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3.9 out of 5 stars
We Who Are About To...
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on February 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I was young when I first read "We who are about to..." Too young, really, to grasp the full concept of life and death, the two main currents that lie within the book.
A cruise vessel of the future manages to miss the point in space that it was attempting to fold to, spinning amazingly far off course and crashing into a planet that is in no way guaranteed not to kill the survivors. A politician, an upper class family, a "jock", a young sex object, a washed up waitress, a supposed tactical expert, and a musician (our heroine) all help make an ensemble from Hell. Nothing goes according to protocol, and chaos ensues as the musician experiments liberally with her psychoactive drugs.
While in a science-fiction setting, Ms. Russ manages to maintain a surprising lack of the technological; the underlying concept of the story being Gilligan's Island on Acid. As Social Darwinism takes its course, the value of life itself is called into question.
This is not a book for those who are set in their ideas of God and living; this is for those who remain unsure as to what lies in store for them, and what may be the meaning of life.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I read the reviews, and expected something very different that what I read in this book. I expected a angry, egotistical feminist rant. I expected thoughtless, selfish murder who knocks off everyone else simply because she is twisted and hateful. This book wasn't like that at all.

I will say, though, that the way it was written, especially in the begining, was really frustrating. The main character is making a recording of happenings, and the book is written like those recordings. The punctuation was wierd, with periods in the middle of sentences sometimes, and the whole mess was very choppy. There were side comments or sarcastic remarks in parenthesis. It got better later on, but at the start of the book, really annoying, hard to understand at times, and unnecessary. I subtracted one star for that. I really don't like to read stories that are "told" like diary entires. I want a story, not a dictation.

Spoilers are below . . .

A group of people crash land on a planet, with earth like gravity and air. There are four women, one of which is 13 or so, and three men. The social structure reverts to a male dominated one. The main female point of view, is that of the odd person out. Everyone is all geared up for survival and colonization. None of them have survival skills, the only real tool they have is a water purifyer, they have only a very basic, and minimal med kit, with a few antibiotics and such, and they have no way of testing food or water for poisons.

There is one woman who is smart and has the best survival instincts. She takes charge of finding water, after a pair of men say they are going to and then don't. Upon her return, she chastizes one of the said men for waisting bath water on the ground when it could have been recycled. He physically attackes her and beats her up. He orders her to treat him with more respect. The woman allows this man to take charge, and she actually support him after that, they kind of tag team the leadership, but she pretty much goes along with what he wants. When he elects himself chairman of their group, everyone but our female protagonist supports him.

The female protagonist doesn't think that wasting energy and time on survival and colonization is worthwhile. She gives a big speech in the begining regarding all the things that can kill them, child birth, food poisoning, ect . . . which pretty much ostrisizes her from the rest of the group. No one wants to hear it and shun her. Her posessions are forciably convescated. The group, meaning the men, and one woman that I could see, decide to build shelter and start having babies. The men decide who will have sex with who, in what order, without input from the women. Our protagonist wants no part of it. They argue they have to continue civilization, and she says, quite rightly, that civilization is doing just fine somewhere else. She says she won't do it, they tell her she has to, she tries to leave, they physically prevent her. Now, remember, the chairmen has already physically attacked one of the women for asserting her authority over him. Our protagonist is a petite woman much smaller than the others. She lies, she pretends to go alone, she hides part of her possessions (those not stolen by the group) and steals other supplied. She runs away, but the group follows, attacks her. Along the way, she lets one man dies, kills three in self defense, is forced at gun point to give over medication so another can commit suicide. She does out right murder the last, the 13 year old, and by that point, I finally saw definate madness. But, though I won't argue that she was predisposed to madness, I feel she was clearly driven to it by the situation and the rest of the group.

Afterwards, we have a complete descent into madness. There is starvation, and hallucinations. She goes through guilt, self doubt, self justification, self dillusions and self hatred. She doesn't try to eat any of the indiginous plant life and she doesn't go back to the original camp to get more food. She goes through many thoughts that would plague any woman. Woman are raised to be self deprecating, serving, accomidating and dedicated to the well being of others. There is this whole struggle in her hallucinations of conflict between these sterotypical female traits, and the preservation of the group, and the preservation of herself, both body and mind.

What I got from this book, was the sttuggle between supporting the whole however the whole decides it should be supported with no consideration to individuals right to choose, and the actualization and preservation of self. What would I do in a similar situation? When my personal liberties are violated and my right to choose for myself is forciably denied? What legnths would I go to? At the begining of the book, I would have said - not murder - without question - not that. But, if I was under threat of personal violence, rape and forced pregnancy? In a inhospitable world with little to no chance of survival let alone rescue? I wouldn't want to have children in that environment, and I shouldn't have to, and I certainly feel I shouldn't be forced to. The human civilization in the book is moving along just fine elsewhere. I found myself sympathizing with the protagonist a great deal. She wasn't a thoughtless, blood thirsty, despicable person. Did she have to cross the line she did? No. Did she have valid reasons for doing so? I feel she did. Would I have done the same? I'm no longer sure I wouldn't. What would a man have done if he were asked to sacrifice his leg so the group could live? Prevented from refusing? Hunted down and dragged back if he runs away? Tied to a tree and forced to in an environment without medical care? He could die from blood loss or infection. Anyone think this isn't the same thing at all? I read an article that 25% of birthings were fatal to the mothers before modern medicine. So, the danger to the mother is obvious. Our protagonist didn't want to perticipate, for many reasons, some of which were the danger to herself, but also the baby and the futility of attempting to start a colony with no skills, no supplies and so few people. When backed into a corner, and threatened, she fought back.

This story brought up very interesting questions of group versus self that many of us don't want to consider. And the thought of a woman willing to abandon the group and kill to protect her individual self is shocking to some. But, it is a damatized expression of what many women have to go through every day, what every person has to go through in some form or another really. The question becomes, where will we each draw the line? Where should is be drawn? Who will try to tell us where to draw it? Does anyone else have the right to redraw it for us or remove it all together? If our line is crossed, what will we do? What should we do?
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2012
Format: Paperback
As I review this book, the average rating on Amazon is three stars, despite the fact that nobody has rated it so. This book polarizes; readers either love it or hate it. And that was Russ's intention. She did not write a feel-good book; even those who love the book are not uplifted, entertained, pleased to read it. The book is an assault on your preconceptions, your belief in life, civilization, human decency. It is the long suicide note of a deeply depressed person that the world simply will not leave alone. You are not supposed to like the protagonist; she is not a likable person. You are, however, meant to understand her. And of course there are those who don't; these people tend to decry the book as a boring feminist screed. These are probably the same people who just can't understand what feminists are so angry about - women earn a whole 80 cents for every dollar a man earns!
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12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on June 9, 2005
Format: Paperback
John W. Campbell's formula for great science fiction was, famously, "ask the <em>next</em> question." That's exactly what this bracing, challenging, bleak, funny, deeply subversive novel does, elegantly undercutting decades of unexamined science-fiction adventure cliches.

Recommended for anyone who ever wanted to lay into Compulsory Optimism with a meat ax. "The human race is fine. We're just not there."
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Caution: minor spoilers ahead. Also, trigger warning for rape and violence.

The year's 2120 (roughly), and an unlucky group of space travelers find themselves stranded on an barren alien planet devoid of animal life. Hurled there by a multi-dimensional explosion, they have little hope of being rescued, the nature of space travel being what it is: in essence, the folding of spacetime. Do it wrong and you can end up "God knows where, maybe entirely out of [y]our galaxy, which is that dust you see in the sky on clear nights when you're away from cities." (page1)

Though the planet is "tagged" - meaning that, at some time in the distant past, a team of scientists surveyed a square mile of the planet's surface and found nothing in the atmosphere that's immediately lethal to humans - it's far from hospitable; the narrator variously describes it as the Sahara, a tundra, the Mojave desert. They have few supplies - a water filter, enough dried food to last six months, a pharmacopeia of drugs stashed on the narrator's person, and the ship itself - none of which present a solution to their precarious situation, the book's futuristic sci-fi setting notwithstanding. With no way to call for rescue (assuming that rescuers could even reach them during their natural lives!) the survivors are left to their own devices. They are five women and three men.

Most of the group resolves not just to survive, but thrive: almost immediately, they set about colonizing the planet. Within days this new society devolves into an Upper Paleolithic patriarchy, the women of which are reduced to little more than baby makers, walking wombs. With the middle-aged Mrs. Graham luckily excused from service, and her daughter Lori a few years too young to bear children, that leaves three women: Nathalie, a young adult who was on her way to begin military training when the ship crashed; Cassie, a thirty-something ex-waitress; and the narrator, a 42-year-old musicologist with medical issues. Whereas Nathalie and Cassie somewhat reluctantly agree to "do their duty," the narrator (cynically but realistically) scoffs at their plans. In an especially amusing exchange, one of the men insists that it's their responsibility to rebuild civilization. "But civilization still exists," the narrator points out. "We just aren't a part of it anymore." (I paraphrase, but you get the gist.) Humans, always the center of their own little worlds!

Naturally, the narrator's fatalistic observations do not go over well.

Despite the obvious difficulties of starting over with nothing, the women are initially disallowed from doing manual labor (though this policy changes rather quickly), and just four days in the seemingly affable Alan savagely beats Nathalie for "disrespecting" him. (I guess he didn't get the memo that womb-bearers are to be protected.) When the narrator gets especially "uppity" and starts to talk of suicide, she's put on 24-hour watch so that her precious uterus is not compromised. Eventually the narrator - who's recording these events after the fact on a "pocket vocoder" - escapes on a "broomstick" (a small hovercraft), finding refuge in a cave several day's travel from the group's camp. Instead of letting this "troublemaker" go her own way, the group chases her down and attempts to drag her back "home," where she's to be tied to a tree, raped, forcibly impregnated, and made to carry and birth a child against her will. Barbaric, right?

And yet many reviewers seem to blame the narrator for her own predicament. She's nihilistic, narcissistic, a feminist harpy shrew. Indeed, by story's end the narrator comes to believe that she deliberately provoked her fellow survivors into a confrontation because she wanted an excuse to lash out at them physically. And perhaps this is true. But they still took the bait. Even after she removed herself from the situation, leaving them to do as they pleased, they hunted her down, with the intention of violating her in the most intimate and traumatic of ways. She (and the other women) was dehumanized and objectified; treated as little more than a means to an end. I fail to see how a little extra politeness on the narrator's part would have altered the men's plans.

Suicidal throughout the story - likely even before the crash - in the narrator I see not misanthropic feminazi, but rather a burned out and disillusioned activist (Communist, neo-Christian) who, when suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with death, is overcome with a sense of tired resignation. In life, she was unable to change history; and now, she will die outside of it. "I'm nobody, who are you? Are you a nobody, too?" (page 33; lower-case mine.)

WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO... is dark with a capital "D" - definitely not for everyone, as evidenced by the book's polarized ratings on Amazon. I found it compulsively readable - kind of like Margaret Atwood's dystopias (THE HANDMAID'S TALE, ORYX AND CRAKE, THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD), but minus her tentative sense of hope. I'm a newcomer to Joanna Russ - I think I accidentally stumbled upon this book via a BookMooch recommendation, perhaps because Atwood, Octavia Butler, and Ursula Le Guine are heavily represented on my list - and have already added most of the rest of her oeuvre to my wishlist. A must for fans of feminist science fiction.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
We Who Are About To… (1976) is the third of Joanna Russ’ science fiction novels I’ve read over the past few years. For some reason I was unable gather the courage to review The Female Man (1975) and might have been too enthusiastic about And Chaos Died (1970). We Who Are About To… is superior to both (although, not as historically important for the genre as The Female Man). This is in part because Russ refines her prose — it is vivid, scathing, and rather minimalist in comparison to her previous compositions — and creates the perfect hellish microcosm for her ruminations on the nature of history, societal expectation, memory, and death.

Highly recommended for fans of feminist + literary science fiction.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

The classic situation: multi-dimensional explosion hurls a spaceship en route to a new colony onto a barren planet. Due to the nature of starship travel (folding space) there is zero chance of contacting others. Rescue is never a possibility. The unnamed narrator, a musicologist, leaves an audio diary — her words, recorded in secret almost every day, is the version of events we read.

Russ manipulates this common sci-fi scenario. None of the characters have survival skills. The planet contains no aliens or fascinating vistas. Rather, a human drama unfolds — a twisted, dark vision. Be warned, Russ does not conjure the Star Trek miracle syrup plot device à la ”different characters who initially don’t like each other learn to work together and conquer the problem and conjure a communication device that rescues them from the clutches of certain death.” The reader knows the end result from the first sentence of the first page.

Similarly to D. G. Compton’s brilliant Farewell, Earth’s Bliss (1966), Russ’ varied cast is adeptly characterized from the very beginning. {The cast} The women: the narrator (a baroque musicologist, an activist past, neo-Christian leanings, a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals), Mrs. Valeria Graham (a middle-aged wealthy woman who purchased her husband and daughter, wears an Indian sari), Nathalie (a soldier trainee who despises civilians), Cassie (an ordinary woman, the only one whom the narrator cares for), and Lori (Valeria’s twelve-year-old daughter, hypochondriac, serial music lover, doted upon). The men: Mr. Graham (strong, manly, plastic surgery), Alan (attentive, careful, polite, flatterer, in love with Lori), and John Ude (professor of ideas, evasive, The Smile).

The narrator suffers an acute crisis upon crashing on the planet due to the fact that no one will ever find them and that no one will remember them — the pharmaceuticals are close at hand. Added to that, the planet is alien, the planet isn’t Earth: “To die on a dying Earth — I’d live, if only to weep” (27). Is there any point in waiting to die? The others discover her drugs and take them away, or at least some of them.

The others delude themselves with visions of colonization, utopian societies, the innocence of primitives: “Day two. It began. I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Everyone running around cheerily into the Upper Paleolithic. We’re going to build huts. We’re going to have a Village Fire that Lori Graham will tend because she is the Fire Virgin or something” (21). Unfortunately, the gene pool of the survivors is too small to create a society. And, no one besides the narrator is too concerned with introducing children into the eventual horrors of life on the planet when the supplies and medications run out and they are forced to eat the potentially toxic plants. The visions of a proper society, a proper duty to propagate, are too engrained in their minds — the women, viewed by the men as walking wombs, incubating the future… All the women besides the narrator decide to get impregnated — “John Ude was very tender and careful with his walking womb” (59).

When it’s her turn, she drugs everyone and runs away… And when they wake up from their stupor they come looking for her. Her womb is prized.

Final Thoughts

“Next day, don’t know what day it is. Probably five. Who cares. If history were not fantasy, then one could ask to be remembered but history is fake and memories die when you do and only God (don’t believe it) remembers. History always rewritten. Nobody will find this anyway and they’ll have flippers so who cares” (113).

The most powerful moments of the novel focus in on the painful isolation the narrator feels. Not only is she separated from Earth but her very words, recorded so diligently, will be read by no one. If a rescue party had the smallest chance of finding them long after their deaths then they would at the very least be a shred of history, a minute connection to others, but even that is impossible. The other survivors do not want to accept the inevitable and delude themselves with fantasies about creating a society even if it would doom their children to painful deaths. Their fantasies that do not accept the reality of the situation. The narrator wants to control the inevitable. And she takes matters into her own hands…

Russ’ prose tears into the heart of things.

“Cassie, Cassie, come out to play.

Come over for a chat.

I don’t mind if you’re rotting” (133).

It is poetic and visceral and often, hilarious: ”Then [Lori, 12] added, without the slightest transition, ‘I like serial music. You know, the late twentieth-century stuff where it goes deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle for half an hour and then it goes doodle just once, and you could die with excitement’” (52). For anyone who listens regularly to minimalist music… Well, I suspect you are laughing.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This was recommended at a conference, and it's an important reminder of why Russ is such a powerful story crafter. A required, if difficult, read for the genre.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 14, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I've been a Joanna Russ fan for a while. This is an enjoyable book which raises some deep questions.
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17 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2005
Format: Paperback
This is an old book, in print more than 30 years, but as it has minimal topical references it has not become as dated as some SF of the 70s. It is a gray, gloomy, depressing story that remains a downer right through the last sentence--there's no last-minute discovery of a meaning to life to redeem the book.

The first-person narrator is a highly capable, intelligent woman with loads of forethought and a sardonic attitude. If she mustered any of these qualities in support of anything positive, she'd be -- well, she'd be Alyx, Russ's better-known hero. But this is Alyx's depressed, repressed evil twin. Alyx has a wise tolerance for people who are weaker or slower-witted than she; this person has only contempt.

The circumstances are that that a few people have survived a crash-landing on a completely unmapped planet in an unknown place. The narrator instantly and clearly apprehends that they will never be rescued; they have neither the skills nor the equipment to create a viable colony; and they will probably all die of allergies to the unfamiliar planet's biota as soon as their stored food runs out -- and at best will die in squalor as their equipment wears out and life descends to the stone age. None of the others are ready to admit this reality; they cling to the hope that they can somehow survive. The guys start planning cabins and latrine systems and talking about which women should first contribute babies to the colony.

The narrator just wants to die and get it over with. And she has quick, painless poison capsules. Why doesn't she just off herself and be done with it? Well, because if she did, the book would only be 20 pages long (and not a bad thing at that). Instead, and from motives that are never clear to me, she wants all the others to agree with her, to see as clearly as she does that they are doomed. She plays games with them, out-thinking them at every turn. She leads them on and when they try to dominate her by force, she begins killing them. Having slain everyone else in the party, she still doesn't kill herself. She hangs on for many more pages reviewing her past and hallucinating conversations with the people she killed. If she achieves any insight or clarity in these pages, I missed it.

P.S. Why is Samuel R. Delaney listed on this edition as a co-author? The edition I just reread (Dell Publishing Co. paperback, printed 1977) lists Russ as the sole author, with an enthusiastic cover blurb by Delaney.
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8 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on March 5, 2003
Format: Paperback
This a story of a woman being bored to death. Really, she dies of it. There are some other characters to begin with, but they're a bit boring and she kills them half way through the book. Then we're left with this murderer, and her morbid fascination with, well, death, and her slow, well, death. There's that D word again. The book's actually more interesting then it sounds, but it's still dead boring. The writing is pretty good, but really, the plot is a killer. There's nothing going on, and the murderer's morbid thoughts and recollections are not that interesting, especially as the sane reader will probably not sympathize with the one and only character offered in the second half of the book.
Other reviewers seemed awed by the fact this book deals with, you guessed it, death. This book should have been killed in its infancy.
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