We Who Are About To...

From Fanlore
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Title: We Who Are About To...
Creator: Joanna Russ
Date(s): January-February 1976
External Links:

Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

We Who Are About To... is a 1976 science fiction novel by Joanna Russ.

cover of the January 1976 issue of "Galaxy Science Fiction"
cover of the Dell book.

It first appeared in magazine form in the January 1976 and February 1976 issues of "Galaxy Science Fiction" and was first published in book form by Dell Publishing in July 1977.

Russ wrote this novel, in part, as a response to Marion Zimmer Bradley's book, Darkover Landfall, after a letter exchange in the Canadian feminist zine The Witch and the Chameleon. See that page for the letter series.


The story takes the form of an audio diary kept by the unnamed protagonist. A group of people, with no technical skills and scant supplies, are stranded on a planet and debate how to survive. The men in the group are dedicated to colonizing and populating the planet, but the unnamed female protagonist, who does not believe that long-term survival is possible, resists being made pregnant by them. Tensions escalate into violence, until finally she is forced to kill the other survivors in order to defend herself against rape. Left alone, she becomes increasingly philosophical, recounting her personal history in political agitation and attempting to chart the days and seasons even as she begins to hallucinate from hunger and loneliness. She experiences visions, first of the people she killed, and then of people from her past. Finally, weak from hunger, she resolves to kill herself. [1]

Written, in Part, As a Rebuttal

In November 1974, the second issue of the Canadian explicitly feminist zine "The Witch and the Chameleon" contained a very critical review by Vonda McIntyre of Marion Zimmer Bradley's book "Darkover Landfall." McIntyre's review generated many letters by readers, including a rebuttal by Bradley herself.

One of the responses to this review was by Joanna Russ. Russ went on to write a response fic to "Darkover Landfall" called "We Who Are About to...." -- FEMSPEC: “Reproductive Futurism and Feminist Rhetoric: Joanna Russ’We Who Are about To...”, Archived version by Rebekah Sheldon, 2009 </ref>

Vonda McIntyre wrote a long and detailed review of Bradley's Darkover Landfall, which criticized the novel for upholding this "old pioneering spirit." Bradley's novel is about a starship of the Colony Expedition Force that crashlands on the wrong planet and is forced to make many decisions about the colonists' future. This involves a decision to treat the women's wombs as communal property to ensure successful propagation of the race. McIntyre's negative review of Darkover Landfall attracted many letters in subsequent issues of "The Witch and the Chameleon." Joanna Russ was one of the correspondents on the subject. In response to Bradley's rebuttal of the McIntyre review Russ wrote, "The question, to put it bluntly, of whether a woman's uterus belongs to her or to the community she happens to find herself in (or rather its male authorities) has been a very hot political issue in the U.S. and some parts of Europe for at least a decade; I am surprised that Bradley didn't expect vehement relations to a novel in which host this question is the central issue of the plot." [2]

Reactions and Reviews


[1996] "A damningly fine analysis of the mechanics of political and social decay", offering the interpretation that "Russ suggests that the quality of life is the purpose of living, and reproduction only a reparative process to extend that quality—and not the point of life at all... only feudal societies can really believe wholly that reproduction... is life's real point." [3]

Russ and Clarke:

I happened to read almost simultaneously (no, not quite one book in one hand and one in the other) Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To... and Arthur C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust. One can hardly imagine two more dissimilar writers nor two more dissimilar novels, given that both novels deal with the same situation: a number of people thrown together by the random chance of transport are placed in a situation where they cannot survive.

Clarke takes for granted that the social relationships between men and woman, and the social status of women, will remain exactly what they were when he wrote it in 1961. That it remains a novel I still re-read is due not so much to his writing skill as it is to his determination to stick to the classic form of hard science-fiction. (To me the thing I love about hard SF, done well, is that it lets me boldly go where I have never gone before. A good hard SF writer is a tourist guide on a trip out of this world. With Isaac Asimov I have slept weightless in space, with Saturn's rings for a nightlight. With Arthur C. Clarke I have flown over Titan and Jupiter and explored Rama, and of course, I have walked on the Moon.)

Russ, writing fifteen years later (1975 - 1977) also writes a novel where the social relationships between men and women, and the social status of women, are much where they were; but she doesn't take it for granted so much as make an agonised prediction. (It's said, with how much truth I do not know, that WWAAT...) was written in response to Marion Zimmer Bradley's appallingly unhopeful Darkover Landfall. It's true, because I did it, that mentioning Joanna Russ to MZB guarantees a unusual snarl about "textbook feminists". I never got the chance of putting Russ, Bradley, and Pat Califia on to the same panel to discuss the impact of lesbian-feminism on science-fiction, and vice-versa, though it was one of my first ambitions in running the gay programming stream at Intersection, as three strikingly different lesbian-feminist science-fiction writers.)


The key paragraph of AfoM is: "At the speed of light, waves of relief and happiness would now be spreading over the Moon, the Earth, the inner planets, bringing a sudden lifting of the heart to billions of people. On streets and slideways, in buses and spaceships, perfect strangers would turn to each other and say 'Have you heard? They've found Selene.'"

The key paragraph of WWAAT... is: "At dawn I held hands with the other passengers, we all huddled together under that brilliant flash, although I hate them. O God, I miss my music."

Clarke's novel is about people working together, about saving lives, creating hope. It's also about how to survive as a group with dignity, even when you know you are about to die in a week.

Russ' novel is more complex, less satisfying; crudely, it's about the right of every individual to choose death with dignity, not to be forced into a repugnant course of action by a majority vote. (Majority rule is something which Quakers strongly disapprove of, which makes the following quote and pun even better; "'A Trembler,' he said. 'My God, a Trembler in our very midst.' I shut my eyes. - 'The Quakers,' I said, 'called themselves the Society of Friends. They were called Quakers because some fool heard John Fox say he quaked in the presence of his God. Actually I like to think of myself as a temblor. Never mind.'")

What does all of this prove? Nothing, except that when you put the same idea into the heads of two different people at different times you get different novels. The yeast and the flour may be the same, but no one except a factory ever baked two identical loaves of bread, and factory-baked bread isn't worth eating. [4]

In Darkover Newsletter

Darkover Newsletter 7

The comments by the fan below are not part of the challenge in "Darkover Newsletter #7":

[September 1977]:

I think I remember that Joanna Russ story when it was serialized in AMAZING [5] and throwing the last installment across the room. I don't like stories where every one is dead at the end. It depresses me if I have cared for any of the people at all, and I get enough depression listening to the 6PM news. Survival may not be all-important but nothing, NOTHING will be important if there are no survivors. I too wonder exactly just how much women who talk against survival have ever had to fight for anything really basic like food. I'm trying to write about a semi-medieval after-the-Bomb society (about 1200 years after) and you can bet the people are survivor types. (All those who thought like Joanna Russ died out.) I also happen to like men and live with one and see no reason to apologize for it. A lot of feminists drive me up the wall for this very reason. I also couldn't agree with you more about fannish women. Most I have met are very intelligent and make no apologies for it. They are mostly people I enjoy talking to which is more than I can say for the neighbours. (I've remarked elsewhere that the chief topic of conversation around here is how to toilet-train your kid.) I've come to the conclusion that most people simply don't like using their minds and resent those who do. Those who do are usually so glad to meet someone similar that they don't care about the gender of the other person. Practically all fans seem to have felt isolated before fandom. Isolated in a world where football, sports cars and sex seem to be the chief topics of conversation. Well, on second thought add TV and singing stars. Most of this bores me very quickly.

Let me make myself clear. I do not want to see a novel dealing with the Darkovan Woody Allen. (As a sketch in a zine though...) All I ask is that someone not be best in everything. Couldn't there be a third best swordfighter or some such? I did like the fact that Damon was nearsighted though. I think that's fandom's chief ailment.

I wasn't that upset that Jaelle fell in love with a man. Most women do sooner or later. She only then really KNEW what her Oath meant. Good heavens—any relationship involving two people involves compromise and readjustment. Why shouldn't it for Jaelle? It's only then that she discovered what was really important to her. [6]

Darkover Newsletter 7: The Challenge

In issue #7 of Darkover Newsletter (September 1977), Ted Bryan, the editor, wrote an essay which addressed this book. It was called DARKOVER SPINOFF. Or maybe that should read CONTRARY MOTION—VERY.. In it, he said that being a "mere male," he was unqualified to review it himself, and invited fans to send their opinions to the newsletter.

Darkover Newsletter 7: The Challenge: Letters

These letters were then printed in "Darkover Newsletter" #9/10 in January 1978 with the introduction: "Back in DNL #7, MZB alluded to a new book by Joanna Russ, entitled WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO..I, and Ted Bryan, admitting that as a mere male he was probably unqualified to review it though it is obviously in contrary motion to DARKOVER LANDFALL, invited anyone interested to review Ms. Russ's book: "Maybe one pre-judged feminist review, and one from some other viewpoint, so that readers can take their pick?". Well, never let it be said that Friends of Darkover are afraid of controversy. We have received, to date, no less than four sharply contrasting reviews, which speak for themselves without any need of apology or editorial comment."

[A woman writes]:

I don't feel qualified to review Ms. Russ' latest book. It disappointed me greatly, but after re-re-rereading THE FEMALE MAN the earlier part of this week, I came upon something: The "Whileaway" of When It Changed is not the "Whileaway" of THE FEMALE MAN, and I am compelled to say that Ms. Russ' worldview is, in my opinion, declining. She seems to be becoming more and more nihilistic, and this reaches such a low in WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO... that I was horrified. The plot synopsis as Ms. Bradley described it (in DNL 7) is accurate, and she was charitable. I have never been so repulsed by anything written by a woman. I would like to defend Ms. Russ but I cannot. I am probably what you call a "pre-judged Feminist," but this is NOT a Feminist book.

[A woman writes]:

WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO... tells us that the passenger compartment of the space ship ejects, and eight people are in it. One woman is 50, another 42; a girl-child, 12, was so defective when she was born that the only things that really worked were her nervous system and her skeletal muscles. Three men, one of whom soon dies of heart failure. The narrator, a woman without a name, gives on p. 23 a short list of reasons why they should not try to survive. The last one is, "There aren't enough of us." That in itself would be enough reason, as anyone who has tried breeding experiments knows.

The narrator tries to run away and starve to death rather than be forced to try to have a child. The others find her and she kills all of them. I must say I agree with her; but she did not take the logical next step until she had given up on starving to death, I guess; at any rate she goes on for a long time dictating random thoughts into a recorded.

This book really dodges the question about trying to establish a colony on an alien world. It could not possibly have been done under the conditions given. In DARKOVER LANDFALL, there were a large number of people, a high proportion planning to colonize on another planet, skills and supplies and good genes, physicians and other necessary experts. Among so many people there might have been a few with no courage but on the whole conditions were favorable.

[A woman writes]:

By "pre-judged" I presume you meant biased in favor of the book because it (reputedly) espouses a Feminist viewpoint. I think, in saying this, that perhaps it is you who have prejudged the book. It is not "about' Feminism. If one can reduce it in such a way, it is a novel "about" the art of dying.

The plot is simple. Eight people are landed, by a mechanical dysfunction, on a "tagged planet," that is, a planet which previous survey has decided "is fit to support human life." The eight people (five women, three men) are a fair physical cross-section of the human race, which means that they have distinct and important psychological traits, physical capacities and incapacities, and learned abilities. The oldest man has a heart condition. The youngest of them, a 12-year-old named Lori, is badly allergic to a number of things. The narrator is a musicologist, 42 years old, with bad feet. The six other adults decide to make an attempt at colonizing. The narrator, takinq a long realistic look at the situation, decides they're crazy. They decide she's crazy. They try to force her (as a potential breeder) into staying with them. She escapes. They follow her. She kills five of them. One man dies. One woman comnits suicide. The narrator then settles down to starve herself to death. She narrates her entire process into her vocoder. Almost the entire second half of the book is taken up with her dying.

The conflict occurs because the other adults assume they have the right to force the narrator into staying alive, in a situation in which she believes it is hopeless for them all to stay alive. She makes it very clear why. They are totally at the mercy of each other and the environment. Their food and heat source will only last six months. They can get sick at any time and there is no reason to assume their antibiotics will work on this planet's bugs. They cannot deal with a heart attack, an allergy, a breech birth, a broken leg, a winter, a local predator, or each other's prejudices and personalities. If it were Earth... but it isn't. "If Earth had been hit by plague, by fire, by war, by radiation, sterility...I'd still stand by her; I love her; I would fight every inch of the way there because my whole life is knit to her...But this stranger (planet) has never seen us before." The narrator believes it is her moral right NOT to stay alive. The others cannot accept this. She kills them.

And then dies.

She has been (perhaps still is) a member of a religion nicknamed the Tremblers, which believes that the central act of living is in the understanding of dying. She spends a long time at it, describing the physical effects—weakness, etc.--and the psychic ones--hallucination, recrimination, self-examination, and so on. Part of her belief is that living is the act of dying, and to die well one must have lived well. During her starvation she examines her life, what she calls "all that dying." I don't want to describe that further. She goes through a number of emotional experiences and conflicts about her life, her friends and lovers, and about the killing. She does a lot of questioning and wrestling with her own motives. I suggest that readers of this Newsletter who are interested or intrigued, read the book. I found it morbid, lucid, and fascinating.

Where it intersects with DARKOVER LANDFALL is at that point where the narrator insists that the others do not have the right to force her to stay with them, have babies, or even survive. In her philosophy, since the end of all living, for the individual, is ultimately that the individual dies, no-one and no group can force you to live in a way that you don't like. Controlling other people is immoral, because basically none of us has any control: we all die. Gore Vidal wrote a science fiction book about this theme, titled MESSIAH.

I liked the book, was involved with the narrator. The prose is complex, it made me work, but I like that. I recommend it. But I want to stress, though the book may have been written in response to DARKOVER LANDFALL, I see no reason for people to take sides. MZB would agree, I think, that a writer is separate from what she writes. Those people who may have attacked MZB personally for somethina they felt was inadequately justified in her writing, were wrong. HE WHO ARE ABOUT TO... ought to be criticized and/or enjoyed on its own merits, not because of assumptions about Joanna Russ's politics, or because of previous controversy.

[A man writes]:

I've been swindled! I bought the pb edition of WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO...by Joanna Russ because it stated that "portions of this book first appeared in GALAXY MAGAZINE." Bullshit, what I got was what appeared in GALAXY in the 1976 Jan. and Feb. issues. If there was any revision it didn't show.

I've mixed feelings about this book. Part of it is good satire, but most seems to just drag. The story opens very improbably, with a phony setup designed solely to maroon eight people on a planet for plot purposes. Sloppy work here, Joanna. Do you. really believe automated lifeboats of the future will have so little facilities? Tsk, tsk.

Anyhow, here are eight people,four of each sex. and before you go on I recoimend you reread DARKOVER LANDFALL. (I assume you had enough intelligence to read it when it first came out.) Note the fact that a female ship officer was denied her usual right to an abortion on the grounds that the expected baby was needed for the colony, a colony guaranteed to sink into savagery in a few years. MZB has received some criticism about this, and in my opinion justified. No woman should be forced to bear children against her will, especially when it is certain they will live a miserable life. She gave some poor excuses in SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW, none of which convinced me.

They didn't convince Joanna either. After that creaky opening we get down to a critique of every "lost in space but we will form a colony" that has become one of the overworked clichls of sci-fi. Russ proceeds to dissect this sort of plot with the greatest of ease, throwing in some good satire in the process. It turns out that we have as Main Protagonist a woman whose name is never mentioned.

(This is Serious Literary Writing, friends. Not naming the main character is Russ's idea of being very modern, or something like that. This is one of many affectations of style that make the book a drag.)

Said woman had objections to being raped. She kills most of the others after running away and being pursued to make her womb a benefit to the colony, or whatever. (The males have made this decision, of course.) Well, that should be that, right? We've had a good novelette that would have been improved with more straightforward storytelling, a nice satire on several SF cliches. Then comes the last half.

All the others being dead, the unnamed woman proceeds to starve herself to death, and does so in a stream of consciousness that runs over 70 pages in the paperback edition.

The biggest question of these 70 pages is who dies first, the woman of starvation or the reader of boredom, which is a shame, since the work could have been a stunning satire on all the Lost Colony books ever written, including DARKOVER LANDFALL. [7]

Darkover Newsletter 11

From a fan in March 1978:

I skimmed the Joanna Russ book — and was appalled at the arrogance it takes to decide that decision for another person, and kill. To clarify a little: If, as in DL ["Darkover Landfall"], a group of people lands by mistake on a world and has no other way to survive than to return to the basic protection of the child-bearing elements of the group, then, particularly if they were meant to be a colonizing group to begin with, it seems perfectly rational that all the limitations and protections mentioned in DL should be strictly enforced. The only question I have on it is, once a woman is beyond the age of childbearing, these restrictions would be relaxed, wouldn't they? Especially in the first generation or so — which would become custom as time went on. Women would become the carriers of tradition from one generation to another (the men, who would be doing the heavy physical labor, would probably have a short lifespan by comparison; whereas if a woman survives past menopause, the most contributlve thing she can do is teach, and make sure the traditions and so on are passed on to her grandchildren). Old women vould be allowed a considerable (comparative) freedom in behavior. (Well, it seems reasonable. Doesn't it?) But Ms. Russ. decides that her heroine's bodily integrity is of paramount importance. . . Well, good for her; I won't waste my money on the book. Personally, I live in a society, I don't try to dictate to it. [Ted Bryan, the editor added: MZB wrote in the margin of this [letter] saying "Right on, Sister," and I don't know what can, or could, add to that. However, in all justice, Russ states her case rather eloquently in a recent issue of JANUS, a fanzine published somewhere in Michigan or Wisconsin, and one should read what she says as well as what we say about her. The fact that she is not on the same same wavelength as many of the Midwestern Friends may simply reflect the fact that, as our anonymous letterwriter wrote above, the issues of feminism perhaps begin with where you ARE, and Russ, who has been active in the women's movement for many years, is starting in a different place than some of us. MZB has asked me to sound out the membership —do you feel that this extended discussion of feminism violates out desire to stay out of politics?]

Further Reading/Meta


  1. ^ from We Who Are About To... at Wikipedia
  2. ^ from "The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction," by Justine Larbalestier, 2002, page 150
  3. ^ Samuel R. Delaney, (1996) Longer Views: Extended Essays, Wesleyan
  4. ^ from Jane Carnall at Reviews (unknown date)
  5. ^ This fan gets the title of the magazine wrong: it was "Galaxy Science Fiction."
  6. ^ from Darkover Newsletter #7
  7. ^ This letter was previously printed in ECHOES FROM OZMA #109, for APA-L.