A short story review: ‘When it Changed’ by Joanna Russ

One thing I really haven’t done enough as part of writing this blog (apart from, um, posting more often) is read more short stories. I also wouldn’t mind spending a bit more time reading the feminist science fictions of the 60s and 70s, when women were entering what was still very much a male-dominated genre in larger numbers and making it their own. So I’m hoping to cover both bases here by starting with “When it Changed” by Joanna Russ.

Published in 1972, the story gives us a glimpse of a society run by women that is neither a utopia nor a patriarchy-in-reverse. The story is set on the planet Whileaway – a colony of Earth where all the men were wiped out by a plague 30 generations ago. The women were left to establish a complex, slowly industrialising society and fight for the survival of their species through a combination of scientific breakthroughs and a determination not to allow ‘nature’ – whether in the form of the dangerous beasts that roam the forests above the 48th parallel, or the once-assumed requirements for biological reproduction – get the better of them.

Now, six centuries later, Janet and her wife Katy are part of a welcoming party that sets out to greet the first ship to arrive from Earth since the colony was abandoned hundreds of years ago. It’s a moment for which their society had thought itself ‘intellectually prepared’. For the first time in centuries, men have come to Whileaway.

I’ve never read anything by Joanna Russ before, but I was struck right away by the sense of inevitability in her description of the descent of both sides – the men from Earth and the women of Whileaway – into the old pattern of domination.

This wasn’t for lack of resistance on the part of Russ’ protagonists, who are all examples of the fact that qualities such as aggression, bravado, fierceness, seriousness and silence are innate to neither gender, and, away from the warping influence of the patriarchy, can belong to women as much as men. To the women, the bodies and mannerisms of the men – the comparative gaudiness of their clothing, the freedom with which their taller, broader bodies impose upon their space – are alien and more than a little ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is the men’s blatant confidence in their own sexual appeal, newly arrived as they are on a planet of women who must surely be ‘missing something’ in their relationships with one another. Yet somehow it is the men who are able to more fully dehumanise Janet and Katy, and to make them ‘feel small.’

“Where are all your people?”

No matter what the women tell them about their society’s achievements, the men are unable to perceive Whileaway as anything but a ‘great tragedy’. They are frank about the purpose of their mission – to ‘use’ the women to deplete a gene pool damaged by radiation – but without any men to speak to, they are unable to recognise the encounter with the women of Whileaway as what it is – a meeting in which it is they who are inadequate representatives for their planet. The women’s words – of cautious welcome, of explanation, of determination to develop their society at their own pace – fall on deaf ears. Without any men to speak to, any official business cannot have begun – and, as we learn later, it is, in the end, settled by the fact that one side has ‘the big guns’ while the other has none.

The story is pessimistic about anything like a clean slate in showing this fraught encounter between the sexes – one that nearly ends in the death of the leader of the men, and ends instead in a sense of foreboding. Janet ‘has fought three duels, all of them kills’ – but she is terrified of the prospect of one day living in a society where she and her daughters are ‘cheated of their full humanity’, and robbed of their own achievements. Janet’s physical strength and fighting skills, her influence with the President of Whileaway, the privilege that she and her wife enjoy on a planet where the majority spend much of their lives working on farms… all of those things make her a mere oddity, a joke, to the men, for whom the punchline lies in the fact that surely either she or Katy must ‘play the man’ in their relationship.

“Take my life but don’t take away the meaning of my life.”

Janet’s words, in one of the closing lines of the story, are an expression of her fears for a future patriarchy that has been hitherto absent from Whileaway. It is this absence, she knows, that has allowed her and Katy and their daughters to grow up as full human beings. Janet is proud of her duels, the brilliant science of her and Katy’s ancestors, Yuriko’s forthrightness, Katy’s fearless driving. Yet none of those things are recognised as accomplishments by the men, who see the women as lacking in all the ways that matter. They do not dress as well as the women on Earth. And most importantly, they do not vie for their attraction, or reward their posturing with any signs of an attraction of their own.

IfWhen it Changed’ is a story about the way that the structures of language can be used to stunt and dominate, then it is also a story haunted by empty words that cannot be trusted.

The men speak repeatedly of the ‘re-establishment of sexual equality on Earth’. Russ’s repetition of the phrase reiterates the fact that the concept of equality means less than nothing when it is an equality in name only… when a group of (presumably?) white men is considered to be an adequate representation of the Earth’s ‘people’, and when ‘nature’ is considered to be the explanation for a world warped by multiple and intersecting hierarchies of oppression.

In the encounter between the men and the women of Whileaway, only the former consider themselves, and only themselves, to be fully and simply people. Across this gap of dehumanisation, neither equality nor true connection are possible. ‘Sexual equality’, ‘exchange of ideas’… these are shown to be just words, and when said to mask the reality of oppression, they hang dead in the air.

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9 Responses to A short story review: ‘When it Changed’ by Joanna Russ

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    If you’ve never read anything by Russ before this I recommend my favorite of her novels (although not her most famous) We Who Are About To… (1976).

    • zhenya says:

      No, this was my first foray into reading anything by Russ and I’m really glad I did… Thanks for the recommendation, I just looked up We Who Are About To and it sounds like a very thought-provoking read! Definitely adding it to my list…

      • Joachim Boaz says:

        Yeah, I read that you hadn’t read any of her other stuff.

        I’ve yet to read any of her short stories. I’ve read her novels Picnic on Paradise (1968), We Who Are About To (1976), The Female Man (1975) and And Chaos Died (1970)… I’ve only been able to review We Who Are About To… and And Chaod Died.

        Let’s just say that Picnic was RADICAL for the late 60s. It recasts the stereotypical survive on an alien planet narrative in distinctly appealing feminist overtones.

  2. Pingback: The Seventy-Seventh Down Under Feminists Carnival | Zero at the Bone

  3. quixote says:

    Not directly related to either her story or your review, I think the premise that the appearance of men leads to instant patriarchy is flawed. I mean, right here on Earth, in Norway and Sweden most men made themselves scarce for a few centuries pillaging other places. The women pretty much ran things at home. When the men returned for good — ordinary, totally patriarchal Earth men and ordinary somewhat-patriarchal women — the society didn’t revert to the original norm. They still haven’t. I’d think the effect would be much stronger if women had been totally isolated for centuries.

  4. zhenya says:

    Hey, sorry for taking a while to reply 🙂 I know next to nothing about the history of Norway/Sweden, but I do think it’s a good point that an established society like Whileaway would not necessarily be entirely reconfigured as soon as contact with the patriarchy on Earth was re-established.

    I think that the story’s partly about the collective memory of oppression, which surfaces for the main female characters as soon as they come into contact with the men. Otherwise the women would not have reacted so strongly to being belittled by four new arrivals on their planet, who are essentially at their mercy, even if their behaviour suggests otherwise…

  5. zhenya says:

    I’ve heard that The Female Man (which is partly set on Whileaway, after the events of When It Changed) is a very interesting exploration of what happens when individuals carrying the burden of vastly histories of gender roles and hierarchies come together… but I am yet to read it.

  6. laledavidson says:

    Good interpretation and interesting replies. Thanks! Just started teaching Sci-Fi Fantasy at SUNY Adirondack Community College in Upstate New York, though as a writer I’m no stranger to magic realism. What do you make of the reference to Faust and to the last line in italics and caps, For-A-While. The end line must relate to the name of the place they life, Whileaway, so is Russ just reiterating the fatalism of the piece, that this feminine utopia will end soon? “Verweil doc, du bist so shoern” means, “Stay awhile, you are so beautiful” — and that it is somehow related to the pact Faust made with the devil that he would die in any moment the devil provided him that was so pleasurable that he wanted it to last forever. But again, I only see how this is a restatement of her wish for this moment not to pass and her fatalism that it will. Does it go any deeper than that?

  7. zhenya says:

    Hey, thanks for the comment and sorry for taking so long to reply! To be honest, I hadn’t had a chance to think about the significance of the Goethe quote before. What you suggest – that the quote is a reiteration of the fatalism that runs through the story – sounds right to me, especially in light of the last paragraph: ‘This too shall pass. All good things must come to an end.’

    The reference to Faust also makes Janet’s plea – ‘Take my life but don’t take away the meaning of my life’ – especially poignant. The ‘duel’ that lies for the women of Whileaway is the fight to retain their full humanity when coming face to face with societies structured around the premise that women are other to, and less than, ‘people’. It is a fight in which they are at a disadvantage – less so because of their lack of ‘big guns’, than because of the weight of their history. And yet any process of social change – for better or for worse – necessarily involves a revaluation of values in which the meanings of lives can’t be expected to remain intact, and achievements ‘dwindle from what they were.’

    Hope that makes sense and that your course goes well – I’m sure this story will make for some interesting discussion!

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