Customer Reviews: The Female Man (Bluestreak)
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on July 4, 2000
I'm a guy. Just thought I'd get that out of the way before I write this. I knew this was considered a classic of science fiction before I even found a used copy, but I have to admit that I wasn't looking all that forward to reading it. For one the cover (the old original one on the paperback) is a garish thing, basically a feathered woman putting on another skin. Plus I knew the book was about female issues and specifically issues that came up during movements that started in the seventies, when the book was written. At least it was short, I told myself. I'd get it over with quick. Boy, was I surprised. Not only does this rank among the best books I've ever read, but it gave me a lot to think about. Part of that has to do with Russ' style, she cascades all sorts of chapters together, bouncing back and forth, her prose is excellent, not just femenist rhetoric, she brings up all sorts of points about everything. And her contrast of the different worlds, there's Joanna's world, which is like ours (she's the female trying to be liberated), and Jeannine's world, where the Depression never ended (she's meek and just wants to go along with the group, essentially), then there's Janet's, where men don't exist at all (my favorite scene is where the newspeople ask how she has sex if there are no men and Janet explains to their dismay). There's one other too but that's a surprise. The style is sometimes confusing at first, sometimes you don't know who is narrating or which character is which but after a while it all starts falling together. Russ peppers it with her own observations throughout, my favorite being when she anticipates the reviews the book is going to get (not good ones). Is it angry? Sure but back then she had a lot to be angry about, and she comes across rationally through, her anger is righteous and not of the "all men should die!" type of rage. Like I said, it gives guys and gals lots to ponder and deserves to be wider read. The style may be off putting but the message is clear as anything. You just have to dig a little with thought to figure it out.
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on February 10, 2003
... They chop it off with clamshells. There was a time when speculative-fiction (or science-fiction, pick your term) was filled with writers who experimented and challenged the status quo. These writers, people like Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delaney, and Joanna Russ, are challenging, talented, and even funny when they want to be. If you are open minded, try reading them and their peers.
That background out of the way, of all the books in the speculative fiction genre I've read, this is my favorite. First off, yes, "The Female Man" is a feminist book. Guys, getting scared off at this point would be a bad idea. Jeannine's tragic life is something anyone forced into a role they can't stand will identify with. Janet's life is hilarious and exhilarating, filled with Whileawayan philosophy and sayings. Jael, aka "Sweet Alice", lives in a world that is as dark as Jeannine's and as strange as Janet's, but she has the power to take control of it. Lastly, Joanna, the author's mouthpiece, is the glue that ties the other three women together. The book is entertaining and nearly impossible to put down. The humor is perfect and the feminist ideas presented by Russ are still relevant today. Be happy that Russ has the ability to fling her readers across time and space then shoot them back, because few can make a book this fun and yet this sad.
Many of the reviews here on are from people who just don't seem to "get it". Russ and her peers didn't always write novels that were neat and orderly, and this one in particular can drive the close-minded insane. Russ' style is closer to a James Joyce than a Charlotte Perkins Gillman or an Isaac Asimov, so be willing to read this book on her terms and hers alone. If you can do that, there is little to fear. Russ is a rebel, and at one point in the novel she even predicts the negative reaction of literary critics on her book and provides examples of the reviews she believed they would write. Think about that for a minute, she put fake negative reviews for "The Female Man" in "The Female Man" itself to prove a point about our uptight society. That's just a classic moment, and when you see that it perfectly mingles with the rest of the content and doesn't upset the flow, you can bow before this great novel yourself.
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on March 19, 2011
Joanna Russ invented snark -- though she'd want to attribute it to de Stael.

In the small but active world of 70's SF, Russ was the radical. She once called Ursula K. Leguin an "Aunt Tom." She was also a literary scholar; of the many definitions of SF floating around, her insight that it was "didactic literature," like Piers Ploughman, stands out above the crowd. And this is a didactic book, like most of her work; it is feminist, explicitly so, and reading it is not just following a story but dissecting an argument.

The Female Man is told in episodic bursts, by four narrators, four copies of the same woman in alternate universes. There's Jeannine, dreamy, lazy, and inhibited, in an alternate 1960's where the Depression never ended; Janet, strong and practical, a visitor from a semi-utopian planet of women; Joanna, a feminist in our own world of 1969; and the monstrous Jael, a supernatural assassin from a world where the battle of the sexes is literal and Manland is the enemy.

Janet Evason is from the all-female planet Whileaway, which Russ introduced in her short story "When it Changed." The short story is better: slight, haunting, reminds me of the best Russian SF, a little like Olga Larionova. Like many SF writers, Russ worked more in the short story form, and it shows when she writes a novel -- though unlike most, she has the sense to keep the novel short and episodic. We see more of Whileaway in The Female Man. The men died in a plague nine hundred years ago; the women have wives and children, work relentlessly, and are free of the fakery and enforced passivity that women experience here. Whileaway is not quite a utopia -- it's a little more subtle than that -- but it's almost one, and not only a feminist utopia but a loner's and nomad's utopia. Nobody stays in the same place for more than five years, most aren't monogamous, nobody works on the same job for more than three hours at a time, and most duels are fought over intrusion into somebody's solitude. The Whileawayans are vaguely Russian, in language and in style, and the closest referent to their landscape of industrial production and wild bears is Siberia. There are so many books about Kerouac-style nomadic, solitary men, reaching Zen enlightenment on the roads and prairies, that it's a relief to find just one when the same numinous freedom is given to a woman, crossing Athabaska by bike. The moments on Whileaway -- and Janet's hilariously naive attempts to fit in with our less sane society -- are the strongest portions of the book.

The rest is a mix. Some of the ideology has not held up over the years -- Russ seems unreasonably unfriendly both to heterosexuality and to male homosexuality. She's down on male ego and male ambition in a way that irritates me. Some of it, though, is heartrending. Jeannine's desperation to get married, to be completed by a man, can still hit uncomfortably close to home. Joanna's cry for recognition as a writer, her "fearful, fearful ambition" remains a reproach. Laur, the teenage tomboy Janet falls in love with, with her smart-alecking and her voracious reading and her pronouncement "I'm not a girl, I'm a genius," reminds me sharply of both me and my sister. We weren't so hemmed in as Laur - but maybe still, a little. And partly by ourselves.

This isn't a polemic. There are too many simultaneous perspectives for that. Russ never gets stupid about her convictions -- she complicates them in the corners, she offers no answers. She even anticipates that her "little book" will one day be quaint. There are little moments of sudden originality, humor, impossible beauty. There are very few books that I would argue write convincing female characters, and I don't think Russ quite makes the cut -- though Laur is almost there, so close that I might almost round up sympathetically. Of course, it's disjointed; the formal experimentation doesn't quite work, it's a little like reading an incredible draft; but it's addictive to read nonetheless. When you compare it, say, to The Left Hand of Darkness, it's a mess... but a mess that I can imagine some would love better. Read it. Read it especially if you're, like me, not a party-line feminist -- I think it has more to offer to the skeptical reader than to someone looking for Answers.
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on November 14, 2002
This innovative feminist science fiction classic centers on the story of four women, each from a different universe, whose worlds suddenly intersect. Jeannine is a librarian in a world where the Great Depression has never ended. Joanna is living in the 1970s in a world much like our own. Janet is from a lesbian utopia called Whileaway, where only women exist. The fourth woman is from a future where the men and women are literally warring with each other. Russ uses these women to express and explore notions of gender, sexuality, politics, and human rights in a unique style incorporating a quirky (and somewhat dated) sense of humor. While it may not have the immediacy of "The Handmaid's Tale" or "Woman on the Edge of Time", "The Female Man" stands alongside such feminist works such as "Les Guérillères", where it challenges how a story is told and gives the reader a refreshing view of what the fantasy/sci fi genre can be.
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on October 17, 2000
I'm a woman, but I still didn't adore this book. (Just in case there were doubts that this is possible.)

Not because of the message, really. I'll give Russ credit: though there were bits of heavy-handed feminism, *almost* to the point of preaching, she never devolved to the point where I wanted to throw the book across the room; her preaching, such as it was, was intelligently written and integrated well with the plot. Insofar as there was a plot.

This is where the book falls apart for me. Maybe you will get more out of it if you're a fan of Faulkner-esque writing styles; for me, it seemed the next best thing to incomprehensible and entirely confusing, with the various elements (time travel, parallel universes, utopian societies, alternate histories, feminism, violence, vulgarity, and random sex) blended into one big chaotic stew. I managed to finish it, only to find that the ending clarified little and was very unsatisfactory. Russ might as well have dropped all the characters off of a cliff; at least then I'd have a better clue of what happened to them.

However, I am giving _Female Man_ three stars, because it isn't unreadable and does have good moments. I very much liked the character of Janet, and Jeannine was somewhat intriguing; Joanna's struggles were interesting to me, who did not live through her time period, and Jael... well, all right, she was deranged and disturbing, but who doesn't enjoy seeing the occasional murder-by-claw?

In summary: you might find it a good read if you're into Faulkner-type prose, or understand (and like) this brand of feminism better than I do, but I really wouldn't recommend picking up a copy unless you're bored or it's on sale at your local half-price store.
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on November 27, 1999
Most "classic" science fiction uses the devices of the genre - alien monsters, lightspeed ships, evil empires to be overcome - to mask the basic fact that, despite the high-tech window dressing, the books still promulgate the old ways of doing things: man on top, woman making the coffee and changing the diapers (even if she wears a space suit at the time). Not surprisingly, Joanna Russ will have none of that in any of her books, but particularly not The Female Man, which may be her best (though "Souls" in her award-winning volume (Extra)Ordinary People may be an easier read for some - and still just as hard-hitting). In The Female Man, Russ uses the very old SF device of time travel to bring contrasting characters together for the sheer pleasure of watching the man-centered universe fly wildly apart.
///Sidebar: What male-centered science fiction universe? Try reading Russ's take on the Star Wars phenomenon (the original episode), in her essay SF and Technology as Mystification (in To Write Like a Woman, U of Indiana Press): "After the hero's mother (disguised as his aunt) dies, there is only one woman left in the entire universe (Princess L.)." Yes, Star Wars came out after Female Man, but it's all-male premise was born many decades before.///
I must dismiss any cries of complaint about the "disjoined" sequence of events in Female Man. The time-shifting she used is little different from that in such classics as Conrad's The Secret Agent (where anarchist bombs constantly disrupt the PHYSICAL plotting of the book)or Philip K. Dick's Martian Time Slip (which is constantly jumping about in time and space); nor is it much different from the movie Pulp Fiction, which broke & rearranged the narrative at several points. As for Jael, the violent, psychotic assassin of The Female Man's later chapters, it will do the reader good to notice that her earlier incarnations - especially Jeannine, from 1970s earth - find her violence just as horrifying as does any reader! I suspect that if Jael had been male, her combination of "time-travelling secret agent" and "openly sadistic murderer" would not have seemed so out of line. After all, most of the Cyberpunk genre is filled with similar (male) characters, and nobody flinches a bit. No, the beauty and value of a book like this is that it upsets so many on the one side, while making the rest shout "Finally!" The Female Man remains unrelenting and unrepentant - attributes many find acceptable (even positive) in males, but dangerous and "anti-feminine" in females. If nothing else, The Female Man asks one simple question: Can Science Fiction (and/or the world) progress while still shackled by the rotting corpse of the feminine mystique?
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on February 9, 2004
Jeannine, anxiously awaiting marriage to her boyfriend, is a librarian on an Earth that never saw an end to The Great Depression. Joanna is a 1970s feminist trying to make it in a man's world by being just like a man. Janet Evason, a traveler from Whileaway which has not been home to a man in over 800 years, suddenly appears on a Broadway sidewalk. The three women are drawn to one another, presumably to learn and to share information. Things take a different track when they meet Jael Reasoner from an alternate Earth with separate, warring male and female societies. She has plans of her own for the three women.
This is a fantastic science fiction book centered on the idea that any given situation has a number of choices. What happens if all the choices actually occur, creating separate realities. What would the Earth be like in each of those realities? How would humans behave and act? Author Joanna Russ lays all these ideas at your feet, and then throws in: and what if you could travel between these realities?
Russ also gives the story a feminist flavor, having each of the characters represent a different aspect of a woman without being weak or vicitmized. They're very strong, very well-defined characters, challenging the reader to open his or her mind to all the possibilities around them.
The only difficulty I encountered with this book was sticking with the narrator. I never really knew who was talking at which time because the scenes would change from chapter to chapter. A little confusing at times, but if you stick with the book, the outcome is definitely worth it.
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on April 19, 2015
The writing style used in this book was very interesting and took some thought (not necessarily easy to follow)- I appreciated and enjoyed it. I also saw it as a great way to underscore the connection of the characters. It was interesting to read this book, written in 1974, in view of today's politics and world events. Like any good science fiction writer, Russ has moments of prescience and moments when, I felt, she was restricted by her anger.
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on March 25, 2001
A woman from a world without men. A feminist during the Women's Liberation in the 70s. A woman trying her best to fit in to her patriarchal society in the 60s. A female assassin from a period where men and women are warring against each other. What do they all have in common? Well, you'll have to read Joanna Russ' THE FEMALE MAN for the answer to that question, but you'll be glad you did. Russ' science fiction novel compares the lives of four women from parallel universes and their relations - or lack thereof - with men. Written during the height of the women's lib movement in 1975, The Female Man boldly attempts to reconsider our patriarchal society and to question woman's place in this world. I found this book extremely intelligent, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Russ created highly plausible and interesting characters with which I could relate and found believable. While much of the novel deals with feminist issues, it is done in a reasonable fashion and yet it creates controversy at the same time - a good duo in my opinion. I found Russ' writing style of jumping back and forth between character, narrator, and time period very confusing at first, but after a while I was able to catch on just fine. I really liked this method of telling the story because Russ allows you to enter into the mind of all the characters so as to get a different perspective on the same incident and to further one's understanding of the characters and events. I would highly recommend this book to anyone - male or female - who claims to like science fiction and especially those who say they do not - I'm converted!:-)
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on December 25, 2011
Bottom line: Feminist 101 disguised as a meta-narrative disguised as a SF novel. If you pick it up expecting a linear, reliable-narrator plot-based story, you'll be surprised. If you pick it up expecting no-apologies anger at rape culture and sexism, then you won't be surprised.

Trigger warnings: Discussion of rape, touching of someone's genitals before they're awake (the someone turns out to be essentially an organic non-sentient robot, but that's not known at the time), violent murder, legal execution, nonconsensual touch (non-genital), frank and constant discussion of erasure of women's voices and identities, consensual sex with a minor (a 17-year-old)

How does it treat women/same-sex relationships? The story exists in four worlds, three of which are as sexist or more sexist than our world. In these three worlds, same-sex relationships are seen as abnormal. The fourth world is an all-women society, where same-sex relationships are normal and open and women's sexuality is enjoyed and celebrated.

Does it have explicit sex scenes?: Yes, two. One f/f, between a 17-year-old and an older woman; semi-explicit, with it clear what's happening but without definite narrative description. The second f/m, explicit. There are also vague references to m/f sex scenes in Jeannine's thoughts.

Would I read it again? Yes, please.

Would I publish it? Yes. I'd almost certainly have stared at it and thought I needed to edit it *somehow,* but I'm not sure what I would have done with it in the end. Maybe asked some questions about the ending.
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