Joanna Russ (1937-2011) was one of the most influential science fiction writers of the second half of the twentieth century. This novel – which takes its title from a phrase quoted by Roman historian Suetonius and allegedly uttered by prisoners in the fighting arena “Caesar, we who about to die salute you, ” – was first published in the UK in the Women’s Press groundbreaking science fiction series. (You can find a full list of the novels in the series here).
So you might expect a novel appearing in a science fiction series to be, well, a science fiction novel. Yet the science fiction element starts and stops on the first two pages in which a group of eight passengers – travelling to another planet by some kind of manipulation of the fabric of space – end up on an unknown planet which might not even be in our own galaxy. So far, so Lost in Space. However, this isn’t a cheery tale of plucky humans bonding together to survive in challenging conditions. Far from it.
In the first half of the book the majority of the survivors, who have no survival skills and are relying on strictly limited supples of food and water, decide that they must carry on and build a “civilisation.” The book’s female narrator, a musicologist and a Quaker, (who records the ensuing events on a voice recorder, perhaps for posterity, perhaps not) responds that “Civilisation is doing fine…We just don’t happen to be where it is.” She believes that the others are deluding themselves and that they should prepare to accept their inevitable death. She sums up their situation to herself:
Goodbye ship, goodbye crew, goodbye books, goodbye freight, goodbye baggage, goodbye computers that could have sent back an instantaneous distress call along the coordinates we came through (provided it had them which I doubt), goodbye plodding laser signal, no faster than other light, that might have reached somewhere, sometime, this time, next time, never. You’ll get around to us in a couple of thousand years.
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, and a water -distiller with its own sealed powerpack, good for six months (and cast as a unit, unsuitable for anything else).
At dawn I held hands with the other passengers…although I hate them.
O God, I miss my music.
She also objects to the proposal that the younger women must become pregnant as soon as possible, whether they want to or not and whether they like the man or not. The survivors have reverted to male control, sometimes by violence, with the women sidelined, other than as future mothers. The narrator quickly becomes ostracised and decides to leave the others to their own devices. Or so she hopes.
In the second half of the book the narrator, now on her own, slides into a hallucinatory state as she thinks back to her former radical political activity as a Communist in the “twenties riots” and starts to see people from her distant and more recent past. The end is perhaps predictable from the start.
This is an intelligent, extremely well written novel exploring issues around male and female roles in society and how we should die in a good way, but the science fiction element is a merely a mcguffin to launch the narrative, and having served its need, is swiftly dispensed with. The events could just as easily have taken place on a deserted island after a shipwreck.