantee run out?

Does Life exist? (160; emphasis in original)

The terminology of technological capitalism (boy toys) is rampant here: invention, patent, guarantee, the parody of a laundry-detergent commercial—these are not the stuff of “Life” in any evolutionary biological sense but the metaphysical techno-babble of patriarchal capitalism. The narrator (who, in this final link of the book, is an epistle-writing epistemologist plotting a lesbian Gothic romance) scales the fence, answering the question “Does Life exist?” with “Well, yes. It does. Life is, well life is… like this & like that & like that & like this & like nothing & like everything” (160). And then comes the final deterritorialization, a clambering over the fence and down the other side in a series of six vertically descending “Etc.” We hear the deterritorializing intention here when we translate this Latin tag out of its abbreviated form into plain English: “And so on, and so on, and so on….”: onwards on words. And so out to the final lines, which are signed “With Love”:

P.S. Nah, I won’t write the silly book.

P.P.S. and on (160)

Extra(ordinary) People is a chain that refuses to bind, that breaks its own shackles, and so there’s a coda, a final, unclosed link which loops back to the beginning, where a “tutor” tells a “schoolkid” that “ ‘today we… study history’ ” (iv):

Is that the way the world was saved?”

….“What makes you think the world’s ever been saved?”

But that’s too grim.

(161; emphasis in original)

Again, Russ closes with “&c”—and so on. Here, as elsewhere, Russ mobilizes the political clout of her prepositional forces. Despite the disclaimer of the “But that’s too grim” there is a despair here, an ad infinitum of human agency that echoes the epigram for the entire book: “you think a place is just wild and then there’s people” (i, attributed to Alice Sheldon, AKA James Tiptree, Jr.). We say that “power is knowledge” but human culture is power and knowledge; human agency follows the wildest animal trail—and litters a beer can “out there.”

Full of poetry and humor, Extra(ordinary) People is ultimately a rebel yell of epistemological indeterminacy: how can we—as represented by a brilliantly imaginative writer—ever really (in the post-Peircian sense of the word) inscribe an egalitarian narrative when the very definition of “reality” entails negotiation within a racist-patriarchal human collectivity and where power and knowledge are—even in a telepathic utopia (as the relationship between the “tutor” and the “schoolkid” implies)—unequally distributed? The answer is a Dickinsonian “unknown” and resounds throughout Extra(ordinary) People, but particularly in a passage in “What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?”, where we read: “ ‘How does this work?’…. ‘Nobody knows’ ” (Extra(ordinary) People 127). The “flat earth” (to paraphrase the title of a recent book by Thomas Friedman) of authoritarianly privileged epistemology is revealed by Russ as a deeply fissured terrain. Examples of the futility of instrumental knowledge in the context of biological reality appear throughout Russ’s work, as in this pithy remark in We Who Are About To…: “tools and toolkit, all of this superficially showing immense order but in fact about as rational as the ooze of algae from a pond” (11).

  1. Being and Somethingness: Getting Out for Good

And Chaos Died compounds epistemological uncertainty with ontological deterritorialization in the person of Jai Vedh, “a homosexual” (11) who, in the words of Samuel R. Delany, is “a quietly despairing modern man with a nearly psychotic desire to merge with the universe” as a response to “the meaninglessness and homogeneity of every day life” (333). Not only is life on “Old Earth… a void” but “every place [is] like every other place” as well (And Chaos Died 3). The void and vacuum of life on Earth is nothing, though, compared to the hard vacuum of space into which Jai Vedh ventures on a business trip: “Then the ship exploded” (And Chaos Died 4).

We return to the scene of the crash site and the crisis there invoked. With And Chaos Died, though, premised as it is on an ancient Chinese story from Chuang Tzu, crisis is both danger and opportunity. Chuang Tzu’s story is simple: two gods meet Chaos, “the god of the center.” The two note that Chaos has no sense “apertures”: no eyes, ears, nose, nor mouth. So these two gods, Fuss and Fret, poke holes in Chaos. On the seventh day they poke the seventh hole and “Chaos died” (Chuang Tzu [“The Inner Chapters” of Tao Te Ching], trans. A. Waley, epigraph in And Chaos Died). The planet upon which Jai Vedh crashes is inhabited by people with “some form of ESP,” as Delany says, that open up “ordinarily invisible communicational pathways” (333; emphasis in original).

The psi-powers-endowed humans on the crash planet, known to us only as “whatitsname” (And Chaos Died 140; emphasis in original), are members of “[a] lost colony” (27). And Chaos Died is the revenge of the colonized, as if the abandoned colonists of Roanoke—instead of vanishing—had sent a deadly virus back to England. By endowing Jai Vedh with the power to teleport himself, the lost colonists enable him to Earth with this virus. By endowing Jai Vedh with sensory powers beyond the ordinary, the inhabitants of “whatitsname” poke holes in his defensive shield against the “social vacuum” (Delany 334) of Earth society. It is through these metaphorical holes that the novel’s deep pessimism works its imaginative magic.

Vedh is “disoriented, frightened, and confused” throughout the novel (according to Delany 334); once he gains superior powers he is transformed from a meek “homosexual” (repeatedly called a “coward” in the first few pages [And Chaos Died 7, 8]) into a violent man who has sex with females (but “I don’t like women,” he say early on [10]), repeatedly commits murder and attempts to murder the boy he loves. His enormous psi powers don’t result in transcendent realization of utopian potential (pace Delany in “The Order of ‘Chaos’” [335]): “What eyes”?, Vedh thinks to himself: “Half the time I don’t see and half the time I can’t interpret what I see” (And Chaos Died 146). Jai Vedh is a product of the cultural topology of Earth. When representatives from “whatitsname” come to Earth to teach its inhabitants the utopian technique of telepathy, they are met with violence: “the Earth people, terrified, bomb them” (Delany 335). Only then is Jai Vedh deterritorialized; he is telekinetically whisked away, back to “whatitsname” where he learns the colonial origins of its inhabitants.

The inhabitants of the nameless lost colony are “Earth people” and like all Earthlings were created “long, long ago” (And Chaos Died 182). The creators were metallic beings “with nerve impulses of light”—“big, big beast[s]” (182):

“They are all dead now, of course.”

“Why?” said Jai, though of course he knew why.

We killed them…. What else? (183; emphasis in original)

Are the telepaths of “whatitsname” truly utopians? No: when confronted with true alterity—metal beasts with nerves of light—they commit genocide. With Russ, utopia is always rejected in view of the incorrigible and Kafkaesque nature of human ontology. (Jai Vedh’s alternate personality’s name is “Joseph K.”) In Russ’s work, human ontology is not a metaphysical stain but rather a biological one, and there is only one true means of deterritorialization: suicide.

Russ’s ultimate means of deterritorialization, then, is physical violence. The story-as-smooth-space isn’t just patriarchal, it is also the vector enabling the smooth flow of capitalism, racism and molecular oppressions as yet unnamed. More, it is the space of colonization. As Frantz Fanon has argued, violence is the only way to overthrow a colonialist regime: colonialism “is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence” (61).

In We Who Are About To… we hear the territorial refrain of fledgling sparrows in the walls of the unnamed narrator’s remembered apartment: “SQUEEEEEEEECH!” (108). “‘Filthy, lousy, bird-brained birds’” says the narrator’s friend, L.B. (109). L.B. wants to “[k]ill them” but the narrator is repulsed by the idea of killing helpless animals: “‘They’re just babies’,” she says (108). Rather, “[t]he trick is to get them when they’re first nesting and repeatedly scare the living daylights out of them—birds are very emotional—until they get the idea there’s a large, very irritable, dangerous mammal who comes with the site and they do, finally, go somewhere else” (109). The tragedy of patriarchal-capitalism is that all milieus have been colonized—not just the political geographies of human cultures (as in Fanon) but the biosphere itself is smoothed over. The site of the minoritarian is surrounded by nasty animals and there’s nowhere left to go.

We Who Are about To… is Russ’s most powerful anti-colonial narrative. When the space ship crashes, the survivors are immediately embroiled in a colonialist crisis. The males want to impregnate the females in order to insure the survival of their species on the new planet. The narrator objects; at first she withdraws from the group’s camp site but then, pressured to conform, she resorts to violence. She contemplates suicide by poison, but then murders the other survivors. The murder of one of the women, Cass, is described in explicitly topological terms: “she [threw] her arms out in a cross, as if quartering the circle she was part of” (We Who 101). Cass falls out of the circle—the ideal smooth space—after having quartered or striated it in her death throes. Russ’s narrator resists the colonialist narrative by violently striating it. The threat of sexual violence and its correlative, fetal colonization, is met with greater violence; first the women, then the men are eliminated.

“Oppression,” Russ told McCaffrey, “is always mystifying and confusing…. Anger is a necessity. It’s part of all radicalism” (209). The radical must deploy “sheer fury” in order “to resist looking at the structure and saying, ‘It’s us, it’s our fault’ (McCaffrey 209). The anti-colonial project is full of gaps, mysteries, unanswered (and unanswerable) questions—it is not the formulaic, smooth-space nationalism of Fanon’s revolutionary program, which Russ eschews as “second-generation” Marxism (McCaffrey 209).

At the end of On Strike Against God, Esther-as-nova writes, “Let’s be reasonable. Let’s demand the impossible” (107; emphasis in original). Throughout the works under consideration Russ demands that we rationally entertain the possibility of an egalitarian and utopian alternative to the smooth space of patriarchal capitalism. And throughout these same works she finds that alternative impossible. The desire to discover a new territory is constantly thwarted by the inherently colonialistic ontology of human culture. In a universe dwelling in possibility and potential, we are left, in And We Who Are About To…, with the nameless narrator’s crie de couer: “I’m Nobody, who are you? Are you Nobody, too?” (We Who 20, quoting Dickinson Poem 260).

Call it pessimism, if you must, but Russ is also a molecular activist, setting loose subversive forces that can be met with and joined: as Dickinson’s poem continues, “Then there’s a pair of us!” The minoritarian audience of radical science fiction is empowered to seize the power of interrogative introspection. The light of possibility is very dim, but it dwells on, outside the territory of the known, the mapped, and the ontologically bankrupt. If power is knowledge then “Don’t tell! they’d advertise—you know!” (Dickinson Poem 260). Russ’s resistance to authoritarian closure doesn’t “advertise,” doesn’t try to sell us anything—least of all does it offer a (false) ray of hope. Rather, it exposes us to the harsh elements of authoritarian reality and challenges us to contest the usurpation of any and all territory by oppressive forces. Russ’s project first crashes us and then challenges us to resurrect our lives somewhere out there.

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