Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #58 of 107: “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ

“When It Changed” by Joanna Russ is a classic. It’s tied for 3rd place on our Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list. It was on all four lists for Dave Hook’s Recommended Reading list for SF short stories. It won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story and was nominated for a Hugo award in 1973.

The setup for this story is quite simple. On the planet Whileaway, a plague killed off all the males. For many generations, the women survived and prospered by merging their ova to produce female offspring with DNA from both parents. The story takes place on the day when four men show up from Earth. Russ gives us endless fuel for contemplation in a very short story.

It’s very hard to write about this story. Whenever I read it I want a different ending. I want an ending a man would have written. I wanted the women to kill the men. And Russ lets us know that was a consideration, but she gave us a wiser conclusion, not just philosophically within the story, but as a writer. However, Russ wasn’t above using the ending I wanted in her other stories. She once said, “I am not for human liberation; I am for liberating women.”

The best thing to read after reading “When It Changed” is Joanna Russ’s afterward in Again, Dangerous Visions, where the story first appeared. And I’m tempted to just reprint it here, but I’m afraid of the litigious ghost of Harlan Ellison. But let’s see how much I can sneak in without being haunted by him.

I find it hard to say anything about this story. 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 premise of the story needs either a book or silence. I’ll try to compromise. It seems to me (in the words of the narrator) that sexual equality has not yet been established on Earth and that (in the words of GBS) the only argument that can be made against it is that it has never been tried. I have read SF stories about manless worlds before; they are either full of busty girls in wisps of chiffon who slink about writhing with lust (Keith Laumer wrote a charming, funny one called “The War with the Yukks”), or the women have set up a static, beelike society in imitation of some presumed primitive matriarchy. These stories are written by men. Why women who have been alone for generations should “instinctively” turn their sexual desires toward persons of whom they have only intellectual knowledge, or why female people are presumed to have an innate preference for Byzantine rigidity I don’t know. “Progress” is one of the sacred cows of SF so perhaps the latter just goes to show that although women can run a society by themselves, it isn’t a good one. This is flattering to men, I suppose. Of SF attempts to depict real matriarchies (“He will be my concubine for tonight,” said the Empress of Zar coldly) it is better not to speak. I remember one very good post-bomb story by an English writer (another static society, with the Magna Mater literally and supernaturally in existence) but on the whole we had better just tiptoe past the subject.

Again, Dangerous Visions: Stories (p. 242). Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy. Kindle Edition. 

Like Russ says, this story needs a book or silence. I have to say something, but I’m not going to write a book, but I’m sure everyone who loves this story could write a book. And I love this story. It’s definitely a 5-star story. That was the first two paragraphs of her afterward. Get the anthology to read the essay, but here are the last two paragraphs.

Meanwhile, my story. It did not come from this lecture, of course, but vice versa. I had read a very fine SF novel, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, in which all the characters are humanoid hermaphrodites, and was wondering at the obduracy of the English language, in which everybody is “he” or “she” and “it” is reserved for typewriters. But how can one call a hermaphrodite “he,” as Miss Le Guin does? I tried (in my head) changing all the masculine pronouns to feminine ones, and marveled at the difference. And then I wondered why Miss Le Guin’s native “hero” is male in every important sexual encounter of his life except that with the human man in the book. Weeks later 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. Katharina 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.

Again, Dangerous Visions: Stories (p. 243). Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy. Kindle Edition. 

Now, this bit hints at something else, which is nicely continued in this essay from the January 30, 2020 issue of The New Yorker entitled, “Joanna Russ, The Science-Fiction Writer Who Said No.” (Includes a nice audio version.) Hardcore SF fans interested in the genre’s history should read/listen to this essay. A half-century later, we’re still dealing with this story in intense conversations.

Joanna Russ caused controversy within the genre and as a feminist outside of the genre. I’m not sure we can begin to understand “When It Changed” without many readings and a study of Russ herself. Do not dismiss it quickly. Listen to the New Yorker essay.

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James Wallace Harris, 12/12/21

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