21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 9: The Female Man

Books & Mags

Next in my new-to-me reading project is The Female Man by Joanna Russ (first published in 1975).

21 Authors The Female Man

We follow four women: Jeannine, Joanna, Janet and Jael. In a sense they’re versions of the same woman living in parallel / alternate Earths.

Librarian Jeannine’s world never saw the end of the Great Depression; 1970s Joanna struggles to make it in a man’s world; Whileawayan Janet is a woman of many trades and chosen to be her world’s first interdimensional explorer; ruthless Jael comes from a world where men and women are physically at war with each other. The novel starts with Janet and her sudden appearance in the middle of Broadway in Jeannine’s Manhattan. A series of jumps, acclimatizations and meetings follow.

The book is divided into nine parts, with each further divided into chapters. The stream-of-consciousness(-ish) POV changes often between the characters, or skips between locations and times without clearly indicating who the current narrator is. At times characters are referred to by variants of the same name (“When Laura came into the room… We noticed the floss and dew on the back of her neck – Laur is in some ways more like a thirteen-year-old than a seventeen-year-old.”). Some chapters are also exceedingly short. All of these features made reading a fragmentary and confusing experience for me. For example, the last three chapters of the first part read as follows:

XIV

“Jeannine, out of place, puts her hands over her ears and shuts her eyes on a farm on Whileaway, sitting at the trestle-table under the trees where everybody is eating. I’m not here. I’m not here. Chilia Ysayeson’s yongest has taken a fancy to the newcomer; Jeannine sees big eyes, big breasts, big shoulders, thick lips, all that grossness. Mr. Frosty is being spoilt, petted and fed by eighteen Belins. I’m not here.

XV

“JE: Evason is not ‘son’ but ‘daughter.’ This is your translation.”

XVI

“And here we are.”

That’s literally it. I’m sure this stylistic choice would not be so jarring for people who are into experimental prose, but I’m not keen on it.

What Russ does really well, however, is to show how differences stemming from our initial assumptions change how we see people’s actions, although it can be hard to track the characters’ thoughts across the various parts and chapters.

Despite it counteracting some sexist concepts in powerful ways, I found the novel too fragmentary to enjoy. In one word: it’s weeeeird. If I were to read it again, I certainly wouldn’t do it in smallish increments before bed – the book requires longer stretches of time and a much more alert brain than that.

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.

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