The Female Man – Joanna Russ
A brilliant novel, in the sink-or-swim school of storytelling (a lack of exposition akin to Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series), which I find invigorating. Don’t let that description daunt you: the explanations will come, in time, unfolding organically from the subject matter of character interactions. The Female Man stretches across four parallel worlds, and the lives of four women living within them. When Janet Evason, ambassador of Whileaway, begins crossing between the worlds, comparing the varying gender roles and experiences of the different women cause them each to reevaluate their own lives, and their implicit notions of what it means to be a “woman” (a person, really).
A Quick Primer on the Four J’s:
- Joanna – lives in a world similar to that of the 1970’s Western culture.
- Jeannine Dadier – lives in a world where the Great Depression never ended.
- Janet Evason – lives in Whileaway, a high-tech utopian-agrarian society of the far future, where all men have been dead for nearly a millennia following a devastating plague. The inhabitants have mastered parthenogenesis.
- Jael – an employee of the Bureau of Comparative Ethnology, which studies parallel universes and people’s counterparts throughout them.
The novel opens as Janet suddenly arrives in Jeannine Dadier’s world – a grim place where the Second World War never took place, and the Great Depression is still ongoing. Janet takes Jeannine with her to Joanna’s 70’s-era Earth type world; they are all a little in awe of Janet, who is as capable and forthright as the men they have been taught to admire, but not to emulate. She also distresses them, by behaving in outlandish ways, and failing to adhere to the social niceties of their cultures.
Eventually we discover that the three women have been brought together by Jael, who declares that the four J’s are the same woman, but in differing universes. Jael’s world is in the midst of a 40-year-long war between male and female societies; it becomes apparent that she is an assassin, and her chief aim in uniting the women is to create power bases in each of their worlds to continue the fight between genders across the universes.
The novel is a confusing mish-mash of the four characters’ stories, some occurring while in company with the other J’s, others taking place in the past, or whilst alone in their worlds. The reader is whirled from one place to another, with the suffocating dysphoria of Jeannine’s Great Depression society a threatening undertone which maintains suspense.
The idyllic life on Whileaway – spent in hard agrarian labour in a high-tech world, pausing for five years after turning thirty in which to give birth and pursue one’s own interests for the first time since childhood – becomes a paradise the reader longs to read more of, if only to escape from Jeannine’s dreariness, Jael’s ruthless cynicism and Joanna’s personal conflict. Whileaway is not only interesting as a vignette: the existence of a successful and highly functional female society addressed Russ’ desire to create a world where the female human being exists as the measure of humanity itself, as opposed to being the exception (as expressed by Simone de Beavoir, the female is often the insufficient and mysterious Other in a masculine-centered universe).
Overall, I believe The Female Man to be an examination of how people deal with conflict, and the manipulation that societies and cultures use to force obedience. It is also incredibly entertaining, and an invaluable read for anyone who has been told that they cannot act a certain way, or be a certain person, because of who they are. It is infuriating, invigorating and cathartic, and I cannot recommend it highly enough – just stick to it, through the initial confusion. You will be rewarded.
“If Jack succeeds in forgetting something, this is of little use if Jill continues to remind him of it. He must induce her not to do so. The safest way would be not just to make her keep quiet about it, but to induce her to forget it also.
Jack may act upon Jill in many ways. He may make her feel guilty for ‘bringing it up’. He may invalidate her experience. This can be done more or less radically. He can indicate merely that it is unimportant or trivial, whereas it is important and significant to her. Going further, he can shift the modality of her experience from memory to imagination: ‘It’s all in your imagination.’ Further still, he can invalidate the content: ‘It never happened that way.’ Finally, he can invalidate not only the significance, modality, and content, but her very capacity to remember at all, and make her feel guilty for doing so into the bargain.
This is not unusual.”
R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience
K.L gives The Female Man 5 out of 5 dimension-hopping genius farmers.
SPOILER ALERT! DANGEROUS WORDS AHEAD!
“When Laura tried to find out who she was, they told her she was ‘different’ and that’s a hell of a description on which to base your life; it comes down to either ‘Not-me’ or ‘Convenient-for me’ and what is one supposed to do with that?”
I was sitting in the lunchroom at work, reading The Female Man: specifically, the section about Laura’s inexpert seduction of Janet Evason (who sees it coming and really, really tries to be good, the age difference being a taboo on her planet, but not enough of one to stop her), after the running dialogue/recollections of her life, all the social injustice of it, the man-centric, Depression Era rot, where woman is an appendage, not a person…
…And this phrase grew like a soap-bubble and burst, setting my brain spinning while I sat at the table, trying not to stare light-headedly at my coworker Sue, who was by chance sitting opposite and would not understand if I were to try and explain it to her. The phrase was:
We all deserve to be people.
What inspired this soap bubble of thought? In answer, I must paraphrase a character’s declaration in The Female Man, which reads, “When I act like a person, people ask me, ‘Why are you being so emotional?’ ”
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