Joanna Russ (1937-2011)

Joanna Russ died April 29 at the age of 74 in the aftermath of a series of strokes.

Her novella “Souls” won a Hugo in 1983 and her short story “When It Changed” won a Nebula in 1973, despite which her best-known work is her novel The Female Man (1975). Also a nominee for both of the field’s top awards (though it did not win), The Female Man now is one of the standards of the field and appears on many recommended works lists, including the Guardian’s 2009 list of “1000 Novels Everyone Must Read” and Gardner Dozois’ recommended reading list, formerly posted at

An example of the kind of pioneering SF for which Russ is known, “When It Changed” was described in the following way by Nancy Kress in her speech at ConFuse 93:

 ”When it Changed” takes place on a planet, Whileaway, in which several generations before the story start all the men have been killed by a plague. The women reproduce by parthenogenesis and by a cloning process. And they mate, all relationships are of necessity lesbian. They have a stable and successful society. Then, generations later, a spaceship lands which contains mostly men. And immediately there is misunderstanding on both side. The men view themselves as saviours of this particular abandoned castaway group of women and the women have no idea what they are talking about. This story made a lot of people very mad.

Russ also was a 1996 Hugo nominee for To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction.

[Thanks to Andrew Porter for the story.]

Update 04/30/2011: Made corrections following comments by Steve Davidson and Jerry Kaufman.

5 thoughts on “Joanna Russ (1937-2011)

  1. Joanna – thank you for all you’ve done for us.

    fyi Mike, the link to Dozois’ list is returning a ‘security’ warning when I go there (computer thread, 32 found, yada yada)

  2. I was very sorry to hear of Joanna’s passing – she lived in Seattle for a number of years, teaching English at University of Washington and being a frequent attendee at our monthly fannish gathering, Vanguard.

    In the quote from Nancy Kress, I believe the referance to the “planet while away” should read “planet Whileaway” – I’m pretty sure that was the name of the planet.

  3. At least she had lived an extraordinary long life — 18,074 years by my reckoning. You might want to check that headline again, just in case this is not the year 20,011 AD.

  4. Thanks Taral. I had been about to go to sleep the other night when I read about Russ’s death in an e-mail from Andrew Porter. Made some mistakes, but this was the biggest blooper.

  5. Joanna Russ tunred me on to the meaning of feminism in ways that Betty Friedan and Valerie Solanis never did. I hope many tributes to her life and work will be forthcoming…

    About “When It Changed,” I thought it worth mentioning that the story first appeared in “Again Dangerous Visions,” (1972) where Harlan Ellison actually provides a thoughtful introduction about the prevalent male chauvinism in SF at that time. Russ also wrote an interesting afterword note about the story that is really worth checking out.

    A sample: “The first few paragraphs were dictated to me in a thoughtful, reasonable, whispering tone I had never heard before; and once the Daemon had vanished – they always do – I had to finish the thing by myself and in a voice not my own… the Daemon suddenly whispered, “Katy drives like a maniac,” and I found myself on Whileaway, on a country road at night. I might add (for the benefit of both the bearded and unbearded sides of the reader’s cerebrum) that I never write to shock. I consider that as immoral as writing to please. Katherine and Janet are respectable, decent, even conventional people, and if they shock you, just think what a copy of Playboy or Cosmopolitan would do to them. Resentment of the opposite sex (Cosmo is worse) is something they have yet to learn, thank God. Which is why I visit Whileaway – although I do not live there because there are no men there. And if you wonder about my sincerity in saying that, George-Georgina, I must just give you up as hopeless.”

    Thanks Joanna! When the human race finally catches up with you, both sides of our cerebrum will know where credit is due.

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