What would you do on a desert island?

This is a child's question, one built around ideas of safety, solitude, and self-exceptionalism. You would survive where others would not, because you're so crafty, so good, and, of course, the hero of your own story. No longer you would be ordered about by parents, teachers, older siblings, politicians. You wouldn't have a bedtime. You'd crack coconuts open with your forehead and run screaming naked down the beach and hide in your inviolable treehouse at night while the local fauna howled and screeched in the jungle below.

The desert island survival story is a child's fantasy, which is one of the reasons why it's a staple of pulp literature. When it's Robinson Crusoe, the story's about acquisition, planning, and salvaging what can be used from the wreck of civilization. When it's Swiss Family Robinson, it's about Soldiering On And Even Having Fun. Once the military industrial complex developed nuclear weaponry, American SF produced an update: the bunker story, in which the world itself is the desert island. Take Robert A. Heinlein's 1964 novel Farnham's Freehold, in which a "middle-class American family who survive World War III" have to repopulate the Earth. Heinlein being both sexually liberated and a libertarian, this repopulation definitely involves the patriarch reevaluating breeding stock.

Joanna Russ' 1977 novel We Who Are About To... transplants the desert island story to space (or, at least, an unknown, barren planet therein). Russ' characters must deal with the fact that they will never be rescued. While humanity, with all its amenities, churns on amicably (or not so amicably) elsewhere(s), they have to start over, carry on, or just give up. Our never-named narrator sets the scene early: "We're a handful of persons in a metal bungalow: five women, three men, bedding, chemical toilet, simple tools, an even simpler pocket laboratory, freeze-dried food for six months".

The narrator immediately foresees how deeply fucked they are. Her issues run the gamut from, "That plastic was a lousy building material," to "That there wasn't enough of us." (Even given the best planet possible and the benefit of the doubt, you're not going to Adam and Eve it with just seven people.) So our narrator asks repeatedly, as her fellows begin to formulate a plan of action, to just be left out of it. Not that she actually expects they'll listen. Part of the narrator's lack of confidence is founded in her understanding of gender dynamics. When an ad hoc council forms and suggests that baby-making is first on the agenda, the narrator observes, "...the patriarchy is coming back, has returned (in fact) in two days".

Behind the narrator's situational hopelessness, however, lays a despair so deep it flirts with nihilism. If the narrator merely did not want to have sex, much less give birth, her position would be sympathetic, and the novel a relatively obvious feminist response to such SF as Farnham's Freehold. Instead, Russ pushes the text to the point of moral and ethical brinksmanship: the narrator also wants to be allowed to wander off into the bleak alien wilderness and starve to death. And she is willing to kill all of her fellow passengers/settlers/humans to do so.

Why? At first it appears as if Russ is rewriting No Exit, but as an American Simone de Beauvoir in techno-pulp mode. The caustic portraits the narrator draws of her fellows are often hilarious, allowing just enough humanity to peek out from beneath self-obsessed, self-justifying, self-narrating facades to make (some of) their fates genuinely upsetting. They still don't seem like people you'd want to spend the rest of your life with, even if it's a short one.

Just over halfway through the novel, however, Russ gives her narrator exactly what she wants. It is, of course, a punishment, but not delivered from a place of cold authorial judgement, but rather a granted self-scourging. Now the reverse of a prophet in the wilderness, cast by herself out of her community, the narrator is visited by the private agonies that drove her (presumably) to space travel in the first place. (We never do learn where she's going to or from). The narrator has been, at different times, a neo-Christian, a Communist, a political exile, a power broker, and a lover of two persons: one betrayed her, the other, she betrayed. The result is a despair in which the political and personal are inextricable, and the future is not an option. (Though she readily admits that she is afraid of death.) As the narrator says of the planet: "I think everyone loves it here because their choices are all made for them; we were never very comfortable with our fate in our own hands, were we?" The narrator's marooning is thus merely the impetus for her to face the horrible choice she would have otherwise only been delaying.

While the novel is quick and dirty, reading like a fever dream, it's also an impressive display of authorial chops. The narration is relayed vocally into a recorder hung around the neck of the narrator, so the syntax begins as atemporal and post-hepcat, spiraling from there into a deep strangeness, which is still, somehow, both highly legible and capable of imparting reams of biographical backstory with the smallest of touches. You can read this novel very slowly or very quickly, but you can't read it at any kind of even pacing; it is not an even book.

In her afterlife, as her life, Russ is a criminally underappreciated writer. (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction refers to her as "the least comfortable American sf author".) However, a recent New Yorker piece by B.D. McClay has helped shine some necessary light on Russ' impressive body of work. McClay focuses upon Russ' earlier still-controversial masterpiece The Female Man, which engages in formal contortions far more obvious, and extreme, than We Who..., while enlisting four narrators to illuminate a wider spectrum of personal experience and political thought. (Unfortunately, this includes a transphobia not uncommon to even radicals of the time.) Though Russ lived to 2011, her last piece of long fiction (the novella Souls) was published in 1989. As Henry Wessells observes, the "reasons Russ effectively stopped writing by the mid-1980s are largely medical...There are few events in science fiction as tragic as the silence of Joanna Russ."

Brendan C. Byrne writes fiction for places like Big Echo and Terraform, criticism for places like Rhizome and Filmmaker Magazine. His novella The Training Commission, co-written with Ingrid Burrington, appeared in 2019. His novella, The Showing of the Instruments, appeared in 2011.