The greatest writer in the universe (I)

Is of course Joanna Russ.

Where did I first encounter her work?

It may have been her book reviews in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the late seventies (of the previous century, I mean; I was a teenager, I’m not that old). Certainly they have formed my view as science fiction as a literature; how much so I did not appreciate until rereading them earlier this year in The Country You Have Never Seen.

Or maybe a story I read there? “The Extraordinary Voyages of Amélie Bertrand” is a splendid pastiche of Verne, with not a sting in its tail but a caress.

Or did the essay in Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw make me go out and buy up everything of hers in print?

Because I did. It took a while, but I have every book of hers as listed in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. I am a completist for only a few writers—Russ, Davenport, Yourcenar, Crowley (John, not Aleister), Shaw, Disch, this is not an exhaustive list—but Wow! I must read them all! I must have my own copy so that I can read it again and again! This was my reaction to encountering Joanna Russ.

What prose, what intelligence, what beauty and compassion. What humanity. I like books that make me feel more intelligent than I actually am. (It’s a vice, perhaps.) Joanna Russ’s books make you feel more humane that you actually are. They’re a view—like peering through a knot-hole in a barricade—onto a larger, a wider, a better world.


A real mermaid in a real river, twenty knights on bay horses, Charles le Magne ceding to the Duke of Anjou, a bridge built on one side of the stage while on the other swarms of workmen methodically erect and demolish a miniature castle twenty-five feet high, the invasion of the north by the pagans, Eleanor the Fair brought with a train of horsemen, bridesmaids, nobles, counts, and servants to wed Louis the Pious “who never showed his white teeth in a smile” and through it all, here, there, everywhere, now cajoling, now laughing, now pointing, making faces, preternaturally active, skipping, calling on the music—the Satyr, the genius loci of the beech woods, whose gray, smooth, straight trunks surrounded the entire natural amphitheater, producing at the top a half-canopy of new leaves: limp, half-extended, like umbrellas with the skeleton showing through the early-spring substance and just the color of new lettuce.



She was a soft-spoken, dark-haired, small-boned woman, not even coming up to their shoulders, like a kind of dwarf or miniature—but that was normal for a Mediterranean Greek of nearly four millennia ago, before super-diets and hybridization from seventy colonized planets had turned humanity (so she had been told) into Scandinavian giants. The young lieutenant, who was two meters and third tall, or three heads more than herself, very handsome and ebony-skinned, said “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I cannot believe you’re the proper Trans-Temporal Agent; I think—” and he finished his thought on the floor, his head under one of her ankles and this slight young woman (or was she young? Trans-Temp did such strange things sometimes!) somehow holding him down in a position he could not get out of without hurting himself to excruciation. She let him go. She sat down on the balloon-inflated thing they provided for sitting on in these strange times, looking curiously at the super-men and super-women, and said, “I am the Agent. My name is Alyx,” and smiled. She was in a rather good humor. It still amused her to watch this whole place, the transparent columns the women wore instead of clothing, the parts of the walls that pulsated in and out and changed color, the strange floor that waved like grass, the three-dimensional vortices that kept springing to life on what would have been the ceiling if it had only stayed in one place (but it never did) and the general air of unhappy, dogged, insistent, sad restlessness. “A little bit of home,” the lieutenant had called it. He had seemed to find particular cause for nostalgia in a lime-green coil that sprang out of the floor whenever anybody dropped anything, to eat it up, but it was “not in proper order” and sometimes you had to fight it for something you wanted to keep. The people moved her a little closer to laughter. One of them leaned toward her now.

“Pardon me,” said this one effusively—it was one of the ladies—”but is that face yours? I’ve heard that Trans-Temp does all sorts of cosmetic work and I thought they might—”

“Why yes,” said Alyx, hoping against hope to be impolite. “Are those breasts yours? I can’t help noticing—”

“Not at all!” cried the lady happily. “Aren’t they wonderful? They’re Adrian’s. I mean they’re by Andrian.”

“I think that’s enough,” said the lieutenant.



And the whisper comes again, but louder this time—Shall these bones live!—and it stirs the edge of Zubeydeh’s veil where she sits brooding over the abyss. And a little, errant breeze without the power of a fingernail goes down into the valley and breathes over the dry bones, a little breeze not even as alive as the real Aunt Dunya’s voice, which now passes from wall to wall over the dead watercourse and the barren rocks. It is nothing living but only the memory of another voice, the voice of Dunyazad, Shahrazad’s sister, that mad, dead, haunted woman who could not tell stories, who could not save herself. It is the voicelessness of Dunyazad that passes like a sigh from wall to wall of the valley of dry bones and shivers faintly over the multitude of the dead. It has no Word. It has nothing to say. It whispers its crazy nonsense thoughtlessly and hopelessly to nothing at all, but where it passes, throughout the length of that still, grey place, there is the barest shiver, the faintest stir, the dimmest, most imperceptible rustling. You can barely see it. You can barely hear it. From autumn leaf to autumn leaf goes the message: something, nothing, everything. Something is coming out of nothing. For the first time, something will be created out of nothing. There is not a drop of water, not a blade of grass, not a single word.

But they move.

And they rise.