Short Reviews – Books, Joanna Russ

This is not really a Short Review. It is me complaining about the February 1974 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Sorry.

Joanna Russ, writer of bad magic negress Lovecraft fanfiction, begins her column in this issue stating “In the 1950’s somebody defined urban renewal as “replacing Negroes with trees,” and I’m beginning to think that in the same way too many typical science fiction horror stories are not the universal dystopias they pretend to be, but rather the unhappy wails of privilege-coming-to-and-end(sic).” That one sentence was enough; I wasn’t going to bother reading six pages of her tripe, but now the commenters in the letters section of the January 1976 issue complaining about the Books column having turned into kvetching by literary critics and writers airing out their personal grudges rather than alerting readers to great new science fiction make a lot more sense. Thank god that the other two issues I have had Budrys writing the column.

I solidly expect this issue of F&SF to be completely terrible (I accidentally saw the ending of the novella; 60+ pages to set up a Jewish mother joke) and don’t even know if I want to waste my time on it. I’d rather write about fun and awesome SF&F than bitch about bad SF&F; it would at least be more useful to my readers.

Do any of the following names ring a bell or should I skip this issue entirely (except for Baird Searles column, of course)?
Michael Bishop
Barry Malzberg
Vonda McIntyre
Dennis Etchison
Joseph Green

So, rather than be angry and read something that I knew was going to amount to a novella length Jew joke, I started Leigh Brackett’s The Nemesis from Terra. It was immediately obvious that I had made the correct choice. Brackett plunges us straight into the action, wherein a man is pursued by Martian apes, kills a Martian mystic who predicts his ascendancy over Mars, is tossed in the slave mines to work for chain smoking Mercurian thugs, and meets a lady with “a strong, supple body whose curves even the coverall couldn’t hide and hair of a rich, warm mahogany color that made her skin look like cream” who he calls ‘baby’. Mmmmm… problematic sci-fi…

"Now that we're king and queen of Mars, baby, I'm gonna light up a Kent!"  Not even Martian fines make it through our famous Micronite filter!

“Now that we’re king and queen of Mars, baby, I’m gonna light up a Kent!” Not even Martian fines make it through our famous Micronite filter!

In completely unrelated news, new empirical evidence suggests that internalized misogyny goes straight to the chest and improves STEM related skills.

27 responses to “Short Reviews – Books, Joanna Russ

  1. Umm, that list you state contains three of my favorite authors… Bishop (anthropological SF in the vein of Le Guin), Malzberg (literary metafictional SF with deep Freudian currents), and McIntyre (winner of the Hugo-Award for best novel in 1979 and a darn good writer).

    • Okay, I’ll go ahead and give them a shot after I finish this Brackett book.

      Now, when you say SF with deep Freudian currents, you don’t mean rocketship boners, do you?

      • Oh, most definitely…. The space program as a manifestation of mankind’s desire to “fecund” (can it be a verb) the stars…. Of course, in this technological world the naive young american man is made impotent in bed. Malzberg operates around nihilistic black comedic traps, he’s delightful, BUT, an acquired taste. Bishop is more straightforward weird alien culture is super cool, mankind learns about it, BUT, his profoundly humanistic and dare I say, very concerned with language.

      • As long as Bishop’s anthropological sci-fi is more early LeGuin than later LeGuin, I’ll probably enjoy it. I’m not entirely sure how much I’ll enjoy McIntyre or Malzberg, but based on your recommendations (and exemplary taste, if your blog is any indication), I’ll definitely be overlooking Russ and giving these guys a chance.

      • I adore Russ as well (but her 70s novels such as We Who Are About To….) So….

        Look, Malzberg took a lot from people like Burroughs. If that doesn’t interest you, then, ehh… But’s he’s a consummate craftsman — profoundly adept at what he does. Even if the premise doesn’t intrigue you, the craft will (hopefully). Again, an acquired taste…

        As for Bishop, his short stories, his novels have all been amazing. I’ve read Stolen Faces (1976), A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire (1975), Catacomb Years (1979) (not anthropological SF), etc. Again, another consummate craftsman, if that is what you desire…

      • It probably didn’t help that my first exposure to Russ was a bad Lovecraft pastiche. Namedrop-filled homages to Lovecraft are one of my pet peeves.

        Now, are you talking ER or WS Burroughs? 😉

      • William S. Burroughs

        If you read Russ again read her 70s novels. We Who Are About To… (1976) has long been in my top 15 or so novels. The Female Man (1975) is her most famous work although I never got around to reviewing it.

      • I figured. Though just the other day I was fancying the notion of William S. Burroughs’ Princess of Mars…

        I’ll maybe give Russ another chance someday when I get my monster stack of pulps cleared. I’d probably hate LeGuin too, if I only knew her from The Telling and her guest posts on various blogs about how Amazon has ruined literature.

      • What? Le Guin is genius… Don’t dismiss authors after reading one novel. I’d have read Malzberg or Herbert or Brunner. The Left Hand of Darkness is a delight. When you read it, think about storytelling, myth, how she plays with our notions of archetypes. Wonderful stuff.

      • Oh, I adore LeGuin; she was one of my first F&SF loves. I’m just saying that one bad book/story + bad editorializing by an author can potentially turn one off of an otherwise great writer. I’m sure that my own blog will come back to bite me if I ever get around to publishing more than a handful of scraps. Left Hand of Darkness was great, probably my second favorite Hainish novel.

      • Ah, I was unclear on whether you had read her other work from that comment. Sorry. As for editorializing, I don’t see a problem with her frustration with a system that does not pay authors a living salary for their work — other than the best of the best. But, I digress. No one would read Ezra Pound I guess — but they do, despite him being a fascist traitor who actually participated in anti-US propaganda.

      • I just think it’s funny to blame capitalism for the decline in the quality of literature when some of the best stuff to ever come out of speculative fiction came from a time when the whole operation was being bankrolled by big tobacco, weight-loss gimmicks and other assorted snake oils.

        Ironically copyright laws to protect authors and their estates do way more to keep works of fiction out of the hands of the public than Amazon could ever dream of.

      • Tangent aside: if you enjoy experimental 60s lit, you’ll enjoy Malzberg’s 70s take. And, SF has never had a voice quite like him…. A metafictional moment gives someone a hugo nowadays (*cough* Scalzi’s Redshirts) — but, Malzberg was cranking them out every year…

      • Try his best/most famous/most controversial work, Beyond Apollo (1972) — if you don’t like it you’ll probably not enjoy all his other stuff…

      • We Who Are About To… subverts the notion of “populating a world.” Of course, she deploys a nice feminist angle (which makes sense) where the women does not tolerate being treated as a walking womb on a world where it would be impossible to found a society anyway…

    • Well, according to wikipedia, this lady was kind of the mother of this sort of thing. I don’t know if it’s giving her too much or too little credit, but from the letters to the editor I read, the actual readers weren’t too happy about it back then either.

    • “I am getting better data on new books from LOCUS, and considering that I have a low opinion of fan magazines, that is a sad comparison for F&SF. May I respectfully suggest that you give some thought to returning your Books department to the service of your readers of SF.”

      “If I were to “blame” the difference between [Russ’s] taste and mine on something, I would not pick Sisterhood but Ms. Russ’s heavy academic background in English. This doesn’t make people incapable of writing good book reports, but it does seem a handicap.”

      There is also an allusion to another editorial letter from a different issue which apparently asked for “more male chauvanistic(sic) pigs reviewing books in the future” in response to Russ’s review of LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.

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