No One gets out of Here Alive
by Walter Phippeny
Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To... doesn’t fit into the category of light Science-Fiction narratives at all; instead of things blowing up, this work is heady and experimental. It’s a short, but fiery, piece about groups in a state of nature, the role of the dissenter in a majority, how quickly patriarchy reasserts itself as things revert to primal, a woman’s right to her own body, different religious concept, and more. It’s a thought experiment, really; and, as such, it ages well, being first published in 1976. It’s not about this technology, or that alien race, but rather about the characters put into Russ’s laboratory of the mind. Watching the thought experiment play out amongst the cast of characters gives us a certain view of human nature that is down right chilling, and provokes us into asking a lot of uncomfortable questions about ourselves and our species.
As the novel opens, the narrator sets up the situation. In fact, the sentence that beings in the title is then finished in the first line of the book. The title starts, “We Who Are About To ...”, then flows into page 1 with, “About to die. And so on. We’re all going to die.” Within the title and first few sentences of the book, we are already thrown into a subversion. We expect ,”we who are about to die, salute you,” being the famous line in pop-culture, attributed to the Roman gladiators before engaging in blood sport: something that gave nobility to struggle and violence. But, instead of saluting, we get, “and so on,” followed with, “we’re all going to die,” as if the narrator has deeply realized how hopeless her situation is. The nobility is sucked out of the idea and just leaves fatigue and cold logic. So, what is this fatal situation that the “we” are facing here? The narrator and seven other characters are the only survivors of a disaster that has destroyed their starship; the starship was able to find a “marked planet” – one that might support life – in its last moments and this group of passengers has landed on said planet in something like a life-boat with very limited resources. None of them have adequate training to deal with the situation; and, though there is breathable air, plants, and liquid water, the survivors are completely unable to determine what might be deadly or life sustaining in a completely alien habitat. Here again, our expectation is that the story will then start down the “Swiss Family Robinson”, or “Robinson Crusoe” path, but in space. Through the course of the story our expectation is disappointed again. Samuel R. Delany, discussing this book in “Longer Views: Extended Essays”, claims that “We Who Are About To...” is a direct reaction to the idea Kurt Vonnegut called “the impossibly generous universe” which had taken over Science-Fiction in the Golden Age up through the New Wave. In fact, it never really left. Here’s how Delany defines the term:
When, in the real world, 95% of all commercial jet crashes are 100% fatal and we live in a solar system in which presumably only one planet can support life at all, science fiction is nevertheless full of spaceship crashes (!) in which everyone gets up and walks away from the wreckage unscathed – and usually out onto a planet with a breathable atmosphere, amenable weather, and a high-tech civilization in wait near-by to provide interesting twists in subsequent adventures.
From the title and the focus on death within the first sentences of the book, it’s safe to assume that our characters aren’t going to make it. Our curiosity switches from “how are they going to survive?”, to the more morbid, “how are they going to die?”
Told from the first person, our narrator is a professional music historian approaching middle age. We quickly discover that she has a wide range of drugs secreted about her person, and, from the language of the text, that she likely falls into the tradition of the ‘unreliable narrator’ such as Dostoevsky's Underground Man, or Camus’s Jean-Baptist Clamence from The Fall. Her story telling style feels like a truly personal account that was never meant for a larger readership; it’s full of imagery, metaphor, and personal references that renders the text opaque for the reader; we are reading the diary of an author who is passing time with herself, never expecting an audience, engaging in a conversation of one. The narrator goes on to describe the seven other members of the landing party: their personalities and abilities. And then the story starts to unfold. The narrator is in stark opposition to the plans and ideas of the general party. They are bent on figuring out a way to survive, while the narrator is focused on how to die.
We Who are About to... the theme of outsider against a majority is central to this work. The struggle between the characters reminds me of a science-fiction version of Sartre’s No Exit: the exact wrong group of people to be stranded together. We run into some serious ethical questions: is the narrator justified in her actions? Where do the rights of the individual end and the rights of group begin when we find ourselves in extreme situations? Unlike other Science-Fiction titles where the setting seems arbitrary, here the alien planet is necessary: you need the alien landscape and the astronomical distances to make the questions here truly relevant. If this group had been shipwrecked somewhere in an isolated corner of Earth, a lot of the thought experiment would no longer be valid. If they were on Earth, there would always be hope of rescue; here all hope must be abandoned.
We Who are About to... is a powerful text, asking important questions about feminism, patriarchy, and group dynamics. It’s an angry text, but a cogent one. Russ takes some interesting risks, but pulls it off in the end. If you’re looking for a Science-Fiction title with weight and purpose, We Who are About to... is worth your time.