As this is being republished later in the year in the SF Masterworks series, I thought that I’d review it just now. Make myself seem up to the minute, y’know? Although… “up to the minute” might be stretching it, given the books original publication in 1975.
The Female Man is explicitly a feminist science fiction novel. It uses the device of four (loosely speaking, they differ in time) parallel worlds to explore gender roles by challenging each of the main characters from each of these pre-conceptions of femininity.
The four worlds are: Joanna’s world, which would have been roughly contemporary with the readers in 1970; Jeannine’s world where the Great Depression had never ended; Janet’s world (or Whileaway), a futuristic utopia, where all men were killed in a plague, which, despite having access to high-technology (not least the ability to reproduce by merging ovum), is largely agrarian. The environmental concerns expressed here reminded me a little of some of the backdrops to Ursula LeGuin’s work (and, of course, LeGuin often foregrounds sociological themes herself). Finally, theres is Jael’s world, where a civil war between men and women, literally a battle of the sexes, has been raging for 40 years.
Writing this out, I realise that all of this could sound didactic, cold or humourless. I don’t think it is, although I have plenty of sympathy with the author. If you’re the type who, on hearing the word “feminist” immediately shouts “man-haters” (if you’re clever, “misandry”), or makes a witticism about dungarees, then you aren’t likely to enjoy this. However, even if you don’t agree with her politics, but are willing to examine your own beliefs, Russ has written and interesting and, importantly, stylish novel.
Early in the Novel, Janet Evason (from Whileaway) is interviewed on television in Joanna’s world (that closest to the authors own reality) and asked how she finds contemporary earth. Given that Whileaway hasn’t seen any men in it for 800 years, the line of questioning taken seems to focus too much upon the question of “but don’t you miss men?” Naturally, 800 years after the death of all men, they will be out-with the ken of the people who live there. She expresses bemusement at the questions she is being asked:
“MC: When the-ah-the plague you spoke of killed the men on Wileaway, weren’t they missed? Weren’t families broken up? Didn’t the whole pattern of life change?
JE (slowly): I suppose people always miss what they are used to. Yes, they were missed. Even a whole set of words, like ‘he,’ ‘man’ and so on-these are banned. Then the second generation, they used them to be daring, among themselves, and the third generation doesn’t, to be polite, and by the fourth, who cares? Who remembers?”
At the end of this exchange (which has a cut-to-commercial break) there’s a look at differing views of femininity. The interviewer is still unable to comprehend a world without men, and, more importantly, a world without men where they aren’t missed. This despite the Janet clearly stating that by her time there’s nothing to miss. They don’t hate men, they don’t pine for them; they just live their lives. His line of questioning moves to human sexuality. His prurience here is contrasted with the prudery, which still exists now (think of a society which has Page 3 (fnarrr), and yet laps up articles disapproving of consensual sexual activity between adults). When Janet understands what it is that he is asking, she attempts to answer his question – at this point, she is “cut off instantly by a commercial describing the joys of unsliced bread.”
A further insight is provided by the end of this paragraph which describes what the interview would’ve been like on Jeannine Dadier’s world (where the Great Depression never ended, leaving women’s roles even more backwards):
“In Jeannine Dadier’s world, she was (would be) asked by a lady commentator:
How do the women of Whileaway do their hair?
JE: The hack it off with clamshells.”
You couldn’t imagine such a vacuous question being asked of a woman from a parallel future nowadays, could you?
Joanna’s world, most clearly a representation of ours, sees Joanna attempting to free herself from the constraints of being a woman at this time. She wants to be taken seriously a person and not forced to conform to what other people think she should be, not to submit to male dominance. This is where the title The Female Man comes from. She wants to redefine herself so that she is respected on her own terms.
Jael, in the novel, is less driven by emotion than the other three main characters, as she comes from a world with a literal war of the sexes, she has become hardened and it is her who engineered the four women meeting.
Beyond the wide understanding of the history of SF that I think this novel has, it has many other literary allusions, an obvious one being John Stewart Mill, further (and I confess that I had to look this one up, not being overly familiar with the Bible), the name “Jael” itself, is a reference to Yael in the bible, also a female assassin.
The other thing to note about The Female Man is that, while it is blazing with righteous anger, it does actually have (an admittedly prickly) sense of humour. I sometimes wonder if, when describing such things as being “humourless,” what they mean is that it’s not a humour that they share, or one that offends or challenges them too much.
The obvious question to ask when you finish reading one of this books is: “is it a masterwork?” In the case of The Female Man I think, yes, it is. It features challenging (if arguably out-dated, though not to say worthless, naturally 21st century feminism is grounded in this stuff) ideas and, in the context of its time, would certainly have turned heads. Also, it has plenty of SFnal ideas. The multiverse and the question of how time-travel paradoxes (which would be necessary to get Janet Evason to visit the US in the late 1960s/early 1970s) is explored early on, for example. The answer being given that there would be no paradox as if you were to go backwards in time, the future you would return to wouldn’t be your own. It would be one which already featured any alterations you made, while your original time-stream would still exist. The four parallel worlds also necessitate a non-conventional narrative style. The points of view in the novel jump around which do ask a little from the reader. This helps to keep the work fresher than a simpler structure perhaps would. It also, in places, utilises a stream of consciousness style of narrative – this perhaps won’t appeal to all but, again, I think it does help sustain interest in the novel.