Two months ago I came across a list of Nebula Award winners and felt an urge to read them all. I’ve largely stayed away from sci-fi since my college days, when I binged on Asimov and The Dark Tower series like a crazed drug addict. The genre grew stale due to sci-fi’s penchant for hollow characters. I had to wonder why none of these characters ever had a sense of humor (which made me love The Dark Tower series even more).
I figured that I would be safe by sticking to Nebula Award winner, some of which I’d already read. The first on my unread list was The Female Man, Joanna Russ’ strange, almost-great 1970s mashup of science fiction and early 70s feminist politics. The premise sounded intriguing and unique, so it seemed natural to start here.
Much like The Information and Gravity’s Rainbow before it, The Female Man is a difficult read that criss-crosses the narratives of three characters, giving only the barest hints over who is speaking or who the story is following with each chapter. Also like Pynchon’s head-scratching opus, Russ inter cuts fantasy sequences with time travel, realism and seemingly random interludes that don’t clearly connect with the rest of the novel. And just like Gravity’s, I had to pull up Wikipedia a few times to figure out what the hell I was reading.
The basic premise concerns four women who live in parallel worlds, each with its distinct attitudes regarding women. Janet, the character which all the other narratives flow around, lives on Whileaway, a world where only women live and where gender roles are divided among the female race. Janet appears in Jeanine’s world, where the Great Depression never ended and Hitler won WWII. Sounds a bit Philip K. Dick maybe? Unfortunately, the concept of a ruling Hitler isn’t really examined a whole lot, making me wonder why Russ even included this detail at all.
Next Janet takes Jeanine to the modern (well 70s) world of Joanna, who is a sort of militant feminist who tries to tame the feral Janet. She’s taken to the Wilding family’s home, where Janet falls in love with their daughter Laura. A border-line legal sexual relationship takes place between the two and we find out that Janet has a wife back on Whileaway.
Confused yet? Yeah it’s complex and the writing is even more so. At times you coast on Russ’ hallucinogenic writing style. Other times, she delivers clear feminist monologues in the mouths of the characters, some of which are quite affecting, while others just seem to be stand-ins to deliver Russ’ ideas, potentially working better as a non-fiction tract than as part of a weird sci-fi, alternate-reality comedy/drama hybrid.
That’s right, comedy. There are surprising laughs in the book, especially in the scenes of Joanna’s growing frustration with the clueless Janet.To that degree, these characters contain more depth than the standard sci-fi “message” book. Jeanine isn’t given much to do, but Joanna is a well-rounded character who holds an atom bomb of anger inside of her, wanting to use Janet to change the unbalanced world of gender politics, but finding that Janet falls into the same pattern of swooning over men and using sex to achieve her end-game.
Oh and I didn’t even get into Jael, the warrior from yet another planet where a war between the sexes threatens to destroy everything. Jael is brought into the story so late and with such little development, that I barely cared what happened with the last bit, although the last few pages were more satisfying than I thought they would be.
The book is at once cerebral and goofy, cartoony and realistic; it really runs the gamut. But I have to admit that it sounds a lot more fun than it is. I almost wished Russ would have split this into several books and developed the ideas and characters a bit more. I wanted to know more about Joanna’s world, way more about Jeanine and the repercussions of her alternate reality. I also wanted to know why Janet was treated like a celebrity goddess when she first arrives, but then seems to be left alone through much of the rest of the novel (maybe I missed something).
The Female Man is definitely a sign of its times and worth a read if you’re looking for something veerryy different with some interesting insights on gender relations that only somewhat dated.