Joanna Russ: A 1968 Speech

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Title: Joanna Russ: A 1968 Speech
Creator: Joanna Russ
Medium: audio, print
Fandom: science fiction
External Links: online here
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Joanna Russ: A 1968 Speech was presented at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Convention on Saturday afternoon, November 1968.

The transcript was was printed in the zine, Luna' #7 in 1969.

Joanna Russ was teaching at Cornell University and had just received her first inquiry about teaching science fiction as a literary topic.

Contents of Luna'

Luna' was published three times a year by Franklin M. Dietz Jr. Its sister zine was Luna Monthly, edited by Ann F. Dietz.

  • A Speech by Joanna Russ (3)
  • An Address by Frederik Pohl (11)
  • Whither Worldcons? A Panel Discussion with Anthony Lewis, Bruce Pelz, and Jay Haldeman (moderated by Ted White) (15)
  • The Origin of Life by Edward E. (Doc) Smith (24)
  • art by Jack Gaughan, John Grossman, Joe Gross

Topics Discussed

  • the very beginning of acafans and how science fiction is their newest fields of fodder and that it is a "literary California gold rush"
  • differing definitions of masculinity
  • portrayals of men, and hyper-masculinity, in science fiction
  • power, masculinity, and toxicity
  • porno-violence: violence for the sake of violence
  • descriptions of he-men experiencing extreme physical exertion: "Sometimes it's pain and sometimes it's rapture, but it's always bullshit."
  • substituting male extremes with female ones is not the answer

From the Speech

from 'Luna #7
Now I’m going to try, today, to talk about something that people will disagree with — some people, anyway — and some of you may get pretty mad at me before I’m finished. But I think it’s worth it, anyway. I’m trying to operate on the old Leninist principle of presenting a united front to outsiders but being perfectly free to quarrel among ourselves. I think this is something science fiction ought to do — I mean the quarreling among ourselves. And if we’re going to indulge in it, we had better do so pretty quickly: there isn't much time left. The days of our privacy are numbered. Really. The academicians are after us, and there is going to be an invasion of outside people into this field of the kind none of us has ever seen before — all sorts of goggle-eyed, clump-footed types who will be bringing in all sorts of outside standards (good or bad), outside experience, outside contexts, outside remarks, naivete in some things, great sophistication in other things, all sorts of oddities, all sorts of irrelevancies — well. Heaven only knows what. I don’t even know if it’ll be good or bad or how good or how bad. But it is going to happen. The academicians are after us.

Now, if you don't already know it, literary academicians -- and, by the way, I want to include what you might call semi-professional types, like the sort of writers and editors and critics who write for magazines like the Atlantic, even though they may not be actually connected with universities — anyway, literary academicians are always looking for something new to criticize or some new way to criticize something old, and they are just beginning to realize that right under their noses is a whole new, absolutely virgin field of literature that nobody has even had a go at yet. What’s going to happen when they realize this fully will be a sort of literary California gold rush. With what we have always considered our own private property trampled under mobs and mobs of people who haven’t the slightest respect for our uniqueness, or the things we like about ourselves, or the pet grievances we've been nursing for years and so on. Some of these people are fools but some of them — and I know some of them — are a lot more sophisticated than anybody in this room. I know that they are certainly much more sophisticated than I am. I think when they get into the field of science fiction, as critics of course, that they will find sf is an antidote for a lot of nonsense that they are subject to, but I'm afraid it's going to work the other way round too.

Actually I want to get my own licks in before the crowd arrives.

All this was brought home to me in a very personal way a couple of weeks ago. I teach at Cornell, and when Cornell University people find out that I write science fiction, there's this sort of wary and cautious couple of steps back — "Oh, you write science fiction?" — and then, with a kind of glaze over the eyes, they say, "Ah — that's H.G. Wells and all that, isn't it?" and I say, "Right!" And then they run away. This is how it happens. Well, this is no longer so. Just two weeks ago today I found in my office mailbox a note asking me to teach a course in Science Fiction this summer: ENGLISH 305 SCIENCE FICTION — Open to Graduate Students!

And that started me thinking about all the things I've just been saying here this afternoon. And it made me feel very strongly that instead of trying both [please] other people and myself, I had better be as nasty as possible. After all, we know we're good. We know we're on to something. I knew it ever since I was fourteen, when I found out that science fiction was more exciting than vampire stories. And it is, too.

Now I don't like this. I want to keep on reading the stuff. I want to enjoy it. So I started thinking, and out of all the things I could complain about, all the things I could kvetch about and criticize, ONE story and ONE picture somehow stuck in mind.

I'm not going to tell you what magazine the story was in, or who wrote it, or who did the picture because those things really aren't important. You can find many, many other stories like it, and quite a few other pictures like it. And I want to make clear at the very beginning that I am NOT talking about the individual defects of individual writers or individual editors — this is not the point at all. What I am trying to do is get at something that is in the air, and that affects science fiction as a whole. It's not a question of there being a multitude of coincidental decisions as to what to write, just by happenstance. Because a lot of these writers are very different from each other personally. I know many of them. But something in the field is affecting all of them and making people who are not alike write alike. Anyway, the story itself was a very clear, simple little story — very delicately and carefully told. It was about homosexuality on Mars. Why Mars I don't know, except that wherever you are as a reader, you're not there at any rate. The point of the story was that men who are isolated for a long time without women will attempt to get their sexual satisfaction from each other — and this is quite true; this is the sort of thing that any warden of any prison in the United States can tell you not to mention the people who know perfectly well that such things happen — although not, of course, to everyone — in places like the army. Anyway, the story was perfectly unsensational and even decent to the point of reticence. There wasn't even any sex in it. Instead — and this is typically American — one man killed another. It was really an all right story, very rational, very reasonable, and not in the least shocking. I read it. I had to sort of prop my eyes open, you know, because actually it was pretty dull, but I read it. Then I came to that picture.

It was a picture of the murderer — this one guy who had killed the man who had made advances to him. Out of horror and disgust, you see. And the story made the point that such exaggerated horror was a product of unconscious, latent homosexuality. Well, apparently the artist had taken alarm even at latent, unconscious homosexuality, and had decided that by God, he was going to show you that this character was no effeminate sissy — he was a MAN — so what he did was put layer on layer of muscles on this character, and give him beetling eyebrows and a snarl — I simply cannot describe the effect. He would've made an adult male gorilla look fragile. It was absolutely wild.

I was reading my magazine in the student cafeteria and as I reached this picture, I think I made some sort of extraordinary noise, like "Eeeyah” which attracted the attention of a student who was nearby.

"What are you reading?" "Science fiction." Can I see?" (he was very interested) "Oh. That's an alien."

Well, he was right, of course, he was absolutely right. In the anxiety to show you a real he-man, the artist who did the picture had created a megalith, a monster, an armored tank, something that had only the faintest resemblance to a human being. I loved that picture. It was so awful that it was wonderful. I wanted to keep it but it fell in my orange juice and got sort of messed up. Still, every once in a while I think of that picture — and then I think of one of those megaliths trying to rape another megalith — and it makes me just feel good. In its own way, it's perfectly inimitable.

Of course, the trouble is that the science fiction illustrator who did the picture was not trying to be funny. And therein lies the whole point of my speech today.

It is a scandal, a real scandal, that in a field like ours, which is supposed to be so unconventional, so free, free to extrapolate into the future, free of prejudice, of popular nonsense, so rational and so daring, it is an especial scandal that in OUR field so many readers and so many writers — or so many stories, anyhow — cling to this Paleolithic illusion, this freak, this myth of what a real man is. And it's a scandal that he ruins so many stories. Because he does, you know, he ruins everything he touches. He has only to make one appearance and at once the story he is in coughs, kicks up its heels and dies dead. He only has to look at a woman to turn her into pure cardboard.

Let me put it more generally, and I hope more clearly. Science fiction is still — very strangely and very unfortunately — subject to a whole constellation or group of values which do not have a really necessary connection with science fiction. I would call them conventional or traditional masculine values except that they are really more than that; they are a kind of wild exaggeration of such values. Of course everything becomes exaggerated in sf because we don't show things in the here-and-now, but as they might be. It's a kind of fantasy and that's what fantasy does; it tends to exaggerate and put things into dramatic high relief. (By the way, I think what I'm talking about is particularly American; I don't think American sf has in the past owed very much to British sf or that they spring from the same roots at all.) American science fiction began in the pulps — I'm not downgrading this, I think it's a very good thing, although I can't go into the reasons why — now — because I don't have time. But this origin in trash, real popular trash, may have something to do with the persistence of this really strange kind of image. If I wanted to put it in one sentence, it would be something like this: The only real He-Man is the Master of the Universe.

Which, of course, leaves out a great many people.

And if you believe this but are a little less extreme about stating it, it comes out something like this: The real He-Man is invulnerable. He has no weaknesses. Sexually he is super-potent. He does exactly what he pleases, everywhere and at all times. He is absolutely self-sufficient. He depends on nobody, for this would be a weakness. Toward women he is possessive, protective and patronizing; to men he gives orders. He is never frightened by anything or for any reason; he is never indecisive; and he always wins. In short, he is an alien monster, just as I said.

The trouble with this creature — the megalith with the beetling eyebrows — is the trouble with all mythologies. It's not that he doesn't exist, because everybody knows that he doesn't exist. I don't think there's a single sane man on earth who could seriously and honestly say: yes, I am all that, I am like that; I am never frightened of anything, I have no weaknesses whatsoever, I am a sexual dynamo, I always have my own way, everybody obeys me and so forth. We all know that such a person is impossible. We don't really believe that he exists. But we do believe that somehow — despite what we actually know about other people and ourselves — that he ought to exist, or that he's in some sense ideal, or that there's something wrong with people who are not like that. Or, at the very least, that it would be a hell of a lot of fun pretending you really are like that, even though you know you aren't and you couldn't possibly be.

Now I don't like this — part of the reason is obvious. This is an ideal that is BY DEFINITION absolutely closed to me. I can pretend to be Cleopatra but I can't very well pretend to be Antony. And for various reasons Cleopatra doesn’t appear in science fiction much. I like to think that because I'm a woman I can stand outside this whole business and be somewhat more objective than if I were caught up in it, as I think a man has to be, to some degree.

Also, you get something else very bad in science fiction from this confusion of maleness — masculinity — with power. You get what's been called porno-violence, that is, violence for the sake of violence. (Pornography of violence — porno-violence. An elegant word.) I certainly think that science fiction is less of an offender here, if you want to call it an offense, than what's called "mainstream" writing. But we do get a lot of this. I am also getting tired of characters who are tortured or flayed or impaled alive in various ways, or who have to drag themselves along corridors "in ablaze of pain" (it's always a BLAZE OF PAIN in these stories, nobody ever feels just Bleh) or they climb mountains while their lungs are bursting just so the author can enjoy himself masochistically by showing what strong stuff his heroes are made of. "Every nerve screamed with the pain coursing through him." We've all read this dozens of times. Sometimes it's pain and sometimes it's rapture, but it's always bullshit. Bullshit is nice for fun and games, but when you adopt the attitude behind the bullshit and try somehow to apply it or believe in it in real life, that's not good. What I mean is, power is areal thing. It exists. To have power over other people, to control other people, is areal thing which produces real emotions, real problems, real pleasures, real anxieties; to be controlled by someone else, or to be helpless, produces real emotions, real problems, real anxieties, real pleasures. A writer can depict these. But if he is all hung up on the masculinity-equals-power bit or the heroes-must-be-all- powerful-or-they're-not-heroes bit, then he isn't going to get at any of the real things at all. He's just going to thrash around in a sort of void. At the worst, he will simply produce stuff that is too dull to read. At best, he will produce a kind of pornography. But he won't get beyond that.

What pornography does is to exclude everything else, and — in the process, ironically enough — it ends up by excluding real sex, too. Porno-violence is pornographic because it excludes real violence, and the real experience of what violence is and means and feels like. It excludes real power, and the real experience of what power is and means and feels like. In their place, it puts myths, fantasies — in a word, nonsense. Let me return now to my beetle-browed, lumpy-muscled friend. I've complained about the bad effects of a system of values that makes being Ruler of the Universe the only decent position in life for a red-blooded American boy. But there is another objection to this system of values besides the way it messes up people's heads when it comes to thinking about power. I mentioned before, that although nobody actually sets up as the Invulnerable Superman, still there's this kind of omnipresent, vague feeling that it would be pretty nice if you could be an invulnerable superman, though, alas, one can't be in real life. Let me run down the list again: No weaknesses. Super-potent. Absolutely uncontrolled by others. Absolutely self-sufficient. Depends on nobody. Gives everybody orders. Never afraid. Never indecisive. He always wins. Ah! if only one could be like this. But is it so attractive, really?

Well, if you don't have traditional masculine values, then what? Traditional feminine values? I can't answer this vehemently enough. No no, a thousand times no. There are stories like that in sf and I hate them. If I opened Analog tomorrow and found that by divine fiat it had suddenly turned into the Ladies Home Journal, I think I would drop dead. And not just from shock, either. If anything gets me madder than the strong, laconic individualist who defeats Ming the Merciless by killing sixteen million billion aliens with his bare hands in four pages, it's the sweet, gentle, compassionate, intuitive little woman who solves some international crisis by mending her slip or something, when her big strong, brilliant husband has failed to do so for twenty-three chapters.

So, I picked on one thing for today. There are dozens of others. There are good things, wonderful things too, of course. And I'm not complaining about things I don't like just because there are going to be outsider’s analyzing sf and watching what we do and criticizing what we do and so forth. It's the kind of thing I would complain about anyway. I want the stuff to be better. I enjoy reading it even more than I enjoy writing it. I want it to be thrilling, and real, and alive, and about real people. I want it to be complicated and various and difficult, like life; not smooth and predigested and simpleminded, the way nothing is but bad stories. I want my sense of wonder back again.

And I have it all figured out for the summer, what I'm going to do in the class, I mean, When this keen, studious, frighteningly brilliant graduate student comes up to me and says. You know — I've been reading Savage Orbit. Now of course I understand the peripety in the last chapter, but I can't quite place the mythic resonance of the objective correlative . Then I will look at him —and smile, just a little, knowingly — a sort of Ellisonian smile — and say, Read it again. Page seventy-eight. Lithium hydroxide?" And he will be flattened for life!

Thank you.