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SUPERVERSIVE: Why Joanna Russ Feared Heroic Fantasy –

SUPERVERSIVE: Why Joanna Russ Feared Heroic Fantasy

Tuesday , 23, August 2016 29 Comments

Joanna Russ was perhaps the most influential critic of the seventies fantasy and science fiction scene. Here she is unceremoniously hurting a lot of feelings in her column in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Ficiton:

I know it’s painful to be told that something in which one has invested intense emotion is not only bad art but bad for you, not only bad for you but ridiculous. I didn’t do it to be mean, honest. Nor did I do it because the promise held out by heroic fantasy, the promise of escape into a wonderful Other world, is one I find temperamentally unappealing. On the contrary, it’s because I understand the intensity of the demand so well (having spent my twenties reading Eddison and Tolkien; I even adapted The Hobbit for the stage) that I also understand the absolute impossibility of ever fulfilling that demand. The current popularity of heroic fantasy scares me; I believe it to be a symptom of political and cultural reaction due to economic depression. […] That our literary heritage began with feudal epics and marchen is no reason to keep on writing them forever. […] Reality is everything. Reality is what there is. Only the hopelessly insensitive find reality so pleasant as to never want to get away from it, but painkillers can be bad for the health, and even if they were not, I am damned if anyone will make me say that the newest fad in analgesics is equivalent to the illumination which is the other thing (besides pleasure) art ought to provide.

You have to wonder why a magazine that had published some of Jack Vance’s best work would make the sort of person that would write this one of their featured critics. It’s baffling.

The lack of imagination it would take to write this astounds me, though. Yes, the sort of heroic fantasy that, say, Poul Anderson liked really was set to wither away from the popular consciousness. Russ may have been glad for that. But it’s worth noting that it was really in the process of morphing into the fantasy gaming industry. From tabletop fantasy role-playing games to today’s massively multiplayer online rpgs, people spend far more of their time and money on the direct descendents of heroic fantasy than anything that Joanna Russ would think was “good” for us.

I have to wonder, though: what precisely is good in a world where “reality” is all that there is?

But she is not the first to make these sorts of claims. There were loads of people like her even in Tolkien’s day, and they were sufficiently loud, snide, and condescending that he naturally took the time to answer Russ’s very objections:

Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. just so a Party-spokesman might have labeled departure from the misery of the Fuhrer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery …. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot.

Decades down the road, it’s Russ that has lapsed into obscurity. And every scrap and fragment from Tolkien’s notebooks has been compiled by his son and are for sale in the last of the brick and mortar book stores. The case can be made that Tolkien was, as T. A. Shippey puts it, the author of the century.

But as respected as Tolkien is another, there is another that could lay claim to that title– one that would be even more objectionable to Russ and her ilk. Ray Bradbury explains:

Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world…. I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs. I was once at Caltech with a whole bunch of scientists and they all admitted it. Two leading astronomers—one from Cornell, the other from Caltech—came out and said, Yeah, that’s why we became astronomers. We wanted to see Mars more closely. I find this in most fields. The need for romance is constant, and again, it’s pooh-poohed by intellectuals. As a result they’re going to stunt their kids. You can’t kill a dream. Social obligation has to come from living with some sense of style, high adventure, and romance.

Joanna Russ championed hard science fiction over its pulpier predecessors. She wrote, “daydreams about being tall, handsome (or beautiful), nobel, admired, and involved in thrilling deeds are not the same as as-if speculation which produces medical and technological advances.” And while she quite admired the fruits of the technological advances that she enjoyed, she held in contempt the sort of dreams and virtues and even romance that makes them possible.

The reality is that you can’t have one without the other.

  • PM says:

    On first starting to read the quote from Russ which opens this entry, I was immediately put in mind of a quote from another writer debunking the views which Russ explicitly avows by making the point that the people most vested in preventing escape would be “jailors”.
    I don’t recall whether the Tolkien quote is what I had in mind, or whether it was someone else, riffing off his imagery.
    As for the “The Female Man”, I read it once, perhaps thirty or forty years ago, and still remember how bleak and nihilistic it was. Best read now as a “how not to do it” IMNSHO.

  • Alex says:

    “In the 1950’s somebody defined urban renewal as “replacing Negroes with trees,” and I’m beginning to think that in the same way too many typical science fiction horror stories are not the universal dystopias they pretend to be, but rather the unhappy wails of privilege-coming-to-and-end(sic).” – Joanna Russ, M of F&SF, Feb 1974.

    That sentence and one really bad magic-black-person Lovecraft fan-fic are the only Joanna Russ I before I swore I’d never read anything by her again. She is decidedly awful; worse for genre fiction than Terry Brooks – at least HE didn’t know what he was doing.

  • PCBushi says:

    Dreadful. Reminds me of the whole “gamers are dead” debacle, with SJW-controlled gaming news outlets eschewing their audiences and very subject matter in favor of gross falsehoods and preferred narratives.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      I don’t know how far down the rabbit hole you have gone in regards to gamergate but in the somewhat early days a lot of people looked at the academic and think tank origins of the “gamers are dead” articles.

      A lot of the underpinning like “fun is bad” come directly from places like DIGRA.

      One thing this really reminds me of is “The Nothing” from the Neverending Story. I always thought the description of “The Nothing” was a bit over the top and conspiratorial….

      But now I think the writers of the movie was talking about something very specific and tangible they saw in the real world.

      • Alex says:

        Man, that stuff really sank back into the shadows, didn’t it? Even guys like Sargon had a hard time getting average folks interested enough into looking into what entrenched academic intelligentsia were doing behind the curtains that lead up to this sort of stuff. I remember Desborough tried to start up something for academic discussion of games and gaming as a counter to the DIGRA stuff, but again, pure academia along those lines are so far beyond what the average person is interested in, it didn’t go anywhere.

        • Ulgur Fundel says:

          Here’s the thing, it hasn’t sank back into the shadows, it’s just that the amount of work that’s been dug up on academic networks is much, much bigger than you think see here at this SFW presentation:

          With citations:

          I would recommend downloading it if you can.

          But to place some of this in context, it must be noted that for some of us doing the research we got close to 30 GB of data on this stuff. It’s just that it’s a pain to connect the dots as the sources are all over the darned place. And for some of us doing the research we’re kinda missing a lot of financial data since some the orgs involved ranged from IARPA to Digra to even the Bill Gates Foundation and Apple and all academic institutions in between.

          Also there’s the think serious series of vids on this as well : #Thinkserious . So it’s not lost it’s just holed until some of us can figure out a more effective method of getting this intel out.

          • Alex says:

            The hardest part with this sort of thing is that a lot of it is so complex, and there’s such an intricate web of it, even to sympathetic ears, there’s a temptation to dismiss it as Glenn Beck-style conspiracy nuttery (though ironically, a lot of the connections Beck made were the real deal, and it was shocking to see a lot of those same names of individuals and foundations coming up behind the organized institutional wing of anti-GG; “Silverstring Media, The Tides Foundation, Jonathan McIntosh… I recognize those names!”)

        • Hooc Ott says:

          The modis operandi of gamaergate style of Attack when used on Digra was like knifing water in the bath tub.

          Their defence is strikingly similar to Sheila Williams on the short story panel.

          As Jeffro pointed in his comment here:

          As a Greek Chorus, there is no observable trend that cannot be smothered with a counterexample.

          They would simply deny “we are not trying to take your games from you” and point out a counterexample.

          I think people were interested. Heck seattlefortruth was entertaining just for the crazy of it all. Sargon’s videos on the subject do have a lot of views. Saddly it just could not be used effectively as a weapon against those who Gamergate were fighting.

          • Hooc Ott says:


            I really should not be dirt flinging at seattlefortruth.

            He did tons more for gamergate then I ever accomplished.

            No idea if he would ever see this but if he does:

            Seattlefortruth I apologize. I made a stupid remark and it reflects horribly on me. You did great stuff and I thank you for it.

      • Ulgur Fundel says:

        “But now I think the writers of the movie was talking about something very specific and tangible they saw in the real world.”

        Actually it’s more than the filmmakers, in fact that’s a common theme running them throughout most of Michael Ende’s books even starting as far back as Jim Button I believe. And it maybe one of the few themes from the book that actually made it to the film.

        For Ende this was due to him growing up under the Nazi regime so he was no fan of the Prussianized / industrialized education that Germany developed over time.

        In fact I would heartily recommend that you snag yourself a copy of The Neverending Story the book and Momo for good measure.

      • JD Cowan says:

        The book is far more explicit about what the “Nothing” is. Your assessment is fairly on the mark.

      • PCBushi says:

        I’ve read *some* on Gamergate and have visited DeepFreeze. The whole thing broke out before I was really that tied into social media (especially gamer or anti-PC Twitter). I used to read about it here and there and remember thinking it seemed like a very dense and obtuse issue. Doesn’t seem so to me now, but at the time it felt like it required a lot of work to track down the facts and an accurate representation of the whole situation.

        • Alex says:

          Concise version:

          A game dev’s ex boyfriend tried to expose what an abusive hypocrite she was.

          In the expose, it was noted that game dev had slept with at least one journalist who’d covered her game.

          When people asked questions about the ethics of this and other game devs and PR individuals in both clandestine and open relationships with people in the press, outlets silenced their readership by closing comments and forums.

          After they kept questionings, the media outlets pushed a concerted narrative with the intention of discrediting their critics.

          Then with a series of email leaks(GamejournosPro), taken in context with published work in academia, it came out that not only were these really bad people, they were coordinating amongst themselves to push a number of social justice agendas and would attack their readerships to do so.

          That the individuals involved were bad people doing really bad things to other people amplified it significantly, but the above was the causus belli.

          It’s kinda like how DC staffers and politicians are married to Washington journalists, staffers join the pundit class, and there’s a revolving door between the political aristocracy and those reporting on them. Only with vidya games. I forget which major publisher it was, or which outlet, cuz it’s been over a year now, but it came out that the publisher’s director of PR had been shacking up with the dude who’d been reporting on and reviewing the company’s games.

          • pcbushi says:

            Yup, I’m familiar with it now, thanks for the write-up, though. Just took a long time to muster sufficient interest to piece together all the facts. I was just sharing my case in the context of getting average people interested in it.

  • I have actually read Joanna Russ. “The Female Man”, “And Chaos Died”, many of her short stories and quite a few of her essays.

    She strikes me as the SF answer to Dorothy Parker (a description that I think would have pleased her.) She could be very clever when she forgot to be pedantic, and, like Parker, her best work is her unkind reviews of other people’s work.

    The main problem I have with her work is her unfailing bitterness. She lived with chronic pain and fatigue, and I can understand how that darkens a person’s outlook.

    However, in her case it led to a kind of neo-puritanism. She was the Cotton Mather of the New Wave, deeply concerned that someone, somewhere, was having fun and she was on a mission to stamp that out.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    And it wasn’t just the technologists. I knew people back in the mid-70s in the fields of Forestry, Environmental Resources and Biology that had read more books by Burroughs than by Wells, Clarke and Asimov combined.

  • “Cotton Mather of the New Wave”. That’s a rollicking good insult. Thank you, Mr. Burnett.

    Reality? Reality would blind her, were she to truly see it; cripple her, were she to attempt to walk in it. Heaven is reality, and this world but flawed stories about it and its counterpart, hell.

    • In “Orthodoxy” G K Chesterton speaks of the damage done by virtues set loose from a coherent ideology and left to grow in isolation. He was speaking of Christianity, of course, but to a much lesser degree I think the same can be said of modern Weird Fiction.

      The Campbell Era began the process by dividing Science Fiction from Fantasy–speculative reason, as it were, from artistic imagination.

      The New Wave Movement, I must confess (and a hard confession it is, since I number myself as a New Wave writer) continued in the same vein, divorcing the love of the strange from the respect for the familiar, sundering humor from drama, style from method, improvisation from form.

      Russ, like Mather, clung to a single virtue, that of solemnity, and elevated it above all else. She might be considered the animus of authors like Robert Anson Wilson who wandered endlessly through a labyrinth of manic flippancy.

  • Blume says:

    Misha, I hope you are joking about being a new wave writer. If you aren’t, I ask you why you feel the label is appropriate for you. To me it is a movement tied to intrinsically to the counter culture movement of the 60’s and the false idea of sex, specifically degrading sex or adultery as the height of literature. Even today literary writers and professors still insist, sex and adultery are the only ways to grow characters or keep the story interesting. So to me the idea of making Scifi literary, is just making it poorly written and pornographic.

    • I don’t think New Wave is about sex. Some writers who identified as New Wave used the general loosening of publishing strictures about sexual content to include graphic scenes in their work, but the same is true of crime fiction writers of the time, or historical fiction writers, or literary fiction writers. Gore Vidal included more sex in “Myra Breckinridge” than Philip Dick wrote in his entire career.

      What I consider significant in the New Wave, what I try to emulate, is the rejection of the dumbing down of Speculative Fiction by publishers. It’s an ongoing battle, between the “Star Wars” image of SF/F as entertainment for children and those of us who want to write fiction for adults that contains fantastic elements.

        • Blume says:

          I like Phillip K. Dick but what is more adult about tripping out on acid and living a virtual life in a barbie doll house vs Samwise leaving his home, comfort, and safety to risk life and limb for a friend? Star Wars is after New Wave. The New wave wasnt trying to replace Star Wars, it was trying to replace, Tolkien, Burroughs, Asimov, Heinlein, and everything that had gone before. They like you accepted the idea that Scifi was childish and needed to be made more literary. But when has anyone actually read literary fiction? We read Dickens and Shakespeare now but they were thought of as commercial hacks who wrote for children and peasants in their life times. To me a story with not one sex scene but every couple is engaging in extra marital affairs is just as bad as any of late heinleins pornos.

          • I don’t think that the New Wave ever wanted to replace anybody–I certainly don’t want to replace anybody. I simply want to be able to tell my own stories to those readers that happen to like them.

            I appreciate the fact that most people are not going to like my work. However, I thinking Science Fiction has room for the unpopular.

  • Jill says:

    From my perspective, there is nothing more real than epics. They are the fourth dimension.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    I’ll coment belatedky.
    Her statement about reality is all there is opens her up to a Jack Nickelson psradodyvwhere he plays the colonel
    Reality? You can’t hsndle reality. I’m a really real realist of reality. Ie eat red pills as a diet.

    Reality? You can’t handle it since you love epics and fantasy. You fear the really real reality so you construct escapist stories. But ther’s no escape. Embrace the really real reality becspause thzt’s all there is!
    So stop snivelling like children who have to give up your favourite teddy bear.
    You’re grown ups so embrace th3 reality i tell you because they’s all thst there is


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