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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

We Who Are About To ...

Joanna Russ

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To purchase We Who Are About To ...

Title: We Who Are About To ...
Author: Joanna Russ
Genre: Novel
Written: 1977
Length: 170 pages
Availability: We Who Are About To ... - US
We Who Are About To ... - UK
We Who Are About To ... - Canada
Wir, die wir geweiht sind ... - Deutschland
  • The Wesleyan University Press edition comes with an Introduction by Samuel R. Delany
  • The Penguin edition comes with an Introductions by Naomi Alderman and Hari Kunzru

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Our Assessment:

A- : powerful, and terribly bleak

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/9/1977 Gerald Jonas
The Times . 29/10/2016 Neil Fisher

  From the Reviews:
  • "You do not have to share Russ's social politics to admire the uncompromising manner in which she sets up the situation and then resolves it. As always, she displays a most interesting mind. Unfortunately, she is not a very interesting writer. One senses that she is impatient with her medium, that she has more to say, more subtle points to make, than she can possibly express with the written word. As a result, she skips too much. If ever a book needed to be longer, this is it. (...) Sentence by sentence, Russ's writing shows the strain of trying to keep her science-fictional and feminist allegiances in balance. The result can be grating. (...) Still, what Russ is attempting seems well worth doing; with all its flaws, this is an important science fiction novel." - Gerald Jonas, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       If readers had any doubts about what the title refers to, the opening of We Who Are About To ..., immediately, tersely dispels them:

     About to die. And so on.
     We're all going to die.
       Laconic and to the point, this opening also sets the tone and stage for this bleakest of narratives.
       The narrator is a forty-two-year-old musicologist. Together with seven others she was on a space flight which suffered a catastrophic breakdown; the passenger cabin was ejected and landed on the nearest "tagged" planet the ship's computer could find -- a place: "where human life is supposed to be possible". Life is possible there -- the air is breathable, the temperatures endurable, there is even water -- but given the limited resources the castaways bring with them to the surface (specifically the six-month supply of freeze-dried food), long-term survival is beyond unlikely. As is rescue: the nature of space flight -- via folds in spacetime -- means it is impossible for anyone to determine where this passenger cabin wound up, and while tagged planets are regularly surveyed, their sheer number means it's unlikely that this one will be for decades to come.
       The narrator sums up their situation very simply right from the start:
     We're nowhere.
     We'll die alone.
       The motley crew of other passengers is, however, more hopeful. Chronicling events in diary-form, day by day at first, on her "pocket vocoder" (which can print out her spoken words), the narrator describes their situation and the rapid (d)evolution of this small community.
       There are five women and three men; among them are the Grahams, a couple in their fifties with an adopted twelve-year-old child, Lori, as well someone who describes himself as: "An historian of ideas traveling from one University to another and extremely evasive about his work" (and, as it turns out, he's not who he claims to be); the narrator is also someone who is paid by foundations: "to lecture on music and play tapes of it; that's why I travel. I'm a scrounge". She's unimpressed by the lot: "Oh, we are a dull bunch !"
       After determining it's safe to venture outside they create a little settlement. The narrator is antagonistic from the start: their trying to build a future strikes her absurd in a situation where, for all intents and purposes, they are already dead: "We died the minute we crashed". When one of the others remarks: "For dead people, we're acting pretty brisk", she counters:
     "It's one of the symptoms," I said. "Galvanism. Corpse jerking. Planning. Power. Inheritance. You know, survival. My genes shall conquer the world. That's death."
       The narrator has a stash of drugs, too, medicinal and recreational; she also has little ampoules whose contents are fatal to the touch. The others take some of her stock, but she squirrels away the rest of it.
       A new order quickly establishes itself -- one of the men, Alan, quickly reverting to puffed-up masculine stereotype, for example -- but, more significantly, the others are all determined to carry on the line, as it were: through systematic procreation they want to defeat mortality. The narrator finds the idea absurd: they're doomed, and trying to populate this world can't un-doom them (never mind the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth in the first place), but the others are not only determined, they also insist on the narrator playing her part. As Lori is still too young, and Mrs. Graham too old, there are only three viable wombs -- and the narrator's arguments that, at forty-two, she's hardly an ideal candidate for a first pregnancy fall on deaf ears.
       The narrator makes good her escape from the little community, but they hunt her down, to return her to the fold; it does not go well. For a group intent on self-preservation their collapse comes startlingly quickly -- with a few nudges from the narrator. Barely half-way through the novel, the death-obsessed narrator is the only one left standing. (As she later admits, with typical wry understatement, fantasizing about being rescued: "Actually, it would be a little awkward trying to explain what happened to the others" if she were.)
       Russ' portrait of the mini-society formed by the collective in the few weeks on the planet's surface is stark and cold. The sexes revert to type, a casual brutality is taken as given -- and majority rules, as they gang up on the narrator, seeking to impose their will (only, it turns out she's craftier -- and more ruthless -- than she let on). The escalation is frighteningly quick, societal collapse -- replaced by small-scale totalitarianism -- and then complete disintegration practically overnight: Russ' vision of humanity is bleak indeed.
       To the narrator, the others are all deluded. Childish Lori has age as an excuse, but the others, conniving or misguided, are all hopeless causes. At times, it veers into the comic: Mrs. Graham is fabulously wealthy, bragging of being: "in the top one-tenth of the top one percentile". She even purchased both her husband and her child, and she boasts:
I'm in the credit economy, too -- I'm not a civilian, you know, not legally -- and with a credit-level-one you can have anything you want in this world, anything at all.
       Of course, 'this world' is now a barren one where money serves no purpose and there's almost nothing to be had -- but Mrs. Graham clings to what defined her. Little wonder that she, like the rest, quickly crumbles here in the face of this reality.
       Left alone, the narrator continues to reflect on the inevitable -- death -- while also looking back; we learn a bit more about her. She notes with frustration that so much of lived experience is lost to memory:
Falling asleep, waking, hard or soft, hunger, eating, illness, feeling sex, running, being dizzy -- why can't we remember them ? They evaporate.
       As she sums up:
     Primary things -- the stuff bodily experience is made of -- just don't last.
       Part of what keeps her alive is, however, this drive to possibly capture experience after all. From the start she does realize:
     This will never be found.
     Who am I writing for, then ?
       The futility of the exercise sometimes gets to her:
If history were not fantasy, then 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 always rewritten. Nobody will find this anyway or they'll have flippers so who cares.
       Along with her engaging with recollections of the past, she deals with everything from dreams (of rescue, even) to the weight of guilt (heavy, if she wants it to be). She continues to be playful, even just with herself -- "I am elegantly self-satisfied. My fakery is working" -- and though the inevitable looms large ahead, she takes her time getting there -- even as she admits: "It's boring. So boring".
       The end comes as it must -- crushingly sad.
       The science fiction elements of We Who Are About To ... are mostly trappings: space travel technology, for example, allows for the story's premise, the infinite and absolute depths of space making for a situation starker than your average lost-on-a-desert-island adventure would allow. Fusion technology has been developed on earth, but economic disparities continue. Among the few notable advances the group has access to is what the narrator calls a broomstick, allowing riders to coast in low-level flight as a means of transportation. But there are simple, good old-fashioned guns, too .....
       Wrestling with existentialist questions, We Who Are About To ... can be seen as a drawn-out suicide note. Her account is a spoken one, too -- into that 'vocoder' --, and even as she sometimes wonders who will possibly eventually read it, if anyone, it is an ongoing conversation with herself, the ultimate other. The narrator is resigned from the start, accepting that survival (much less rescue) is impossible -- even as, once alone, she does then draw it out for a while.
       Blunt and concise, the narrative is in a telegraph-style, a rapid-fire sketching. Layers of background do surface -- such as her religious engagement, and her activism -- but Russ mostly has her skim across all these surfaces. It's an effective style, but there are times when one wishes for more to be uncovered and lingered over.
       Sharp in its feminist critique, We Who Are About To ... is also extraordinarily bleak. Putting her protagonist in a position where there simply is no hope, Russ goes all in with that; it can come close to the heartless (as in Lori's death), but Russ also doesn't make it that easy for her: the narrator is moved by much that happens, even as she tries to come to terms with facing the inevitable.
       Russ' novel, in equal parts brilliant and devastating, is of a shattered humanity, individual and collective. It is not easy to digest -- but it is an impressive work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 August 2021

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We Who Are About To ...: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Joanna Russ lived 1937 to 2011.

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© 2021 the complete review

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