Review: “Picnic on Paradise” by Joanna Russ

This is a review of “Picnic on Paradise,” from The Adventures of Alyx by Joanna Russ. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1983. 192 pages.

If you want to know anything about “Picnic on Paradise,” you’d better get to know Alyx.

Alyx, a combination warrior-huntress and thief, is a protagonist who shows up in many short stories by Joanna Russ. Although her physical attributes vary throughout the stories, the Alyx-ness remains in all versions. The Adventures of Alyx is a 1983 anthology that arranges the five stories sequentially, giving deeper meaning to the character when read back-to-back. Although she is whipped about through time and space and sometimes even through different subgenres, the character is given a narrative arc that transcends any one story.

The first three stories in the compendium (“Bluestocking,” “I Thought She Was Afeared Till She Stroked My Beard,” and “The Barbarian”) are standard fantasy fare, with Alyx playing roles as a princess-snatching rogue, abusive-husband-escaping pirate, and sorcerer’s apprentice. Aside from a few short and direct conversations with other characters (and the general tough-babe attitude that Alyx exudes at all times) the stories aren’t overtly feminist like Russ’s other projects like The Female Man.

Starting the anthology off with these banal examples of Alyx’s independence and fierce attitude feels like a misstep, although they lay the groundwork for the prize gem of the Alyx series, “Picnic on Paradise.” By the time the reader arrives at “Picnic on Paradise,” s/he understands Alyx as a roaming warrior in an ancient fantasy world, which changes the minute she’s dropped into the future, on a planet much like Hoth. (But without the Tauntauns.)

“Picnic on Paradise” brings the other stories up to its level, and works so well because the reader has already established a relationship with Alyx that paints her as an incredibly capable huntress who gets what she wants. In this short story, Alyx is made leader of a bunch of spoiled future tourists on a harsh ice planet. She is tasked with maintaining their safety, even though enemies (the corporate armies in a “commercial” war, implying a bleak future in which consumers are caught in capitalistic cross-fire)  attack them at every turn and their stay is extended by roughly 45 days due to a navigation error.

This story paints Alyx in a less complimentary light—she is no longer the heroine who always gets the better of her enemies. She devolves into a lesser being who cannot control the childlike impulses of her charges. Not only does she have to fight a language barrier, but she also butts up against unfamiliar social norms. The snowy, barren, mountainous setting reflects the social landscape before our protagonist, so that every failure (either interpersonal or navigation-based) is heightened and cumulative.

It’s a long, sad story with many deaths. Alyx eventually becomes a shell of what she once was, and the reader is impacted even further due to his/her initial belief that she was an impenetrable force of female will. “Picnic on Paradise” becomes an ironically-titled tale of the fall of our heroine.

The final story in the collection speeds ahead many years and gives an account of the actions of Alyx’s granddaughter. We can see that, through this granddaughter character, the sprit of Alyx lives on and her fall in “Picnic on Paradise” is justified.

Throughout the anthology, Alyx grows and changes, and the stories are stronger for it. Russ deals with other themes like psychedelic drug use, masculine power, female sexual agency, motherhood, and fantasy tropes, all while wrapping them up in a pro-female empowerment bow.

I’d recommend this anthology to anyone who enjoys:

  1. Semi-cheesy yet self-aware fantasy starring female leads, like Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 or anything by Joss Whedon.
  2. Tense arctic survival narratives, like Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void or The Thing (1982).
  3. Explorations on kaleidoscopic life stories, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010).

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