Notes Reading Notes

We Who Are About To

By Joanna Russ, 1977

An interstellar journey goes wrong and a small group of people are sealed in an escape vessel programmed to seek out the nearest ‘tagged’ habitable planet where they crash land. With a few months of supplies and no chance of rescue for hundreds of years they are as good as dead. This reality is understood by the narrator from the outset, but the others refuse to accept it. Instead, they excitedly entertain fantasies of colonising the planet.

About to die. And so on.
We’re all going to die.

Page 1.

Things get more serious when the group starts acting out the fantasy. Beyond building shelters and searching the region for water sources, the men want to start a ‘breeding program’. Several of the women are optimistic. The narrator is horrified. Her refusal to cooperate leads to violent consequences.

At just over 100 pages, We Who Are About To is a fast-paced explosion of ideas which manages to pack in an extraordinary range of prescient observations of civilisation and society. It has a simple but unconventional narrative structure framed as a series of journal entries with the narrator speaking into a recording device. All the action and interaction between characters plays out in the first half of the book with the second half entirely taken over with the narrator alone after having killed the rest of the survivors and breaking down mentally as she starves to death.

The novel as a whole is deeper and more multifaceted than many have realised. It can be understood as a subversive feminist reversal of Robinson Crusoe styled shipwreck adventures where humanity succeeds against all odds. Instead of heroic survival, there is just regression to primitive patriarchal violence.

More broadly, I see it as a rejection of modernity and colonialism. Subtly, Russ hints that it’s not (just) the forced breeding that triggers the deadly conflict, it’s the disagreement itself, the act of challenging group delusion and consensus. Facts and rational observations of reality are seen as intrusions and signs of madness. Being confronted with the impossibility of their survival only causes the group to become more convinced of their special purpose.

But I think some kinds of survival are damned idiotic. Do you want your children to live in the Old Stone Age? Do you want them to forget how to read? Do you want to lose your teeth? Do you want your great-grandchildren to die at thirty? That’s obscene.

Page 14.

Connected to all of this is the question of how to die. Death is circumscribed by the very nature of the escape pod. Instead of being wiped out in the fiery disintegration of their starship, the characters are involuntarily transported to an unexplored habitable planet to die in a slower, more agonisingly aware way.

The whole notion of the escape pod makes no rational sense in the context of interstellar travel. It seems to function as a carrier for myths of modernity—‘the human duty’ to colonise and populate other worlds. There are instructions, protocols, conventions for how it is supposed to work, but these prescriptions seem laughable when facing the reality of survival.

‘My religion,’ said I, rising from my cross-legged position without uncrossing my legs (which rather surprised him, but it’s easy for short people), ‘says a lot about power. Bad things! It says thou owest God a death. It says that the first thing a sane civilization does with cryogenic corpses is to pull the plug on those damned popsicles, and if you want to live forever you are dreadfully dangerous because you’re not living now.’

Page 19.

The question of how to die is revisited throughout the story. When the oldest person in the group has a heart attack, the narrator sits with him overnight as he slowly passes away, while the others avoid the situation. He turns out to be the only person she doesn’t end up killing.

The narrator says again and again that she wants to be left alone because she wants to die on her own terms. Later, as she breaks down, she remembers a year spent counselling dying people in a terminal ward in a San Francisco hospital. Stranded on the planet, she keeps a vial of poison close to hand. Knowing that she can commit suicide any time she wants, she chooses to slowly starve, in part because it is a choice, but also because she doesn’t really to die.

She recalls Ars moriendi, the 14th Century Latin texts on the art of dying, a forgotten skill and belittled area of knowledge and belief for this advanced space-travelling society. Ars moriendi functions here as a framework for breakdown and loss, given the five temptations of the dying—lack of faith, despair, impatience, spiritual pride and avarice—reflect many of the narrator’s emotions and thoughts after the crash.

Even the idea that there is such a thing as an art of dying sets up a contrast with the blind and bullish masculinity that tries to defy death and achieve the impossible task of colonising the empty planet. There’s also a twisted irony in that the narrator is very concerned with the art of dying, but has little concern with murdering the others. It haunts her and she feels terrible about it, but when it comes down to it, she does not back down from her choices and doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger in any of the situations.

What alternative would she face if she didn’t shoot them? Joining the ‘colonists’ in a slow agonising death, tied to a pole in their campsite because they feel she has betrayed them—betrayed humanity even—and want to control the disagreement and force her to bear children, despite—or perhaps because of—the utter impossibility of survival for them all.

There are no social consequences for murder here. No authorities or laws can constrain her behaviour on a planet vastly isolated from the rest of the human world. This is sort of an alternate form of ‘In space, no one can hear you scream.’

It’s tempting to think of this as a feminist retetlling of Lord of the Flies, except that Lord of the Flies is a shit show, and at the end, the square-jawed military men—archetypal representatives of civilisation—show up to fix the situation and show the ferals the error of their transgressing. The modern reader nods sagely at the restored stability and imagines the boys shipped off to borstal, where the postmodern reader knows these boys’ ultimate destination is the House of Commons and the boardrooms of British corporations. We Who Are About To operates on a wholly different philosophical level with a brutal and unsettling intensity. As well as being a searing critique of the ‘boys adventure story’ influence on science fiction, the novel works as the very best science fiction should, showing how alternative universes and speculative technologies give us a framework for exploring the foundations of human nature and social organisation.

It’s easy to understand why this book pissed off and offended people in the conservative science fiction scene in the late 1970s. Its reappraisal and recognition today is because a lot of its ideas are still immensely relevant and resonant in a society where corporations and billionares are allocating colossal volumes of resources towards scifi-influenced projects aimed at living forever and colonising Mars, while 40% of humans don’t have access to clean drinking water.