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Tuesday 13 May 2008

Extra(ordinary) People

by Joanna Russ

For someone who is not a huge fan of science fiction, I have been reading a fair bit recently. Rather, I have been revisiting old favourites. And Joanna Russ’s work certainly comes into the category of favourites – of any genre. In fact, as far as I’m concerned she is one of the best writers I’ve ever read.

Her work is intelligent without relying on obscurity or cleverness; she writes with passion and clarity; tackles difficult subjects with ease, wit, and humour (which isn’t always the same thing); and has done more to stretch the boundaries of her chosen genre than most other writers.

Extra(ordinary) People is more than a collection of short works without quite being a novel. This, in itself, makes for an interesting and vibrant format where themes can be explored from different angles without creating the false or awkward situations that might be necessary in a single piece. These themes and ideas are carried forward in a way that unifies the pieces, even though they are outwardly disparate.

As well as the themes that are explored (of which more in a moment); there is a common underlying viewpoint that binds the stories.

A lesser writer would, perhaps, have made something of this structure, creating and peopling an elaborate back story, yet Russ has allowed the stories to do that through the voice of the central character(s). A sense of alien presence, of otherness, is conveyed through what is highlighted as absurd in humanity.

The stories in the book are about communication and about understanding what it is to be human, especially for one half of the human race. And this is why I have left the themes of this book until now. Russ is a feminist. And already I can hear the sound of hordes of sci-fi fans (and others) walking away. Which is strange and saddening. Yet it is no rare thing for sci-fi apologists to expound its ground breaking qualities whilst accepting books that are misogynistic, militaristic, or at best paternalistic without batting an eyelid or bruising their delicate consciences. Make one mention of the position of women in a future or alternative world and we are told this cannot be real sci-fi (unless of course the women in question are young, blonde, pneumatic and wearing skin tight space suits). The same holds for fantasy.

Yet some of the very best sci-fi and some of the very best fantasy has been and will continue to be written by, for, and about women. And long may it continue. I don’t want a literature that excludes half the planet’s population, or treats its members like a housewife in a fifties sitcom. That is degrading and downright unrealistic.

Russ examines the place and experience of women in the world. This world. Other worlds. She stands assumptions on their heads. She explores possibilities. She even discusses the nature of fiction. And she does it as part of a long and grand tradition of women writers in the genre. Yet it is not polemic. That makes for bad fiction. And if there is one thing that is certain, it is that Joanna Russ writes good fiction – extraordinary fiction.

reviewed by Graeme K. Talboys

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