Genre Benders: Larry Niven & Joanna Russ

Voice Literary Supplement
May 1985

 

            When I was growing up in the 50s, a period now described by nostalgia dealers as. the Golden Age of Science Fiction, SF was read mainly by teenage boys with spots and an interest in engineering. I wouldn’t have been caught dead reading it, and no wonder: in Ursula Le Guin's phrase, there wasn't a lot there besides "military heroics and wiring diagrams."
 
            Then came the thaw after the cold war, not tomention the paperback explosion, the 60s, and the feminist hemi-demi-semi-revolution. And science fiction changed. It changed so much it began picking up mainstream readers (i.e., non-engineering stu dents) like me, especially whenever I ran out of murder mysteries. Today a number of major SF writers are not only women but feminists, and someSF books even have female characters who are more than the usual Star Trek carhops or female-shaped inflatable cushions with receptacles between their legs.
 
            Caveat: a hemi-demi-semi-revolution doesn’t go the whole hog. Today’s critics of science fiction tend to talk about two varieties, “hard” and “soft.” I can’t help thinking hard means boys, like hardball, and soft, girls. The adjectives carry unavoidable connotations of gender, and while some men write “ soft” SF, mainly 60s types like Samuel Delany and Ted Mooney, “hard” seems, as we say in the academy, to be privileged. Over there on the main field with Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven, we find physics, space, and possible technologies. On the back field, with the girls’ team, there's a great deal of interest in psychology, political transformation, and gender relations. Did you ever see a boy sue to get onto the girls' softball team?
 
            So how do you judge a book? Is there a single standard for ball games, soft and hard, major and minor league? Should there be? Do people on the girls' team get points for being nurturant when their friends get hurt? According to Joanna Russ, in her brilliant and furious work of cultural demolition, How to Suppress Women’s Writing (University of 'Texas Press, 1983), the only single standard there's ever been is one that systematically put women's writing out with the garbage, and pretending we've made enough progress to have one now is self-delusion: "When we all live in the same culture, then it will be time for one literature. But that is not the case now."
 
            Her most recent book, Extra(Ordinary) People, and Larry Niven's The Integral Trees are both just out in paperback. They can be taken as paradigms of their respective ball games, or cultures, and can be criticized in their own terms—though one should suspend, at the back of one's mind, Russ's answer tothe statement "this is a good novel."
 
            "Good for what?"
 
            "Good for whom?"
 
            Larry Niven has a dazzling ability to make visible, embody, and explain scientific ideas about space and space travel. His reputation began with his stories of Known Space (his private universe), covering the next thousand years, the best of which is probably his 1970 novel Ringworld. Niven has also made immense sums of money collaborating with Jerry Pournelle on crossover novels—"best sellers" that reach the mainstream. Their big successes have beenThe Mote in God's Eye and Lucifer's Hammer, a disaster novel about what happens when Southern California is struck by a comet.
 
            Like the rest of our culture, SF has its right and left wings. Lucifer's Hammer, with its "Shoot first, ask questions afterward" politics, has becomea handbook for the survivalist movement. This is probably less due to Niven than Pournelle, whose political philosophy would have seemed eccentric until a few years ago. In an interview with Charles Platt (Dream makers, Volume II, Berkley, 1983), Pournelle praises "Ibero-Italian fascism" (not to be confused withGerman) because "Mussolini not only made the trains run on time, he built them," and says he doesn't "give a damn if the political system is monarchical or elective, so long as it has large areas in which it leaves me alone." Niven's political views, at least as they emerge in his writing, are more spacy than hard line, and not particularly passionate. He has the leisurely, ruminative tone of an 18th century gentleman traveler observing exotic customs on faraway shores and ascribing national character to climate, except when he's writing with Jerry Pournelle. Then his assumptions become pure 19th century social Darwinist and free enterprise capitalist.
           
            It is extraordinary how many science fiction writers assume the eternity of capitalism. Economics really is fundamental: a writer may be able to imagine worlds in which political structures are changed, human bodies radically transformed, and our mental powers augmented enormously by computers or the development of latent psychic capacities. But very few—only Ursula Le Guin, among the ones I've read—can flesh out an economic structure different from feudalism, capitalism, or state capitalism. Most assume capitalist economic relations are not only "human nature" but alien nature as well; free trade becomes universal in the most literal sense.
 
            Larry Niven's creatures, the Kzinti, look like big tigers; they are meat-eaters who love to fight and their elaborate feudal code of honor requires them to do so at the drop of a hat. They enslave other species and use them for meat. First Contact between man and kzin is hilarious; while the humans madly radio messages of love and friend ship, the Kzinti (who carry no radio) are wondering, "If they know we're here why haven't they tried to get away?" War between the species is inevitable, but the results might not be in our favor except that the universe is inhabited by lots of other oddballs. The Outsiders, for instance, who look like animated cat-o'-nine-tails and travel around in clouds, chasing star-seeds. They are smart enough to have invented faster-than-light drive, and human enough to sell it, for enough money. Then there are the Puppeteers, who are as funny-looking as Spielberg's extras, with humpbacks and eye stalks, but have more brains than humans. They also have more money, made by manipulating the Earth stock market and selling their universal spaceship hull, not to mention enough vision and gall to do large scale breeding experiments on other species. They breed Kzinti for forbearance—the touchiest ones get killed in the Man-Kzin Wars. In 2600 A.D., they meddle with the earth's Fertility Laws to set up the Birthright Lotteries, and isolate the gene for luck.
 
            The gene for luck? Well, why not?
 
            Humans need luck, with competition like this. In Larry Niven, humanity as a species is definitely not as bright as some. We have endearing features: our curiosity is a survival trait, and we are resourceful, energetic, and adaptable. We colonize planets called We Made It, Home, Wunderland, and Jinx, a heavy gravity planet where everybody looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger. We send miners to the asteroid belt to work in free fall, extracting precious minerals. Free fall changes a guy, mentally and physically: the Belters are immensely long and skinny, and have prehensile toes. But like the rest of us in Known Space, they mainly want one thing—the almighty dollar.
 
            Niven's imagination fascinates me: wonderful on biological variations and their cultural implications; amazing on scientific special effects and space visuals; but so limited on human desires and possibilities. This means his best books are the ones where aliens predominate·-the Known Space series and parts of The Mote in God's Eye. His aliens have all the zip; his men are high school kids, even when they're 200 years old, and as for his women, the less said about them the better.
 
            The Integral Trees has a couple of love scenes (not counting rape and forced prostitution), but Niven is only interested in them as engineering problems. How do you make it in free fall? Tie yourself to a tree with vines. There's none of the fascination with love and sexuality we find on the softball field. Of course, that would mean developing characterization, which many in hardball consider a frill. The main characters in The Integral Trees are juvenile leads worthy of a Broadway musical, and the narrative development is all over the place.
 
            You can see he started with an "idea"—what if God were a computer, embodied in a spaceship, sent by an absolutist state on earth to colonize places unknown. Sharls Davis Kendy is such a computer, housed in the spaceship Discipline; he begins all his communications, "Kendy for the State." Okay, so you have this computer-God; what happens if the passengers on the ship mutiny and settle in the wrong place? Can they edit the mutiny out of his memory? Can he cause them serious trouble? And what would they look like in 500 years—how would their society evolve? Especially if it was a two-class society to start out with, made up of human beings and. revived "corpsicles." Would the settlers imprison themselves in another authoritarian system? Would they manage to create smallscale freeform societies that let the anarchist in them flower? And what if the place they colonized were not a planet at all but the "Smoke Ring," a gas torus, or ring of atmosphere, in orbit around a neutron star, with oxygen and green plants and flying animal life all living in free fall? How would 500 years in free fall affect humans?
 
            There's masses of material here, plot ideas and hard science and speculation about human society and physiology. In fact, there's too much, or at least it isn't well digested. Niven begins to develop one theme, then gets off on another, remembers he has to pair off the juvenile leads before the end of the book, then remembers his computer is still waiting out there, etc. The book never quite comes together. Maybe he wrote it too fast. It's an occupational hazard, since science fiction is at the low end of the pay scale in the writing business. How many people can write two good novels a year? Or even one? Few of Niven's novels are as well developed as Ringworld and his stories have an unfortunate pattern of starting cute, having wonderful spacy middles, and ending with some dumb O. Henry turn.
 
            The Integral Trees is an example of both the potential and problems of SF; much of it still verges on formula fiction even in the hands of a virtuosos. If you want to write a Larry Niven novel, it helps to have a dazzling imagination. Combine it with fascinating but difficult science that needs more explaining (at least to me) than it gets. Then, instead of mixing it carefully with plot and character and baking it for a good long time, throw it into a processor (food, word, what's the difference) together with the elements of your basic boys' adventure tale: fights, raids, harems of slaves, a cast of thousands, breathtaking exotic scenery, and everything happening pell-mell, with never a dull moment. Do not cook it at all. Just pour it onto the page, because your readers are so hungry for this stuff they'll eat anything.
 
            It's too bad. The Integral Trees might have been as good as Ringworld, given more care. Niven can be such an interesting writer that I'll stick with him for a while longer, but he's starting to lose me. He and Pournelle have another big crossover book, Footfall, about an alien invasion, scheduled for this year. I don't think this association with Pournelle is doing Niven any good, except at the bank. It's as if he invented the Kzinti, then got so fascinated by them that he had to find one to collaborate with. Too much right-wing ideology—too much of any ideology—is hell on the imagination. How can you unleash your fancy and attempt to manipulate the reader at the same time? The innocence is seeping out of Niven's imagination like helium from a balloon, and his books are starting to feel mass-produced rather than written.
 
            Innocence is one of Joanna Russ's main attributes: the innocence of a baby or an Einstein, the ability to look at old things and. see them new. Joanna Russ is a brilliant, moving, innovative writer and Extra(Ordinary) People is her best yet. And when she is at her best, she has such an unequaled ability to show us what it would really feel like to be free of gender roles that she makes the current chic debate about sex/porn/violence/censorship seem unimaginative.
 
            When she is not at her best, her writing can be flip or fall into pastiche, and her early books sometimes walked a knife edge between fiction and feminist polemic. This must be what got her the reputation for being difficult. She isn't hard to read, but she is demanding. She writes with feeling about uncomfortable and painful things, in a way quite remote from the field of boys' adventure tales, and can transfigure her subjects as few writers can. Partly because you have to be a grownup to do it.
 
            Russ has two main subjects. The first is what she's known for: sex-gender differences, the way they are culturally determined and potentially mutable. She invented a planet called Whileaway, where the men all took sick and died from an unidentified virus that didn't harm the women. The women proceeded to reproduce by a kind of parthenogenesis; they formed marital relations, and built a civilization that lasted 300 years, a utopia in which all the available roles—auto mechanic, hero, poet—were filled by women, and all notions of what was feminine faded away. Then they were discovered by a spaceship from Earth. I leave the rest to your imagination.
 
            Russ worked that vein for some years, exploring the permutations of sex-role socialization. In The Two of Them, Irene and her lover Ernst, agents of the Intergalactic Trans-Temporal Authority, are sent to the planet Ala-ed-deen, a Moslem world where the women are kept in purdah. Irene finds a brilliant, charming, doomed little girl, a girl like herself when young, and ends up rescuing her, taking her out of her own world into—what? Do the limitations imposed on humanness by gender end in space? Is there anywhere imaginable where a woman can be really free? Irene has a combination nervous breakdown/political rebellion trying to find out the answer. .
 
            Extra(Ordinary) People gets astonishingly close to imagining such freedom. As always, Russ creates complex characters and writes, line by line, with as much natural feeling and eloquence as one could wish. The heroine of her first story, "Souls," which won the Hugo for best SF short story in 1983 is the Abbess Radegunde, head of a little nunnery in an English seacoast town. Some say she is a witch, some a saint. What is she really? Through the eyes of the narrator a little boy she has saved, we see her change when the Vikings come to kill and rob and we hear her earthy, pungent, mystical voice, which reminds me of Shaw's St., Joan.
 
            I determined to find a real, human lover, but when I raised my eyes from my fancies to the real human men ofRome and unstopped my ears to listen to their talk, I realized that the thing was completely and eternally impossible, Oh, those younger sons with their skulking, jealous hatred of the rich, and the rich ones with their noses in the air because they thought themselves of such great consequence because of their silly money, and the timidity of the priests to their superiors, and their superiors’ pride, and the artisans' hatred of the peasants, and the peasants being worked like animals from morning until night, and half the men I saw beating their wives and the other half out to cheat some poor girl of her money or her virginity or both—this was enough to put out any fire! And the women doing less harm only because they had less power to doharm, or so it seemed to me then. So I put all away, as one does with any disappointment. Men are not such bad folk when one stops expecting them to be gods, but they are not for me. If  that state is chastity, then a weak stomach is temperance, I think.
 
            The book is a tour de force in several ways. It is enormously playful in a literary sense, each tale being a parody of one or another form of popular literature, linked by a rather perfunctory frame tale that's like a joke on Erich von Daniken. There are loads of literary in-jokes and I don't get them all, but it doesn't matter. The sureness of her tone and her sense of fun carry one along.
 
            And her imagination, which in "Bodies" takes us to a future where sexuality still exists but gender, in the sense of socially determined sex-appropriate ways of feeling and behaving, has long gone. Into this future world come two misfits from the past—James Bunch, a British transvestite, and the narrator a wry Portland businesswoman of the 1970s. They are cloned by scientists who look for a specific EEG pattern ("The pattern is chronic misery"), then reach back and pinch a few cells, regrowing these people of our own day, with all their memories, in a world freer than their wildest dreams. What will they make of such freedom? Can earth's miserable minority stand liberation?
 
            Russ's second main theme, her central story in book after book, is this one: the orphan, crying unheard. It's the same story you find all over Hans Christian Andersen, Sherwood Anderson, Chekhov, Gorki, Dickens, Charlotte Bronte: the child whom no one understands, different from the rest, crushed by her environment, searching vainly for her own kind. It is William Blake's cry: "O, why was I born with a different Face? Why was I not born like this Envious Race?" It is the myth of the birth of the artist.
 
            Russ's anger at human distortion and stupidity, at the way people are crushed between social stones, gives her writing energy; her compassion for the pain of these distorted limited creatures lends her stories grace. But this is science fiction, with its elements of wild romance, so the orphan artist can be rescued: Saved! Not just by enduring, or growing up and escaping, or by gaining wisdom through suffering, or becoming a revolutionary so that others will not suffer as she did. No, she can be really saved in time before she dies of loneliness, by an angel, fairy godmother, alien come from whatever outer space to take her away and hold her and comfort her even in the most physical ways as well as through telepathic understanding. As the male/female/ alien narrator in Russ's third tale, a parody of Victorian porn called "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman," saves Maria-Dolores, the waif from the slums of Barcelona.
 
            How can anyone resist this? It's one of the central human fantasies, the lonely child suffering trial by ordeal, then suddenly, miraculously, finding rescue, safety, warmth, food, and love that gives her a mother, friend, lover and teacher all at once. Jane Eyre can have it all while there is still time, before she is deformed by bitterness.
           
            No wonder they call it science fiction.
 
            They could also call it literature. But some people in the trade object to that term. Commercial crossovers that bridge the gap between SF and best-sellerdom are fine. But Russ demands imaginative participation and emotional response from the reader. That sort of thing could get out of hand. Maybe that's why Larry Niven's books are still in print, while, of Joanna Russ's fiction, only Extra(Ordinary) People and two books of short stories are available. Her best-known book, The Female Man, which sold well, has been out of print for nearly 10 years, as are her other novels (And Chaos Died, Picnic on Paradise, and The Two of Them). Two others, Kittatinny and On Strike Against God, were published by a small press that has now folded.
 
            I can't understand the book industry; half the time when publishers try to cut costs, they cut off a leg instead. Joanna Russ's work is one of the places fiction is going; they have to keep her in print to educate the future reading public. This woman is a major writer. But maybe that's the problem. Major writers aren't supposed to specialize in science fiction, any more than they're supposed to write historical novels or romances or westerns or detective stories. Those who would like SF to remain a cult, as it was in the 50s, see any outside attention, even critical praise or mainstream best-sellerdom, as dangerous. In a recent Publishers Weekly, an SF editor raised the slogan "Let's get science fiction back into the gutter where it belongs." He feared that the genre is being ruined by best-sellers on the one hand and by highbrow writers who come in with agendas of their own on the other. Both import values that should be alien to the field, such as "Stylistic virtues\ characterization, complex panoramic story, near-future setting, all of which will…insure more favorable critical and review response from outsiders."
 
            Publish too much SF that's well written and the fans might get dissatisfied with the rest of it. Most SF books already have guaranteed paperback sales of $30,000 to $40,000, according to Ursula Le Guin, so why rock the boat? It's good, sound, conservative business thinking, like the wisdom that kept our ancestors home for thousands of years, knowing if they sailed too far they would fall off the edge of the world.

 

Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.