The Female Man

Joanna Russ
The Female Man Cover

The Female Man -- Don't read this as SF

Tar Daddoo

[I am not sure that The Female Man should be reviewed as a Science Fiction story, but that is the way I read it and so I will review it from that perspective. At the end, I will return to consider how this might have been read more fruitfully.]

What is the Science Fiction Premise?

In The Female Man we learn that there are many parallel universes and an ability to travel in time across universes. In one of these universes we encounter a woman who lives in an all-female society.

Is the science of the premise explored?

I rather like the author's perspective on time travel. It is based on a branching approach to parallel universes, which offers many universes with varying degrees of similarity. She proposes three properties of time travel that address some of the problems inherent in most "theories" of time travel.

First, time travel is only feasible between parallel universes, which ensures against paradoxes. I don't think this completely eliminates the possibility of paradoxes, but it does push them off a bit further.

Second, the author recognizes that the branching or splitting into multiple universes should not be based on history or human decision-making. To do so would imply a special relationship between humans and physics. Thus, she supposes that the branching occurs on a more molecular and therefore neutral level. This is a detail that many novels miss.

Finally, she posits that this branching is quantized, which ensures that there are not an infinite number of universes. This ensures that one can locate and relocate a particular known universe. Given the number of universes, it still seems likely that locating any one would be difficult. Nevertheless, it is interesting that the author addressed the concern at all.

As for the all-female society, we learn that all the men died out due to a plague centuries earlier. At some point, someone figured out how to engineer babies based on two ova, making it possible to continue the species without men. This led to a fairly egalitarian and communal society, in which a mother is freed from work for the first five years of her child's life. Then at five, the children are sent to school (a form of boarding school) and the mother returns to work. One of the interesting aspects of this society is that it does not offer a particularly romantic view of the mother-child bond. After the children go to school at five, their relationship with their parents is not especially strong.

Is the impact of the premise on an individual explored?

It is not obvious that any of the characters are changed by their time travel. They meet each other and reflect off one another, but they do not necessarily change. There is one non-time traveller who does appear to be changed by her encounter with a time traveller, but the time travel is not really an essential aspect of this encounter.

Is the impact of the premise on society explored?

It is also unclear whether the time travel is having any impact on society. We are given glimpses of many different societies, but they do not seem to be affecting one another. Time travel is used mainly as a device to learn about these alternate societies.

How well written is the story?

This book is a challenge to read. Though the novel is short and the writing style is crisp, the author is taking us on a difficult and unfamiliar narrative journey.

For one thing, major portions of the story are told in first person, but the character doing the telling shifts around without warning. For another, the author herself is one of the characters. This is not merely the device of having a narrator who is part of the story. This character admits to being the author, claims superior knowledge of events within the story, is called Joanna, and at one point is referred to as Russ. In addition, the person telling the story - whomever it might be at that moment -- seems to be invisible when they are simply telling about the events associated with another character. (This invisibility occurs even though the two characters appear to be able to talk to one another.) These three devices make it difficult to find a solid perspective from which to view and understand the story.

Moreover, the author takes the liberty to insert lengthy sections that are not directly related to the action of the story. These are invariably quips, vignettes, and diatribes concerning the lot of women in society. In one instance, there is a page that mostly catalogs sentence fragments revealing how language reinforces a diminished and subjugated role for women.

Can I recommend the book?

I have seldom been so relieved to finish a novel. It was not that I was frightened, offended, or even disturbed by the book. I was simply confused and bored.

I approached The Female Man the way I approach most Science Fiction. I looked for the science and the story. Though the science was interesting, I don't think the author was very interested in it. Though the stories were interesting, I'm not sure the author was especially interested in them. I think the author was primarily interested in talking about women in society and did not really care if the science and the story got lost along the way. On this basis, I find it extremely difficult to recommend the book.

[Having said all that, what if we take a different approach to this novel? Let's not treat it as Science Fiction, but as a polemic in which the author uses a Science Fiction premise to engage in thought experiments about the situation of women as it is and might be. Viewed this way, the inclusion of the author as a character, the shifting use of the first person, and the invisibility simply reveal that all these characters are really the author simply projected into new situations. The quips, vignettes, and diatribes now seem less self-indulgent; they are part of the whole point, which is to reveal and catalog the many ways in which women are oppressed by men, by society, and even by the language.

My guess is that had I approached The Female Man in this fashion I would have been far less confused. I doubt I would have been less bored. For one thing, most of the arguments while new to many in 1975 have become familiar.

But this is not the real issue. Good arguments bear repeating and Joanna Russ does see many of the ways in which language and habit trap our thinking. My difficulty is that I would prefer to be shown the problem than told what it is. One of the characters, Jeannine, reveals her entrapment in a very compelling and poignant story. Another, Janet, shows us how strong a woman could be if freed of these bonds. When the novel uses narrative, it moves and holds my attention. When it devolves into wordy excursions, it loses me. Sadly, it felt like less than 70% of the novel was narrative, which meant that the author's message was often a chore to receive.]

Tar Daddoo