Joanna Russ

Article excerpt

Writer and critic who helped transform the science fiction genre

Joanna Russ was a pioneering feminist, both as a novelist and an academic. Along with Ursula K LeGuin she was at the forefront of a generation of women writers who dragged science fiction away from stories apparently aimed solely at adolescent boys. Female writers of the previous generation, such as Leigh Brackett and CL Moore, had often downplayed their gender with ambiguous bylines, and wrote stories every bit as action-filled as the men. But in the late- 1960s sci-fi was redefining itself as the broader "speculative fiction", with stories that confronted mature situations, including sex.

Russ's 1975 novel The Female Man remains a centrepiece of feminist fiction. It tells the stories of four genetically identical women, in effect four Joanna Russes, in alternate worlds, which contrast her society with others more utopian or dystopian. It is a sometimes difficult mixture of postmodern storytelling and a sharp satire of the time it was written in, and reflects Russ's own background and influences.

Joanna Ruth Russ was born in 1937 in New York City, where her parents were both teachers. In high school in the Bronx she was a star science student, but she took her degree in English from Cornell University in 1957, having studied under Vladimir Nabokov, in a programme that produced, among others, Thomas Pynchon and Richard Farina. While working on a Master of Fine Arts degree in theatre writing at Yale Drama School she sold her first story, "Nor Custom Stale", to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction.

Her first two novels were published in Terry Carr's influential Ace Specials series. Picnic on Paradise (1968) continued the adventures of a time-travelling character named Alyx, whom Russ had introduced in short stories, who in this case acts as a guide to a group of tourists on a hostile alien planet. And Chaos Died (1970), chillingly dystopian, is in some ways her most ambitious work; its style was compared by the writer and critic Samuel R Delany to such postmodern masters as Nabokov and Djuna Barnes.

Russ's 1972 short story "When It Changed" won a Nebula Award from the Science-Fiction Writers of America. The story was an extract from The Female Man, which Russ had begun in 1969, around the time she came out as a lesbian, and finished a year later. It was finally published in 1975, by Bantam, under the imprint of the key editor Frederik Pohl. …