Author Archives: aopowe
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the authors that we’re studying don’t hang out with each other on a daily basis. With so much correspondence in the UO Special Collections to read, there seems to be a never-ending dialogue between these writers that simply must continue over Sunday brunches and late-evening walks. Aren’t those the things that all authors do?
Apparently, some of them don’t. Because many of the authors are quite geographically diverse, some of them only see each other at conferences or when one of them makes a great trek to spend a weekend with another. Delany writes to Russ in his letters about how sometimes he doesn’t feel like he really knows her, since he only sees her from her own self-representations in her letters. They do meet in person sometimes, but more often than not they are forced to learn about each others’ personalities through letters and professional writing.
This is something that I think everyone can relate to—not seeing a friend as often as you’d like, and thereby needing to find out about each others’ lives via written correspondence—but authors have an extra perk that the rest of us don’t have: It’s their job to be articulate in writing. I wonder what this means for their relationships: Are the relationships between writers that are based on written correspondence more fully-developed or cleverly detailed than the same kinds of relationships between non-writers? Or do they get bogged down in storytelling techniques?
In the UO Special Collections, there is a lot of correspondence between Joanna Russ and Samuel R. Delany. Delany played a large part in developing Russ’ understanding of her own sexuality and power as a woman. Between the two of them are multiple letters that talk about what it means to be an artist, especially a non-heterosexual and/or female artist.
Because of the way that the special collections has collected the letters of these authors, I will primarily be looking at letters that Delany sent to Russ. I will use these letters to try and dissect themes that crop up in Russ’s stories. Although it is extremely presumptuous to assume complete understanding of any causation between an outside force and an artist’s output, I believe that the friendship between these two authors was so strong that I can point to its effects on Russ’ writings.
I was initially drawn to this project through my own love of Delany’s work and interest in his life. When I found out that the UO Special Collections had boxes and boxes of his letters to an author we would be looking at this term, I was excited to get my hands on tangible pieces of his life. I’m excited to take an even closer look at this ephemera to better understand how Delany related to the novels we’ll be looking at in class. If I can uncover that he had any influence on the writing by one of the genre’s main authors, I’ll consider this final project to be a resounding success.
Joanna Russ Papers, Boxes 3 and 4, Coll 261, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Or.
Delany, Samuel R. The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965. New York: Arbor House/W. Morrow, 1988. Print.
Delany, Samuel R. Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia. [Middletown, Conn.]: Wesleyan UP, 1996. Print.
Russ, Joanna. The Adventures of Alyx. London: Women’s, 1985. Print.
Russ, Joanna. The Female Man. Boston: Beacon, 1986. Print.
Russ, Joanna. The Two of Them. New York: Berkley Pub. : Distributed by Putnam, 1978. Print.
Being mired in academia can sometimes be exhausting. The constant rigid adherence to a 10-week timeline and flow of assignments and meetings form a bubble around those invested in education, so it sometimes is hard to remember that there is a whole world out there that doesn’t behave in this peculiar way.
While browsing the Special Collections for a (surprise) school project, it was then very funny and surprising to hear two of my favorite authors wryly discuss the pitfalls of education.
In a letter to Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany wrote about how professors in academia are likely to think of the world’s whole range of human intelligence as perfectly represented in the gap between their worst and best students. He explained that since these professors are surrounded with learning minds all day, they sometimes can get trapped in the mindset that the whole human race works on the same sliding scale. (Is there a ring of truth to that, Stabile? Hopefully in teaching FemSciFi this term your worldview is markedly more positive than some other terms.)
Delany, at the time of the letter’s writing in 1971, had taken some classes at City College of New York but had not yet become a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. He had also attended the semi-prestigious Bronx High School of Science, so Delany was no stranger to teachers and their (sometimes exasperated, sometimes optimistic) attitude towards students.
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:
- Semi-cheesy yet self-aware fantasy starring female leads, like Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 or anything by Joss Whedon.
- Tense arctic survival narratives, like Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void or The Thing (1982).
- Explorations on kaleidoscopic life stories, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010).
Although many of the letters between Samuel R. Delany and Joanna Russ range in topic from quotidian events to discussions about queer theory and literature, a few are pure gossip.
Delany goes on at length in one 1971 letter to Russ about a dinner party he was a guest at, detailing the strange personalities of everyone in attendance. These comments (though sometimes factual and enlightening, like the person’s name and occupation) often steer into scathing critiques of manners, eating habits, and conversations. Nothing is ever too biting and Delany never comes off as cruel, but he has a knack for describing personalities with a laser beam-like approach.
In another letter, the pair discuss a recent article about Ursula K. Le Guin. The author of the article explains Le Guin’s extreme liberalism and how it is reflected in her literary work. It also outlines the way that Le Guin has steered Science Fiction writing back towards utopian settings. Russ, Delany, and the article author all seem to agree that utopian fiction is a fad that has passed and Le Guin’s resurrection of a failing genre is an annoying retread of old topics, albeit with new conclusions regarding feminism, lesbianism, and anarchism. Delany, the writer of this letter, seems to admire Le Guin from afar, although it seems he doesn’t know her personally. (Especially because he always seems to have an anecdote about everyone in his letters—No one is simply ‘Joe,’ they’re more like ‘beautiful, blond-haired Joe with the beautiful, blonde-haired wife.’)