I sought out a copy of Joanna Russ's We Who are About To... after reading Samuel Delany's comments about the novel in his essay "Shadow and Ash", collected in Longer Views: Extended Essays. Delany said the novel was an answer (intended or not) to an idea Michael Moorcock had found interesting at an SF convention: "When, in the real world, 95 percent of all commercial jet crashes are 100 percent fatal and we live in a solar system in which presumably only only one planet can support any life at all, science fiction is nevertheless full of spaceship crashes (!) in which everyone gets up and walks away from the wreckage unscathed -- and usually out onto a planet with breathable atmosphere, amenable weather, and a high-tech civilization in wait near-by to provide interesting twists in subsequent adventures."
To this idea, Russ wrote what Delany said is a novel that "functions as the bad conscience of Golding's Lord of the Flies".
Quite true. Russ makes Golding look cheery.
Science fiction is a genre generally lacking in stories which are tragedies, or at least tragedies on the level of, say, King Lear. (Brian Aldiss's Greybeard comes to mind as one exception, a book which would make an interesting tonal and thematic comparison to We Who are About To..., because Aldiss, it seems to me, succeeds at much more than Russ does. Indeed, Greybeard is one book which I think deserves far more attention than it has received, and at the very least deserves to be back in print. But I digress...)
The existentialist tendencies of the novel are made clear in the title's continuation into the first two sentences: "About to die. And so on."
The "we" of the title are a small group of survivors from an interstellar journey who are stranded on a barely-habitable planet. All of the characters except the narrator think they should do their best to create some sort of civilization on the planet, that they should build buildings and use each other to produce children. The narrator thinks they should all accept that they are going to die, that there is no chance of rescue, that they cannot be good ancestors for impossible progeny. One conceit of the novel is that the narrator is recording her thoughts into a "vocoder", and this is what we are reading. (This conceit, like the appendix to 1984, creates a frame around the narrative -- if we are reading it, then the narrator's predictions of it never being found are false, calling into question other of her ideas.)
Radically, Russ suggests that the quality of life is the purpose of living, and reproduction only a reparative process to extend that quality -- and not the point of life at all. (Only feudal societies can really believe wholly that reproduction -- i.e. the manufacture of cannon fodder -- is life's real point. [Hence, everyone who claims gay marriages are evil because they don't lead to reproduction is operating from a feudal mindset. But, again, I digress...])I'm not sure what causes Delany to call the narrator "the most 'civilized' person among the passengers", though the quotes around the word "civilized" suggest he's thinking of her profession as a musicologist, though there is at least one other survivor who is similarly scholarly. The narrator is contemptuous of this other character, but since she seems to be meant to be unreliable, and her perspective on the other characters is at the least caustic, I don't put much weight on that judgment.
The narrator herself -- certainly the most "civilized" person among the passengers -- both recalls and re-voices Walter Benjamin's famous observation: "Every act of civilization is also an act of barbarism".
Delany's reading is accurate as far as it goes, but what he neglects is that Russ's novel is achingly plodding to read. Yes, there are intellectual interests in it, but none which haven't been handled better by philosophers and even by other writers of fiction (The Stories of Paul Bowles collects plenty of tales which are thousands of times superior to Russ's novel, and shorter. For that matter, Bowles's first novel, The Sheltering Sky, covers most of the philosophical territory of We Who are About To... and much more.)
Initially, it might seem that the problem with We Who are About To... is the utterly detestable characters. (My general feeling throughout reading the book was: "Die already!") But I can tolerate detestable characters in the service of greater goals. Russ's goals aren't particularly great. Delany sums up everything the novel has to offer in a page and a half. If it can be done in a page and a half of nonfiction, why should it be done in fiction at all?
Fiction can provide us with different ways of thinking than essays or articles, of course. The central problem with We Who are About To... is that Russ doesn't utilize these different ways of thinking very well -- she doesn't create any characters a reader could possibly care about, and so, without reader sympathy for the character, there is no emotional resonance. Lack of emotional resonance can be overcome, or even turned into a strength, if the intellectual progression of the story is surprising and challenging, or if the language is wielded in a masterful way. Any reader with half a brain can get all of the intellectual offerings of the book within the first twenty-five pages (if not fewer), and the language, while occasionally interesting in its coolness, is nothing worth celebrating. I kept telling myself as I read, "Russ is a good writer, she's going to have a surprise just around the corner, there's going to be some sort of structural change, some sort of ... anything..." But no.
Delany says, "For a long time the book will remain a damningly fine analysis of the mechanics of political and social decay we have undergone to arrive at 'this point', however 'this point' changes." I'm no good at reading minds, but I would guess Delany likes the book because it supports philosophical, social, and political ideas he already held when he read it, and he enjoyed seeing those ideas given symbolic power through narrative. Good for him. I basically agree with those ideas, myself. Which is why I didn't need to have them beaten into me by a stark, bitter, one-note novel.
There are plenty of other writers who are more radical and more skilled than Joanna Russ is in We Who are About To...: M. John Harrison (just as bleak, if not bleaker, but with more to offer), Sarah Kane (a British playwright), J.G. Ballard, Thomas Pynchon, Patricia Highsmith, William Gaddis, Kathy Acker, Samuel Beckett ... I could go on...
There is nothing wrong with philosophy in fiction -- it is often a virtue. But fiction where the whole purpose is to illustrate a philosophy tends to be less interesting than fiction which explores a philosophy. The difference is between setting up a situation and following it to its logical conclusion (which can work well in short stories, but seldom as the entire purpose of novels) and investigating the various implications and possibilities of a situation. It's the difference between Dostoyevsky and a mystery potboiler, the difference between great art and the merely competent, the difference between something which is fascinating to read and We Who are About To....