The Adventures of Alyx (1976)
On Joanna Russ (2009)
I’m certainly glad that I read the Gary K Wolfe article, “Alyx Among the Genres” in On Joanna Russ, because without it I would have been rather alarmed and confused by the oddities of the Alyx collection. The individual pieces (mostly short stories, plus one extraordinary short novel) are marvellous on their own, but trying to figure out how they fit together is something of a puzzle. Luckily, having read the article, I knew it was supposed to be a puzzle, and enjoyed the process of thinking it out and being challenged by the seeming contradictions, rather than just being baffled.
It reminded me of a discussion I listened to recently on the Bridging the Rift podcast, about the origin of the word “canon” as regards to fandom as opposed to religious texts, which was utterly fascinating, largely for the history of Sherlock Holmes fandom, but also because of the idea of the Doctor as a mythological figure rather than a one-off literary creation – certainly having a character covered by so many different creative teams over nearly five decades has produced almost as many inconsistencies as the centuries of Greek myth!
Alyx, like the Doctor, is presented in these stories as a character without necessarily a perfectly consistent chronology, background or origin story, who remains nevertheless narratively constant so that the stories all contribute to an idea of who or what Alyx is, without needing to agree on little things like what age she is, where she comes from, whether she comes from our prehistoric times or an alternate fantasy world, and whether or not Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd is her ex-boyfriend.
Picnic on Paradise in particular is an astounding story which sets up Alyx as a person taken out of her own time and set to work without having been thoroughly educated on what this odd future has to offer. It’s a marvellous story of someone alienated by an entire culture, who never quite grasps the details of what is going on, but is savvy and fierce enough to deal with just about anything that is thrown at her. The quirks that come from her not understanding anything from what they eat, or how they interact with each other, let alone the recreational drugs and their attitude to aging/death are what makes this tiny novel so incredibly thought provoking while still being a ripping, high-paced read.
Thinking about it in retrospect, and the way that Alyx is established over her handful of fictional appearances, the book reminds me somewhat of Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum’s Fallen Gods, a novella which very much explored the idea of the Doctor as a mythological character.
Meanwhile my reading of On Joanna Russ continues. I’m still on Helen Merrick’s excellent article, which shows how Joanna struggled with the same issue that feminists have today: in attempting to criticise the institutionalised and social issues that limit or constrain women in a particular field, such as science fiction, as part of a larger pattern you end up either criticising or appearing to criticise your peers – the discussion too easily turns personal, and becomes small while the larger issues remain ignored. There’s also a fascinating exploration of ongoing debates/tensions between Marion Zimmer Bradley and Russ, which became far more congenial the more that the two women learned about each other. Then there’s some rather fascinatingly frustrated exchanges between Russ and Poul Anderson, which caused her to complain about time-wasters with whom one ended up arguing with forever, thus distracting from one’s own writing:
He’s a nice man in a personal way but it’s hopeless; I feel like a rock climber at the 14,000-foot pass in the Rockies looking back through a telescope at an enthusiastic amateur in the Flatirons… who’s proceeding Eastward, yelling “Hey, you’re going the wrong way! The mountains are this way!” (On Joanna Russ p. 61)
All in all, this is my favourite essay so far – the Wolfe one on Alyx was definitely useful to me in reading Russ, but Merrick’s has all the gossip and may well be something I comb for quotes many times in the future. I’m ridiculously excited now about reading Merrick’s The Secret Feminist Cabal which is sitting on my To Read shelf, but not yet, not yet.
More Joanna Russ! Further in, further in.