The Female Man was hardly the first feminist science fiction novel—
my college professor Anne Mellor has argued, in an influential essay, that
Mary Shelly's
Frankenstein, published 150 years before Joanna Russ's
book, should be read as a radical critique of gender roles. And many
other sci-fi writers broke out of the stereotyped male and female
character types in the years leading up to
The Female Man.

Ursula K. Le Guin, eight years older than Russ, played a key role in
the process, establishing gender roles and sexual preferences as a
legitimate focus for probing science fiction works, but even Heinlein
and Asimov could challenge prevailing conventions of masculine and
feminine behavior in strange and surprising ways during the course
of their future-tripping narratives. On the other extreme, a number of
women genre writers actually played the role of real-life 'female men'
—adopting pseudonyms that convinced most
fans that they were guys. Author C.L. Moore
met her husband, fellow sci-fi writer Henry
Knutter, when he sent a fan letter to "Mr.
Moore," only to discover, apparently to his
subsequent delight, that he was a she.
Surviving correspondence indicates that
Andre Norton's publisher Houghton Mifflin
had no clue that she was actually a
woman (born as Alice Mary Norton). Even
more secretive, Alice Bradley Sheldon did
such a good job of hiding her identity behind
the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. (she took
the last name from a brand of marmalade)
that virtually no one in the science fiction
community was aware that she wasn't a
man until she was in her 60s.

Despite these precedents, Russ's book stands
out as a milestone event in the history of science
fiction. The boldness and bravado of the dialectic
in her book—more than half of this novel is devoted to ideology and
cultural critique—made this an unusual work, even during an age in
which sci-fi authors increasingly addressed social and political
topics in their stories. And when plot and character development do
move to the forefront of
The Female Man, they clearly serve to advance
an agenda. Russ certainly wants to entertain her readers, but she is
even more committed to persuading them, and that preference is
felt on almost every page of
The Female Man.

Russ is just as iconoclastic in structuring her narrative as in advancing
her arguments.
The Female Man tosses around protagonists and
settings as if they were hot dice in all-night craps game, leaving behind
a series of unresolved complications and stranded characters in the
process. But what seems, at first glance, blatant disorder in the plot
eventually morphs into the literary equivalent of theme-and-variations.
The individual stories that constitute
The Female Man exist in separate
time-space continuums, but they bear a family resemblance to each
other, as do the various main characters.

Let’s call them the
4 J’s. Jeanine lives in a world much like our own,
except for quirky differences in fashion and culture. She is a librarian
who wants to get married, but is depressed and exasperated at the
potential husbands available to her. Janet is a visitor from a future
alternate universe known as Whileaway, where all men died long
ago and women created a nomadic pastoral society. The assassin
Jael comes from a different alternate future, and can also travel
through time; but watch out for this visitor from another world—her
home society takes the concept of the 'war between the sexes'
seriously, very seriously. Not only do Manland and Womanland exist
as separate nations, but the ladies are hatching a plan to kill off the
fellows.  And then, presiding over them all—or at least trying to run
the show—is our last J, and the most powerful of them all. Joanna,
the author herself, or her fictional alter ego, inserts herself into the
various subplots and dialogues, full of motherly advice that the other
J's frequently ignore.

How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have an ungrateful
character!

A few other women have prominent secondary roles in this book.  
We meet Laura, from the same time-space continuum as Joanna—
which may very well be the actual United States, circa 1970—and
follow her budding romance with Janet.  We get a brief glimpse of
Janet's Whileaway wife Vittoria.  And, you ask, what about the men?
Well, plenty of them show up for cameo appearances, but they are a
sadass group of guys. They are needy and whiny, phoney and bossy,
egotistical and domineering. You will hardly care that many don't even
get assigned a name, and won't shed a tear when a few even get
assaulted or murdered.  In the world of
The Female Man, this is their
comeuppance. (It's no coincidence that this novel came out around the
same time that Charles Bronson's
Death Wish films were drawing
packed houses at movie theaters—they both, in their different ways,
appeal to the latent desire among the victimized and oppressed for
do-it-yourself vengeance.)

None of the men stay around for more than a few pages, but before
they disappear they say stuff like this: "You want it.  You want to be
mastered….you're waiting for me, waiting for a man, waiting for me to
stick it in, waiting for me, me, me." This bloke gets eviscerated by Jael,
and bleeds to death on the next page—but it would have been better
for all parties, and especially the reader, if it happened even sooner.

Russ is much better at showing complexity and depth in her female
characters. The four J's may all be chips off the same block, but they
still bicker among themselves and challenge each other’s preconceived
notions. I'm happy to report that, at the close of the novel, they overcome
their differences (as well as the boundaries between their various places
in the space-time continuum) and gather together at a restaurant for a
Thanksgiving dinner. The food is mediocre, but no one gets murdered
here, and no man shows up with a lame pickup line. Instead, the
protagonists serve up the trademarks ingredients of Russ’s novel,
namely pointed dialogue, confession and assertive social commentary.

The rest of us can join in that process. Indeed, a lot of the science in this
sci-fi book is expendable, and far less passionate than the polemic.
Before I read this book, I assumed that
The Female Man would focus
on genetic and biological technology—and we do get a tiny dose of that
in these pages. But when author (and character) Joanna Russ gets into
her groove, she makes clear that the most radical dissection of gender
and sex is, always and everywhere, conceptual and behavioral. That's
a powerful idea, and one that—fortunately for us!—doesn't require a
time machine or visitor from the future for rumination and response.


Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His next book, Love
Songs: The Hidden History
is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: June 30, 2014
To purchase, click on image
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
The Female Man

by Joanna Russ


Essay by Ted Gioia
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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